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Hoping to win GOP primary, Lee Zeldin wants a third wave from the right to become governor

Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York.
J.D. Allen

On a cold Monday morning in January, Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin stood in the snow in front of the state Capitol in Albany. He wore blue jeans, a thin black jacket and gloves, but no hat. Hung on the podium in front of him was a campaign sign that read "Zeldin — Governor."

“The government isn’t in charge of the upbringing of my kids," he said, raising his arm and pointing over the crowd.

He was putting on a press conference against the state’s COVID mandates. Even when most New Yorkers supported the state’s mask mandate, Zeldin staked out early opposition to it and to the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

Zeldin told the crowd that people from all across the state were campaigning to end these mandates. However, most of the people standing in the snow alongside him that day were from Long Island — including some with the Long Island Loud Majority, an organization labeled as an anti-government extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The group’s leader, Kevin Smith, disputed this designation.

“We want more local control, and less Hochul control," Smith yelled for a loud applause from the crowd.

Fast forward six months, early voting begins Saturday with Zeldin facing off in the GOP primary for governor of New York against businessman Harry Wilson and Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani and Trump ally.

Who is Lee Zeldin?

Zeldin began his political career in a wave of anti-Democrat and anti-New York City sentiment. He was part of the freshman Republicans who retook the state Senate in 2011. Similarly, he rode a second political wave into Congress, this one tinged with the nationalism that characterized opposition to the second Obama administration.

His congressional district is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but Zeldin has continued to win reelection while moving further to the right.

He quickly championed President Trump, sponsored a bill banning abortions and a bill protecting companies that forbid same-sex marriage, sowed doubt in the 2020 election results and continued to defend Trump after the insurrection.

“If you want to make the president the first president to be impeached twice, we’ll add something else to that," he said on the House floor on Jan. 7. "Thank you, Mr. President, for his efforts to defeat MS-13 in my district.”

Still, Zeldin has pushed back against traditionally Republican issues that hurt his constituents. He opposed off-shore drilling, which he said would harm Long Island’s seashores. He also voted against Trump’s tax cuts in 2017, which hurt many in high-cost-of-living areas in the Northeast.

Veterans are an issue of focus for Zeldin. After he graduated Albany Law School, he served in the U.S. Army. In both the state Senate and Congress, he focused on bringing peer-to-peer therapy to soldiers through the PFC Joseph Dwyer Peer Support Program, which uses therapies like fly fishing and horse training to help veterans in New York who experience post-traumatic stress or brain injuries.

Heard of him?

In his home district, Zeldin is well-known. But polls show that he has struggled to get recognized north and west of Westchester.

Zeldin typically avoids non-friendly media outlets, and has become instead a mainstay on Fox and Newsmax, where he is a frequent pro-Israel advocate. Whether his Fox appearances are enough to cut through a fractured upstate media market will be tested in this primary.

Bruce Gyory, a longtime political analyst, said downstate candidates typically have a hard time getting known across the state. For Republicans, it’s worse.

“To win a primary, they get pulled all out of position for the kind of swing or independent voter they need to win in November, which is why the last Republican to win statewide goes way back to 2002 and George Pataki,” Gyory said.

But back on that cold January morning in Albany, Zeldin made it clear that his campaign was going to the right, along with the rest of country, he said. If he's correct and wins the primary, and districts across the country and state flip from blue to red, it would be the third Republican wave he rides into office.

“You could ask, will the political earth under us move?" Zeldin said. "No. It’s already moved.”

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.