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New York Democrats target independent voters on abortion rights

J.D. Allen/WSHU Public Radio

The New York state Democratic Party is reaching out to independent voters on the abortion issue, sending mailers that paint Republican candidate for governor, Congressman Lee Zeldin, as holding unacceptably “extreme” views. Zeldin said he would not try to alter the state’s abortion rights laws.

Karen DeWitt
The flyers, sent to some independent voters around the state, feature unflattering, darkly lit images of Lee Zeldin

The flyers, sent to some independent voters around the state, feature unflattering, darkly lit images of Zeldin and a message that characterizes him as “an extremist who wants to ban all abortions in New York without exceptions, including for the health or life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest.”

It’s the same message distributed more widely by the nearly ubiquitous television ads that the Hochul campaign has been running.

“Zeldin celebrated Roe v. Wade being struck down,” a narrator said in the ad, and labels Zeldin “extreme and dangerous.”

Zeldin, who is opposed to abortion rights, in recent weeks has been trying to downplay the issue, saying it is not one of the reasons why he is running.

Hochul’s campaign confirms that the mailings, financed by the state’s Democratic Party, are going out to independent voters. That indicates they believe it’s a swing issue that will resonate after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 1973 landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade.

The campaign said spending on the mailings is “in the seven-figure” range, though they would not be more specific. The governor has raised over $38 million for her campaign, and still has over $11 million to spend in the coming weeks before Election Day.

Jen Goodman, a Hochul campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement that “the campaign and state party are investing millions of dollars to reach New Yorkers wherever they are” and they want to convey “how dangerously out of touch Lee Zeldin is with New York.”

Hochul, who seldom misses an opportunity to reinforce her message that she believes her opponent is “extreme,” confirms that she is reaching out to independent voters. She said she is more in tune with the views of New Yorkers than her opponent.

“The alternative is so frightening ,” Hochul said on September 28. “To have someone — who’s so out of sync with the values and beliefs of New Yorkers.”

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic strategist who is a senior adviser at the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm, said it’s a smart strategy.

“In this state the abortion, or the overturning of Roe v. Wade, has become a wedge issue,” Gyory said.

Gyory adds many independent voters in the New York City suburbs, a key voting block, disagree with the overturning of Roe as well as the court’s decision to strike down the state’s concealed carry gun laws.

But he said Republican candidates like Zeldin still have an opportunity to win independent voters over on issues like inflation and the rise in the crime rate.

“Independent voters are being pulled by crime and inflation away from the Democrats,” said Gyory. “And on Roe v. Wade, gun safety, climate change and threats to democracy, independent voters are being pulled away from the Republicans.”

A Siena College poll released on September 28 finds that while Zeldin still has a small lead among independent voters, Hochul has been gaining ground. In February, Independents, by a two-to-one margin, said they would prefer someone else to Hochul for governor. Now, Hochul is three points behind Zeldin among likely Independent voters, at 45% to 42%.

Just 15% of those surveyed said abortion is a top issue for them, putting it behind inflation, crime and concerns over threats to democracy. But Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg said that is still a significant number of voters, and he said the issue could motivate some independents to come out on Election Day and cast their ballots for Democrats.

“They are also using it as a 'get out to vote' technique, to say ‘if you care about this issue, you need to vote,’” Greenberg said.

Zeldin said earlier in September that he would not try to alter the state’s current laws protecting abortion rights. In 2019, the governor and Legislature approved a measure that codified the rights in Roe into state law.

“I’m not in this race because of abortion,” Zeldin said on September 23. “I’m not standing here today proposing to roll back that law. I’m not planning to roll back that law.”

Zeldin in July voted against bills in Congress to protect abortion rights, including the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022, which prohibits government restrictions on abortion services through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

He also voted against the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act, which prohibits anyone acting under state law from interfering with a person’s ability to access out of state abortion services.

In a private fundraising event in the spring, Zeldin told donors that he would appoint a pro-life health department commissioner, according to Spectrum News.

But Zeldin now said he would not try to roll back recent laws by Hochul and the Legislature that provide funding and assistance to pregnant people from states where abortion is banned or strictly limited, so they can come to New York to receive services.

“In some other darker red states, there might be a very different perspective on whether or not taxpayers should have to pay for people to come into the state for an abortion from another state,” Zeldin said. “Versus what the will of the people may be in a blue state like New York.”

The Siena poll finds more than two-thirds of New Yorkers, including 50% of Republicans, disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.