NEW YORK — Gov. Kathy Hochul and her Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin both came out swinging at the singular debate in New York’s gubernatorial contest Tuesday as recent polls show a tighter-than-expected race just two weeks from Election Day.
The Democratic governor seeking her first term and the Long Island congressmember hit on the themes that have defined their campaigns: She criticized him for being an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump who doesn’t support abortion rights; he hit back that Hochul has let crime fester in New York City and hasn’t done enough to address the state’s high cost of living.
“You’re poorer and less safe because of Kathy Hochul and extreme policies,” Zeldin said directly into the camera in his opening statement. “This is your opportunity to save New York.”
“Nice to see you too, as well, Lee,” Hochul quipped when given her 60-second intro.
The event hosted by Spectrum News in New York City comes as Hochul’s juggernaut campaign pivots to emphasize her record on public safety to counter Zeldin’s aggressive messaging on the issue, a national trend that has put even safe Democratic seats in limbo ahead of the Nov. 8 elections for governors across the U.S. and control of Congress.
Polls have shown Hochul’s lead as low as four percentage points in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican statewide in 20 years.
Hochul, who hasn’t previously shown a desire to play strong offense in debates, hammered Zeldin for votes in Congress addressing crime and gun control that he did not participate in, saying that he was all talk and no action on the public safety issues propelling his campaign.
“He walked off his job years ago to run for this one, and I feel for his constituents who have not been represented for the last year and a half,” she said.
Hochul, looking to be the first woman elected New York governor, also emphasized Zeldin’s close relationship with Donald Trump, a figure who remains unpopular in his native state — a theme Hochul has spent millions of dollars in ads to drill home to voters in a state with twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
Her choice for a cross examination question during the debate was direct: “Is Donald Trump a great president?” It prompted Zeldin to list a number of initiatives he shared with Trump, including border control, U.S.-Israel relations and anti-gang efforts.
“I’ll take that as a resounding yes, and the voters of New York do not agree with you,” Hochul responded.
Zeldin, for his part, highlighted each of the criticisms Hochul has endured since taking office 14 months ago when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned in scandal. He knocked her for choosing a lieutenant governor who quickly resigned amid federal bribery charges, for quietly closing a deal to send millions of dollars of state funding to keep the Buffalo Bills in New York, for struggling to address the state’s crime problems and choosing to buy millions of dollars worth of state Covid-19 tests from campaign donor Digital Gadgets at a higher cost than other vendors.
And he pushed back on her focus on gun control as a key to public safety.
“Unfortunately, Kathy Hochul believes the only crimes that are being committed are these crimes with guns, but people who are afraid of being pushed in front of oncoming subway cars. They’re being stabbed, they’re being beaten to death with hammers …. We need to be talking about all of these other crimes but instead Kathy Hochul was too busy patting herself on the back ‘Job Well Done,’” Zeldin said.
His own plans for the state were more vague, but he has said his first day in office he’d use executive power to dismiss Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — an action that would likely take a lengthy and substantive process — and would declare a crime emergency.
Zeldin did not respond to Hochul’s criticisms of his missed votes in Congress, nor did he distance himself from Trump, except for saying that’s what she wants to focus on rather than fixing the state. The policies he touted — including rejecting vaccine mandates and questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in certain states — are those which speak more to a further right conservative base as he also tries to court the moderate and independent voters he would need to prevail.
The debate danced through a variety of issues, including economic development, the candidates opposing views on abortion and the New York City migrant crisis fueled by GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott amid a fight with the Biden administration over border policy.
Hochul said she is working with President Joe Biden and Mayor Eric Adams to find solutions for the influx, and she is open to bipartisan immigration solutions.
“I don’t really think I could get through in a rational way to the governor of Texas, but if all of you think I should make the call I will,” she said.
Zeldin said that if elected he would call on the federal government to further secure the southern borders from both drugs and the migrant surges and “stop incentivizing and rewarding illegal entry.”
Both candidates said they would support lifting the cap on charter schools, something Hochul has previously not committed to.
With absentee voting set to begin Saturday, the debate lacked any viral moments that either campaign could clearly claim for an edge, even as outside dollars flow to both candidates in the final, vital days. Hochul has heavily outraised and outspent Zeldin, but he has been able to blanket the airwaves through about $12 million from PACs supporting him, mainly from cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder.
In the debate’s lightening round, Hochul said that she would like Biden to run for reelection, citing the infrastructure dollars the president has sent to the state during his tenure. Zeldin, on the other hand, said he is “not even thinking about it” when asked if he would like Trump to run for president again in 2024.
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