Why the New York Governor’s Race Is Now Too Close for Democrats’ Comfort

5 minute read

In a normal year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul might be coasting to victory in November. She’s a reasonably popular Democrat running for re-election in a blue state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor in 20 years. For months, she led her GOP opponent, Rep. Lee Zeldin, by double digits in the polls.

Yet as Democrats brace for a Republican wave in the midterm elections, Hochul’s race has tightened, getting too close for Democrats’ comfort. An Oct. 28 Emerson poll found Hochul up by just 6 points, down from a 15-point lead in September. Another poll released the same day by Democratic polling firm Slingshot Strategies had Hochul up by the same slim margin, and found that Zeldin led by 2 points among the most enthusiastic voters.

The biggest factor in Hochul’s shrinking lead has been Zeldin’s push to make the race about crime. Nationwide, Republicans have sought to make the midterms a referendum on public safety. The argument has particular resonance in New York, which in recent years has passed sentencing reforms that raised the age of adult prosecution to 18 and eliminated cash bail for most low-level crimes. While it’s not clear these reforms are to blame, crime has surged in New York City, according to NYPD data, with robberies up more than 30%, rapes up more than 10% and a spate of random attacks on subway commuters, even as the murder rate has declined.

Zeldin has rooted his campaign in fighting rising crime, with a focus on rolling back New York’s criminal-justice reforms. He’s also made the crime issue personal: in early October, two teens were shot outside of Zeldin’s home while his teenage daughters were inside doing homework. (Zeldin did not know the victims, both of whom survived their injuries.) “This is day after day after day,” he told Fox News after the incident. “There are a lot of parents, and there are a lot of families dealing with this reality of rising crime in New York.”

“Zeldin’s really put his shoulder into making this a crime election, because he thinks he can win it,” says Evan Roth Smith, founding partner at Slingshot Strategies.

Read More: Kathy Hochul On Her First Month As New York’s Governor.

A source close to the Hochul campaign disputes the idea that the governor has ignored public safety, arguing that the decline in shootings and murders can be attributed to police gun seizures taking place on her watch. Rep. Zeldin’s campaign did not return emails asking for comment.

Some Democrats say the party has taken New York for granted for so long that they’ve focused too much on primaries and forgotten how to run against Republicans in their own state. Those Democrats say the party has not been effective at countering the Republican messaging on crime, even when the numbers are more complicated than they seem. Conservative donor Ronald Lauder has poured millions into TV ads hitting Hochul as soft on crime.

“The Republicans have been really good about making every election about crime, even when times are good,” says Andrew Gounardes, a Democratic state senator representing a purple area of Brooklyn. “It’s hard to dispute people’s perception with facts.”

In order to pull out the victory, Hochul’s campaign needs to turbocharge turnout in New York City. “There’s really no way the numbers work for a Democrat statewide unless they get a big margin in Manhattan,” says Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, a Democrat. “I’m worried that’s not gonna happen.”

Hochul’s peril could be a sign of a coming GOP surge across New York. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is suddenly on the defensive in his own district, and Republicans have a chance to make gains in House races across the state, with three listed as “toss-ups” by Cook Political Report. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a rising MAGA star who represents an upstate New York district, has told multiple media outlets that a “red wave is going to sweep across New York.”

Read More: How Elise Stefanik Went From Moderate to MAGA.

The political establishment has taken note of the tightening polls over the last few days, with stars from both parties descending on New York as if it were a swing state. Former President Barack Obama recorded a radio spot for Hochul reminding New Yorkers not to “sit this one out,” and former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Maloney in the Hudson Valley. Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis campaigned for Zeldin on Long Island.

“It’s the closest statewide race we’ve had probably in 20 years,” says Levine, the Manhattan borough president. “It’s been so long since we’ve had a competitive general election, that Democrats in New York City have forgotten how to run in November.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com