(Bloomberg) -- While New York Governor Kathy Hochul is expected to handily win the state’s Democratic primary Tuesday, her path to victory in November will prove more difficult.
Heading into the midterm elections, there’s a rising national wave of push back against Democrats in elected office. Inflation is soaring and gun crime is up. New York is a reliably blue state -- a Republican hasn’t won a statewide election in 20 years -- but Hochul, 63, has been saving her campaign funds for a general election where polling shows she isn’t a shoo-in.
U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin of Long Island is the front-runner among Hochul’s Republican challengers, according to limited polling. A June 16 Siena poll found that 46% of New York voters polled said they would prefer Hochul, while 44% said they would prefer to elect someone else. The poll didn’t ask voters about a head-to-head contest.
Other Republican contenders include former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, businessman Harry Wilson and Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a former Trump administration aide.
“Nothing is impossible,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, citing the possibility of low election turnout and voter indifference.
Competitive Republican challenges to incumbent Democratic governors have become a rarity in New York since George Pataki won his third term as governor in 2002. And the differences between Hochul and her potential Republican general election challengers are starker than ever -- especially following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“Most of her opponents don’t believe the 2020 election was legitimate,” Greer said. “We’ve got two extremes of the ideological spectrum on the ballot.”
During a campaign stop in New York City on Monday, Hochul said it may appear like she is saving her firepower for the November election, rather than the primary election, because she has been “busy governing.” She also said the court’s abortion decision raised the stakes for the election.
“I’m the one who can stand between us and chaos if a Republican ever sits in the state house in the governor’s seat,” she said while her supporters handed out flyers to voters in Harlem. She said her Republican contenders are “dead set on standing with the Supreme Court” and voters “need to know that electing the Democrat that is certain to win in November is critically important.”
Zeldin, who is considered the GOP front-runner, pushed back on Hochul’s assertions and said the math might favor Republicans this year.
“Oftentimes, when people analyze the electorate in New York, they look at how many more Democrats there are than Republicans and then that’s the end of the analysis,” Zeldin said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Friday. “There are millions of voters who aren’t Republican or Democrat. In a year like 2018, they swung left. In a year like 2022 they are swinging right.”
In New York, there are roughly 6.5 million Democrats and 2.8 million Republicans out of nearly 13 million enrolled voters, according to the New York State Board of Elections.
Hochul, who assumed office in August 2021 after former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment allegations, has consistently performed better in polls than her Democratic primary challengers: U.S. Representative Tom Suozzi of Long Island and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. If Hochul wins the general election in November, she would make history as the first woman elected governor in New York.
The race for lieutenant governor has also garnered extra attention this year. Hochul’s first pick for the position, former state Senator Brian Benjamin, abruptly left office following a federal public corruption indictment earlier this year.
Hochul replaced Benjamin on the ticket with Antonio Delgado, a former U.S. representative from the Hudson Valley. He faces a spirited challenge from former New York City Council Member Diana Reyna and progressive activist Ana Maria Archila, who was endorsed by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“The reason why it feels important this time around is because we have seen a lieutenant governor ascend to governor. We have seen a lieutenant governor face indictment,” Greer said. “People are thinking, ‘maybe we should pay just a little bit more attention to the No. 2 on the ticket.’”
Hochul’s path to a primary victory wasn’t always as clear as it is now. She had faced the possibility of a larger primary field, including Attorney General Letitia James. James could have siphoned off liberal, downstate and Black voter support from Hochul, a Buffalo native who initially had low name recognition in vote-rich areas like New York City.
But Hochul is a prodigious fundraiser who built up a multimillion-dollar war chest and has drastically out-raised and outspent her primary opponents. She still has the most cash of any candidate, of any party, as she heads into a likely general election contest in November.
Hochul’s campaign has reported $34 million in contributions and $23.2 million in expenditures since August 2021, state campaign finance records show. During that period, Williams raised $528,358 and spent nearly $390,000, while Suozzi raised $7.4 million and spent $7.8 million.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, Hochul has been running ads highlighting her support for abortion rights and access, in contrast to her Republican challengers. And she spent much of the televised primary debates highlighting legislative achievements on gun control.
“Governor Hochul has built a battleship of a campaign,” said Democratic political strategist Eric Koch, founder of communications firm Downfield Strategies. “Coming out of the primary she’s going to have a lot of momentum against the Republicans who have been forced to compete over who loves Donald Trump the most.”
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