By MARINA VILLENEUVE
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York’s Republican Party leaders endorsed U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin as their candidate for governor Tuesday at a convention on Long Island, although he could still face a primary challenger in June.
Any Republican candidate faces tough odds in New York, where registered Democrats outnumber GOP voters by more than 2 to 1. New York hasn’t elected a Republican governor since George Pataki won reelection in 2002.
But Republicans scored some unexpected wins in local and county elections in November, and Zeldin declared “The Republican party is back, baby!” as he walked out for his convention speech to the song “All I Do is Win,” by DJ Khaled.
Zeldin, who represents eastern Long Island in Congress, accused Democrats of being soft on criminals and overzealous in imposing safety protocols intended to fight COVID-19.
“This is a battle for the heart and soul of our state,” said Zeldin, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. “I’m running so the people feel they are back in control of their government again.”
He has made cracking down on crime a centerpiece of his campaign, at a time when polls indicate it’s a top issue for many voters.
“It’s about restoring order, it’s about backing the blue,” Zeldin told convention attendees, later adding: “This is a rescue mission to save our state that will be successful.”
He called for a law enforcement bill of rights that would ensure police officers have the right to self-defense.
He has also vowed to repeal criminal justice reforms passed by the Democratic-led Legislature in recent years, including a 2019 law that barred money bail and pretrial detention for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges.
Zeldin could still face a primary challenge from any Republican who gathers 15,000 signatures on a nominating petition.
Businessman Harry Wilson, of Johnstown, entered the race last week by launching a $12 million television advertisement campaign.
Wilson has worked for Goldman Sachs and founded a White Plains advisory firm, and also served as a U.S. Treasury Department advisor under former President Obama.
Other Republicans who have announced they’re running for governor include Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Rob Astorino, a former radio industry professional and two-term Westchester County executive who unsuccessfully ran against former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014.
Zeldin reported raising roughly $4.2 million as of January. That’s far more than Astorino and Giuliani, who reported $763,000 and $85,600 respectively.
Whoever ultimately prevails on the Republican side must face the winner of the Democratic primary, where Gov. Kathy Hochul is trying to fend off challengers including New York City’s elected public advocate Jumaane Williams, a progressive, and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a moderate who represents Long Island.
Both Williams and Suozzi plan to kick off signature-gathering campaigns Tuesday to earn their spots on the ballot. Each much collect 15,000 signatures from Democratic voters around the state to get on the June 28 ballot.
Zeldin slammed New York’s Democratic leaders for moving the state too far to the left, saying Tuesday he wants to lower taxes, safely extract natural gas in New York, oppose new firearm restrictions, enact voter ID laws and remove any existing COVID-19 restrictions.
Wilson offered a more moderate approach Tuesday, telling the convention audience he’ll clean up corruption in Albany and cut spending, taxes and regulation.
He said his experience turning around failing businesses will help him bring back the state’s lagging economy, which is recovering from the pandemic at a slower pace than the nation as a whole.
Wilson touted his failed 2010 run for New York state comptroller, which he said was a Republican’s best showing in a race for a statewide office in years. Wilson lost 50.78% to 46.25% to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat.
“We lose by double digits every time,” Wilson said. “That is how hard it is to win in New York.”
Wilson said he has “no interest in being governor,” but said he deeply wants to fix New York.
“If we just nominate another politician, we’ll lose,” Wilson said.
Astorino lost to Cuomo 54-40% but touted his narrow win of the rest of the state outside of New York City, and said he’d draw in enough support in Westchester and the Hudson Valley to win.
“Too many Republicans were intimidated by him or cut deals with him,” Astorino said of Cuomo.
Giuliani called Republicans the “party of Donald J. Trump” as well as the party of his father, a close Trump ally. Andrew Giuliani also vowed to repeal bail reform and give parents a bigger voice in what their kids learn in school.
Lewis County Sheriff Michael Carpinelli and podcast host Derrick Gibson have also launched gubernatorial bids.
Zeldin’s win at the convention was expected. He and his lieutenant governor pick, Alison Esposito, had already landed endorsements from nearly all GOP county leaders in New York. Esposito also accepted the party’s nomination Tuesday morning.
AP writer Michelle Price contributed reporting from New York.