By MICHELLE L. PRICE
NEW YORK (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit the campaign trail in New York City on Thursday night for Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat facing an unexpectedly competitive election.
That Democrats are playing defense and scrambling to shore up an incumbent even in a blue state like New York is a drastic marker of the party’s growing fears that next week’s midterm elections may deliver a wave of Republican victories around the country.
New York has more than twice as many registered Democrats than Republicans and has not voted for a Republican governor since George Pataki won a third term in 2002. But Democrats are facing national headwinds in this year’s midterm elections as the party in power, which typically bears the brunt of voter frustrations.
This year, those frustrations include stubborn inflation and a shaky economy, but in New York, Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin has channeled fears over rising crime to open up a potential path to victory.
To boost voter turnout and generate enthusiasm, Thursday’s event at the all-female Barnard College was billed as a “Women’s Rally” and focused heavily on the history Hochul could make next week if she wins, becoming the first woman to be elected New York governor. Hochul became the first woman to serve as the state’s governor in August 2021, when she took over after Andrew Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
Zeldin, who has represented Long Island in Congress since 2015, is an ally of former President Donald Trump and objected to the 2020 election results after Trump made false claims of election fraud. That alliance, along with his opposition to abortion, was expected to leave Zeldin facing a very unlikely path to the governor’s mansion. But amid a string of high-profile violent incidents, Zeldin’s focus on crime appeared to be resonating in the final weeks.
Hochul — bookended by speeches from Harris, the first woman to be elected to the country’s second-highest office, and Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be a major party’s presidential nominee and New York’s first female senator — invoked the launch of the women’s suffrage movement in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.
“To all of you but particularly to the women of New York, this is our moment,” Hochul said Thursday.
“As the governor said, you witnessed a lot of history on the stage this afternoon,” Harris said. She added, “We may be the first, but we are committed to not being the last.”
Hochul, Harris and Clinton all cast the governor as a defender of abortion rights, reviving a message that was initially expected to fire up Democratic voters this year and solidify candidates like Hochul after the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer ended the national right to an abortion.
“Of course they want to turn back the clock on abortion. They spent 50 years trying to make that happen,” Clinton said of Republicans. “They are determined to exercise control over who are, how we feel and believe and act in ways that I thought we had long left behind.”
Hochul poked at Zeldin’s comments this summer when he said, the day after the court ruling, that “the law in New York was exactly the same as it was the day before. Nothing changed, and I’m not going to change it.”
“You know why nothing changed in the state of New York? Because I’m the governor,” Hochul said to cheers Thursday.
She is expected to hold rallies this weekend in Brooklyn with former President Bill Clinton, who lives with his wife in New York, and in Manhattan with Bravo talk-show host Andy Cohen.
Republicans, seizing on Zeldin’s momentum, have sent their own political stars, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Glenn Youngkin, to the state in recent days to energize GOP voters sensing a rare opportunity to lead the state. Zeldin was holding a rally of his own Thursday near Albany with U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 House Republican.
Zeldin has repeatedly held news conferences in liberal New York City to decry violent crimes, including incidents on the subways, and to blame Hochul and Democrats. He’s downplayed his ties to Trump, appearing with the former president at a closed-door campaign fundraiser but not at any public rallies, as candidates elsewhere have done.
At a news conference Wednesday, Zeldin said he understands Democrats are shocked that he has made the race competitive, especially by repeatedly showing up in their stronghold, but he said Hochul missed an opportunity to be tough on crime as soon as she took over.
“She made decisions that have alienated a lot of New Yorkers, and even if they’re Democrats, they’re supporting us,” he said. “And as a consequence we are going to do well in New York City compared to Republican candidates in the past.”