NEW YORK — Gov. Kathy Hochul should not have to worry about dominating deep-blue New York City on the campaign trail.
For decades, the metropolis has propelled Democrats to victory in races from school board to president, providing a reliable reservoir of wealthy donors and civically-active residents. But less than two weeks before Election Day — and just two days before early voting begins — Hochul has a problem.
Street corner volunteers and direct mail are lacking in high-turnout neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, despite $30.5 million in statewide ad buys. Many of the city’s most prominent Democratic politicians are missing from the campaign trail. And inside her operation, staffers and supporters are growing concerned that she has not made deep enough inroads with consistent Democratic voters, according to interviews with eight people involved in or closely supporting Hochul’s campaign.
Some fear she won’t capture enough of the vote in the city to counter Republican challenger Lee Zeldin’s growing popularity elsewhere in New York.
“Democrats in New York City have forgotten how to run general elections, because we haven’t had to do it for 20 years,” Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, one of Hochul’s most visible surrogates, said in an interview Thursday.
Now, in a late realization that the race is not a slam dunk — and as Democrats are bracing for losses throughout the country — party leaders are rushing to shore up Hochul’s chances in New York City.
Mayor Eric Adams plans to appear at a campaign rally with Hochul on Sunday, according to three people involved in planning the event in the Democratic stronghold of Southeast Queens.
And unions and other special interest groups are vowing to pump millions more into her candidacy in the coming days, labor leaders told POLITICO.
The New York State United Teachers union and the American Federation of Teachers are planning a $1 million ad blitz through the PAC Progress NYS and the politically influential Hotel Trades Council announced a $250,000 campaign targeting Hispanic voters, according to the Daily News. Another group, Empire State Forward, is also expecting to spend to aid Hochul.
“What [Zeldin] needs to do is get people who vote and people who are registered Democrats to vote for a Donald Trump-loving Republican in New York City,” consultant Jason Ortiz, who represents the hotel workers union, said in an interview. “And I put that at nearly impossible to pull off.”
Mario Cilento, president of the state’s AFL-CIO, said his union has focused its grassroots efforts to bolster turnout for Hochul — an effort that includes 106,000 door knocks, 220,000 phone calls and 600,000 direct mail pieces.
“I’m confident and comfortable she will be victorious on Election Day,” Cilento said.
Hochul’s team also believes she will perform well in the five boroughs.
Thus far, more than 108,000 absentee ballots have been returned for Democrats, triple the number for Republicans, according to a Hochul representative. Of those, 50,826 were mailed in from the city.
“Across the five boroughs, Governor Hochul has built a broad coalition of supporters because of her effective leadership and ability to get things done,” campaign spokesperson Jen Goodman said in a prepared statement. “Democrats across the city are fired up, and from now until Election Day the campaign will continue to keep our foot on the gas reaching out to voters in every community and exposing Lee Zeldin’s dangerous extremism.”
Yet some of Hochul’s own staff and allies are privately expressing frustration with what they describe as a well-funded campaign focused too much on TV ads at the expense of building relationships with New York City community leaders.
The aides and surrogates — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss Hochul’s strategy — questioned why she is so focused on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade when crime consistently ranks as a top issue for city voters. Zeldin, a Long Island congressman, has made crime his top campaign issue, and polls suggest the strategy is working — putting him within striking distance of the governor in a race long thought to be a sleeper.
“There is massive frustration. People are complaining they don’t have any [literature]. Where are the posters?” one aide said in an interview. “I think it’s going to be a depressed turnout because there’s no excitement.”
As if to underscore this problem, a preacher at a Black church in the city mispronounced the governor’s name during her visit this past Sunday, according to someone in attendance.
No one believes Hochul — an upstate New York native who represented a district near Buffalo in Congress — will not beat Zeldin in the city, where Democrats routinely win local and national elections. But they are concerned he is generating more excitement in red neighborhoods, particularly since the only competitive congressional race on the ballot — incumbent Republican Nicole Malliotakis versus Democrat Max Rose — is in a GOP-leaning district that straddles Brooklyn and Staten Island.
There’s also an oft-repeated concern about turnout, particularly since Zeldin has broader support elsewhere in the state.
Democrats win statewide races due in large part to New York City voters. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo routed GOP challenger Marc Molinaro four years ago by winning handily in Brooklyn, which boasted the highest turnout of any county in the state — 608,728 votes, of which he won 524,080.
“I would hope that we would see a little bit more activity in my part of New York City, particularly because we do have some competitive races here, so voters are more engaged,” outgoing state Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said in an interview.
Hochul has continued to focus on her fundraising advantage, even personally phoning donors in recent weeks to collect more cash down the homestretch, according to two people with direct knowledge of the calls.
So far she has brought in a record amount for her campaign during her 14 months in office, outraising Zeldin $46.3 million to $17.9 million, according to campaign finance records released earlier this month. He has been boosted by more than $12 million in outside money spent on his behalf, largely from cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. Hochul, by comparison, has not received that level of support from special interest groups.
“The billionaires are throwing millions into Zeldin’s campaign. So we’re one of the few organizations out there that can actually try to level the playing field,” said state teachers’ union president Andy Pallotta.
But inside Zeldin’s camp, the flood of cash has been a welcome sign.
“Just the idea of people being surprised at how good he is doing plays into the notion that around dinner tables and coffee shops, people are talking about how they’re accepting him as a candidate,” City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican working on a pro-Zeldin PAC, said in an interview this week. “You’ve never heard discussion of how good Donald Trump was doing in New York City because people weren’t having those conversations in their own personal lives.”
“People see that it’s within reach and it’s really a motivating factor,” Borelli added.
The candidates focused their efforts in the city this week with events flanking their single televised debate Tuesday night.
“We’re getting tremendous, intense, deep, real support from people who want to save New York City, they want to save New York State, and they realize that they have an opportunity two weeks from today,” Zeldin said as he prepared to ride the subway to the debate in Lower Manhattan.
The following day, he appeared alongside gas station owners in Queens to lament a rash of robberies in the area, while Hochul stumped with Rep. Nydia Velázquez and other city Democrats at a Brooklyn senior center across the city.
“The national headwinds are tough. Look at [New Jersey Gov.] Phil Murphy last year; he was a popular governor, [and] won very narrowly against a Republican who spent very little,” said city-based consultant Chris Coffey. “This was never going to be a blowout and Democrats are going to need to turn out in order to win this election.”
Julian Shen-Berro, Zach Montellaro and Bill Mahoney contributed to this report.
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