Last weekend, Representative Lee Zeldin brought in his Republican campaign for governor to New York. It was quite a surprise.
Mr. Zeldin was greeted like an aspiring rock star by the crowd. Crowds cheered in approval. Streets were littered with Yiddish-language campaign signs. “Mister Lee Zeldin, you got my vote,”A paramedic shouted out from an ambulance in Hebrew lettering.
One of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, Mr. Zeldin has been a long-standing supporter of Israel and a regular at Republican Jewish Coalition events. In recent weeks, however, he has acted aggressively to align himself with Orthodox Jewish concerns about an increase in hate crime and ongoing state attempts at regulation of private religious schools, known collectively as yeshivas.
“It’s not just on our streets, but even in our schools where we are being targeted,”During a Sunday visit to Borough Park, he said this.
With less than 50 days until Election Day, Mr. Zeldin’s Jewish outreach is at the center of a concerted and overlooked effort to court enclaves like these in boroughs outside Manhattan, where English is often a second language and voters appear to be highly motivated by education issues, congestion pricing and threats to public safety — along with a leftward drift among Democrats they have long supported.
Mr. Zeldin’s campaign is strongest in areas outside New York City. He has visited Asian American neighborhoods in Sunset Park and Flushing, Queens, as well as Russian-speaking communities around Brighton Beach and Brooklyn. He also visited a conservative Hispanic church located in the Bronx. Pro-Zeldin super-PACs provide support with foreign-language ads on WeChat or WhatsApp and outreach on WeChat.
Whether he can move enough votes to destabilize Democrats’ New York City firewall remains to be seen. Recent Emerson and Siena College polls show that he is trailing Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat by approximately 15 percentage points. However, other polls suggest that it may be closer.
No Republican candidate for governor has earned more than 30 percent of the city vote — Mr. Zeldin’s benchmark — in two decades. And even if he did, he would still have to pull off commanding victories upstate and in New York’s increasingly diverse suburbs to beat Ms. Hochul, who is spending freely from overflowing campaign accounts to try to ensure that does not happen.
But for New York Republicans locked in the political wilderness since former President Donald J. Trump’s election, the promise of a longer-term realignment among crucial Asian and Jewish voting blocks is tantalizing — even if the party has to wait until after November for it to happen.
“These are voters who are free agents,”Chapin Fay, a former Zeldin adviser and leader of one the super PACs said that he remains concerned that Republicans aren’t doing enough to capitalize upon the opening.
Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times
The Recent Emerson College PollMs. Hochul was the leader among voters who identified as Asians, but she was only 10 percentage points ahead of her 37-point lead over Hispanics and her 60-point lead over African Americans.
“It’s hard for me to go into any group that I’m in without seeing a Zeldin news article, or a flier, or a Republican piece of literature, on WeChat,”Yiatin Ch, president of Asian Wave Alliance (a nonpartisan political group formed to organize voters), said this.
Ms. Chu has never voted in a Republican election. But, after meeting with Mr. Zeldin last year, she was convinced he would prioritize fighting antisialian violence and block changes in the admissions process for elite schools, which are home to large numbers of Asian Americans.
“My message to Democrats locally and nationally is please don’t take our communities for granted,” said Representative Grace Meng, the state’s only Asian American congresswoman, who started sounding alarms about aggressive Republican outreach in her Queens district last year.
But she predicted that Ms. Hochul would fare well there, particularly given her outspoken support for abortion rights, aggressive steps to combat gun violence and distance from former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s unpopular education policies.
As for Mr. Zeldin’s outreach: “It’s a little late.”
Democrats are making their own large investments in many of the same communities, along with more reliable segments of the party’s base that could offset Mr. Zeldin’s gains.
Ms. Hochul’s campaign said it would spend six figures on ads aimed at Jewish voters and another $1 million on Spanish-language ads. Many will praise her work on gun control, mental health, and attack Mr. Zeldin for opposing abortion rights. They will also support Mr. Trump, who is still widely unpopular in this country.
Despite Mr. Zeldin’s optimism about Orthodox Jewish groups, some estimates suggest that the Hasidic vote typically represents less than 2 percent of statewide turnout, while other religious Jewish groups, including the modern Orthodox, account for another 2 to 3 percent. Ms. Hochul made a series cold calls last week to strengthen ties with Jewish allies. She is expected to win Jewish voters overall and increase the score among non-Orthodox.
“From Borough Park to the South Bronx, Governor Hochul has built a broad coalition of New Yorkers who are supporting her campaign because of her effective leadership and ability to get things done,”Jerrel Harv Harvey, a Hochul spokesperson, stated that.
However, Mr. Zeldin may still believe he can make some gains.
In southern Brooklyn, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants — many of them Jewish — helped flip a City Council seat for Republicans last year. The large population of immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union voted enthusiastically for Mr. Trump and have increasingly rejected Democrats — even moderates like Mayor Eric Adams and Ms. Hochul — for their ties to a party that harbors a small minority of democratic socialists.
“Even if it’s a centrist Democrat, they will select a Republican at this point,” said Inna Vernikov, a Democrat-turned-Republican who won the Council seat.
Republicans also believe opposition to the state’s new congestion pricing plan, which would make commuting into Manhattan more expensive for middle-class New Yorkers at a time of sharp inflation, could help motivate turnout.
For now, the competition for votes appears to be fiercest in New York’s politically influential and fast-growing Hasidic communities, which have also shifted quickly to the right in recent years.
Even though they are not large, they tend to vote together and vote when other voters don’t. They are among the most motivated voters currently in the state.
Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times
An increase in antisemitic violence has been particularly noticeable against Hasidic Jews. In recent weeks, government intervention at Hasidic yeshivas was framed as an existential threat.
Earlier this month, The New York Times published an investigation that found that roughly 100 Hasidic boys’ schools were systematically denying their students a basic secular education and regularly using corporal punishment, while receiving large sums of taxpayer funds. A state education panel approved long-awaited rules to regulate private schools that do not follow religious studies.
“New York State declares a war against its ultra-Orthodox residents,”The front page of Der Blatt, a Yiddish language newspaper, was screaming.
Ms. Hochul kept a quiet stance on yeshivas, but Mr. Zeldin wanted to capitalize on the issue.
He has been traveling through Hasidic areas in recent days to declare that he will defend yeshivas against the government he wants to run. He often emphasizes that his mother was a teacher at a yeshiva and highlights his support for Israel in Congress. (Mr. Zeldin is also targeting Orthodox Jewish voters who often vote for Republicans.
English- and Yiddish-language ads quickly appeared last week to amplify Mr. Zeldin’s defense of the yeshivas. “They both want our support,”One read, referring the the two candidates. “Only Lee Zeldin stands up to defend us. Only Lee Zeldin is a friend we can rely on.”
Mr. Zeldin was interviewed earlier in the summer. Visited a summer campJoel Rosenfeld, a Hasidic leader, in the Catskills Assisting Joel Rosenfeld, a Hasidic leader, as he sat in front of a sign written in hand. “Make New York Great Again,”As a large group singing in unison, Mr. Zeldin listened.
“A governor who hears, a governor who cares, that’s Congressman Lee Zeldin,”They sang, raising their voices to the end: “A leader who understands our needs and demands, Congressman Lee Zeldin!”
Sunday was a start for Mr. Zeldin’s day. He visited the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who was a revered leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews.
Later, he visited Williamsburg’s book-lined apartment belonging to a minor Hasidic sect. He cited statistics on antisemitic violence, and suggested that the state should be more concerned with struggling public schools rather than yeshivas.
All of this has fuelled speculation about whether he will receive endorsements from Hasidic organizations that backed Ms. Hochul during the primary.
Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times
Yet, Hasidic leaders are a pragmatic bunch and support ruling Democrats in local elections. They also encourage their followers to follow their lead. Supporting a Republican could be risky for Hasidic leaders who rely on Democrats to serve a community that has some of the highest poverty rates in New York — and who draw some of their power from a perception among politicians that their word moves votes.
Nevertheless, some religious leaders might choose to back Mr. Zeldin, or just remain neutral due to the fact that many Hasidic voters will support the congressman regardless of how they steer them.
Moishe, a leader in Hasidic, stated in a statement that his group has not yet given endorsement to the race. “Governor Hochul has always been a friend of our community and she remains a friend of our community.”