For months, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York has trusted that the state’s strong Democratic majority would keep her in office largely on the strength of a simple message: Her Republican opponent was too close to Donald J. Trump and would roll back abortion rights.
But just two weeks before Election Day, a rapidly tightening contest has Ms. Hochul racing to expand her closing argument as Democrats warily concede they may have misjudged powerful fears driving the electorate, particularly around crime.
In just the last few days, Ms. Hochul stood with Mayor Eric Adams to announce a new flood of police officers into New York City subways; she visited five Harlem churches to assure stalwart Black voters she was “laser-focused” on safety; and she highlighted new statistics showing that authorities were seizing more guns under her watch.
“We believe in justice, the justice that Jesus teaches us, but it’s also about safety,” Ms. Hochul said at one of her stops in Harlem. “We are laser-focused on keeping you, your children and your grandchildren safe.”
Her campaign has begun recalibrating its paid message, too, shifting the focus of millions of dollars in ad spending to highlight the governor’s efforts to stoke the economy and improve public safety, notably including a package of modest changes to the state’s bail laws that has divided her party. The spots trumpeting her record will run alongside a new ad tying Mr. Zeldin to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Anxious Democrats are hopeful that the changes can stabilize the governor’s campaign after weeks of increasingly shaky polls that show Ms. Hochul’s lead dwindling to single digits over Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican.
The narrowing margin tracks closely with recent surveys showing that fears about public safety and inflation have eclipsed abortion and the former president as make-or-break issues for voters, eroding Democrats’ support even in liberal enclaves like New York City and its suburbs, while rewarding candidates like Mr. Zeldin who have made crime the visceral centerpiece of their campaign.
“Maybe it was the right thing to do at the time,” David A. Paterson, the former Democratic governor, said of the decision by Democrats to spend precious time and money messaging on abortion rights this summer.
“But these times, meaning September and October,” he continued, “really call for more conversation about what we do with convicted felons, what we do with the judges’ capacity to assess dangerousness, and obviously what we do with a significant number of people with mental illness walking the streets right now.”
Those issues are all but certain to figure prominently in the first and only televised debate between Ms. Hochul, 64, and Mr. Zeldin, 42, on Tuesday night.
Certainly, Ms. Hochul remains the favorite in the race, and her campaign has tried to calm jittery allies. She has a vast fund-raising advantage, passable approval ratings and a two-to-one registration advantage statewide for Democrats over Republicans. While several polls last week showed a tight race, a Siena College survey from that period showed the governor still up by 11 points.
“There is no question that the national environment has gotten tougher for Democrats in the last few weeks,” said Jefrey Pollock, Ms. Hochul’s pollster. “We are focused on making sure that every Democrat understands the stakes and votes. When Democrats vote in New York, we win.”
But for Democrats who are not accustomed to close statewide races in New York, some level of panic appears to be setting in — that Mr. Zeldin could flip Black, Latino and Asian voters worried about public safety, but also that other rank-and-file Democratic voters may simply sit the race out because of apathy about Ms. Hochul and her low-key campaign.
“It doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of groundswell from the bottom up,” Crystal Hudson, a left-leaning Brooklyn City Council member. “Perhaps Democrats are taking for granted that New York state is bluer than we think it might be.”
In Manhattan, the borough president, Mark D. Levine, said he, too, had grown increasingly concerned in recent weeks that Democratic voters were missing the warning signs. On Sunday, he put together a rally with more than a dozen elected Democrats on the ultraliberal Upper West Side to “wake up Dems.” The event turned raucous when hecklers, some wearing Zeldin garb, tried to derail the speakers.
“There hasn’t been a seriously competitive statewide election in 20 years and Democrats certainly in Manhattan and elsewhere have been taking November on autopilot,” Mr. Levine said afterward. “It’s not an exaggeration to say we can’t win statewide unless we get Democrats in Manhattan excited to vote.”
The stakes have only grown in recent weeks amid a massive outside spending campaign by a handful of ultrawealthy conservative donors seeking to capitalize on the public safety debate to damage Ms. Hochul.
Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, put more than $9 million into a pair of pro-Zeldin super PACs at the start of September, almost single-handedly bankrolling statewide television ads that savage Ms. Hochul’s record on public safety. Just on Friday, one of the PACs reported new contributions totaling $750,000 — a sum that would take even Ms. Hochul, a prolific fund-raiser, days to raise from scores of donors — from a shell company that appears to be tied to Thomas Tisch, an investor from one of New York’s richest families.
New York is not the only state dealing with increases in certain crimes since the onset of the pandemic, and the reality is more nuanced than Republicans would suggest. As Ms. Hochul likes to point out, the state remains safer than some far smaller, many run by Republicans.
But a rash of highly visible, violent episodes on the subways and on well-to-do street corners around the state in recent months have left many New Yorkers with at least the perception that parts of the state are growing markedly less safe.
In Ms. Hochul’s 14 months as governor, she has taken a nuanced approach to public safety issues. She has meaningfully tightened the state’s gun laws. She and Mr. Adams have pledged more money for mental health services for disturbed people who commit crimes. And she has initiated plans to put cameras in every subway car. Under pressure from Mr. Adams, a former police captain, Ms. Hochul used the state’s annual budget to strengthen bail restrictions and tighten rules for repeat offenders, over the objections of some more left-leaning colleagues.
“He doesn’t own the crime issue,” Ms. Hochul said in an interview on Sunday about Mr. Zeldin. “Saying that more people should have guns on our streets and in our subways and in our churches as a strategy to deal with public safety — that’s absurd.”
But until very recently, she had relatively little to say about it in the general election campaign, outside of criticizing Mr. Zeldin’s opposition to many gun control measures, and a single Spanish-language ad focused on Ms. Hochul’s gun policies.
That omission has left some moderate Democrats fearing that the party has ceded the terms of the debate to Republicans like Mr. Zeldin, who have decried legislative attempts by the Democrats to make the system fairer as “pro-criminal” laws.
After Ms. Hochul and Mr. Adams announced on Saturday that the state would pay for more police officers in the subways, Mr. Zeldin pilloried the plan as little more than a political gimmick.
His own campaign platform calls for firing the Manhattan district attorney and declaring a state of emergency to temporarily repeal the state’s cashless bail laws, and other criminal justice laws enacted by the Democrat-run Legislature.
“For Kathy Hochul, it wasn’t the nine subway deaths that drove her to action. It wasn’t a 25-year-high in subway crime. It wasn’t New Yorkers feeling unsafe on our streets, on our subways and in their homes,” he said on Sunday. “For Kathy Hochul, all it took for her to announce a half-ass, day-late, dollar-short plan was a bad poll.”
The challenge for Ms. Hochul in shifting that narrative was on clear display on Sunday, as she shuttled up and down Harlem to speak at five different Black churches, usually a hotbed of Democratic support.
At the first stop, Mount Neboh Baptist Church, the Rev. Johnnie Melvin Green Jr. gave a full-throated, personal endorsement of the governor from the pulpit, but he sounded alarmed about low turnout and the state of the race.
Without naming Mr. Zeldin, the reverend warned that certain people had “hijacked” the public’s understanding of what was happening in the city, leading to “a race that shouldn’t be tight.”
“I want to make something crystal clear because they aren’t going to explain it to you in the media,” he said, adding: “They want to make us afraid.”
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