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State GOP settling in on Zeldin to challenge Cuomo for governor

WBFO file photo/Karen DeWitt

The next New York gubernatorial election is still nearly a year and a half away, but state Republicans are already trying to get behind a single candidate who they hope has a chance of winning in an increasingly blue state.

Republicans, who have not won a statewide election in nearly 20 years, are energized by the multiple scandals that are weakening current Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo is facing allegations of sexual harassment and an investigation by the state’s attorney general, as well as a federal probe into how he and his top aides handled nursing home policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also accused of improperly using staff to help him write a memoir that earned him $5.1 million.

Cuomo, who denies that he did anything wrong, has made it clear that he does not intend to resign and has not changed his plans to seek a fourth term.

But state Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy sees an opportunity. Langworthy on Thursday stood outside the State Capitol, where earlier an HBO film crew had staged scenes for an upcoming series about the Watergate burglary in 1972, an incident that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

“The real scandal is happening in these buildings,” Langworthy said, gesturing to the State Capitol complex behind him. “And it’s happening as we speak right now.”

Several Republican candidates have already announced their intention to run for governor, including Andrew Giuliani, the son of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and personal lawyer to former President Donald Trump. Also running are Lewis County Sheriff Michael Carpinelli and Rob Astorino, the 2014 Republican candidate for governor and former Westchester County executive.

Langworthy said it’s a positive sign for the party that multiple candidates have begun making campaign swings through New York and talking about why Cuomo should be replaced. But he said the GOP county chairs will meet in Albany on June 28 to try to agree on one candidate to face a Democratic opponent.

“We are going to move forward, try to coalesce around a single candidacy,” Langworthy said. “And build the strongest ticket we’ve had since 1994.”

That’s the year Republican George Pataki defeated the current governor’s father, Mario Cuomo.

Langworthy appears to be favoring Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, 41, who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and was a state senator before his election to the House of Representatives.

“Lee Zeldin’s established himself as a front-runner,” Langworthy said. “He has amassed a lot of support and has raised a lot of funds.”

Zeldin has raised $2.5 million.

Any Republican candidate would face obstacles in a state that has a large Democratic Party enrollment advantage that has nearly doubled in size since 2002, the last time a GOP candidate won a statewide office.

Zeldin is closely aligned with Trump, a polarizing figure who is unpopular among the largely Democratic voters in New York City. The congressman objected to the official certification of the 2020 election of Democrat Joe Biden on Jan. 6, but he did eventually acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency.

Langworthy said the June 28 vote will be nonbinding, and the official nominating convention will not occur until February or March. But he said he does not think the party leaders will greatly alter their opinions in the next several months.

In a statement, Astorino's campaign spokesman said the candidate isn't giving up, even if party leaders choose Zeldin.

Spokesman Phil Oliva said it was clear early on that the “party establishment had a preferred candidate.” He said Astorino is prepared to petition his way onto the primary ballot next June, and he believes Astorino has the best chance of winning voters in Westchester and in New York City.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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