A shooting that wounded two teenagers on the property of Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor of New York, was a disturbing development in a campaign that has seen him hammer Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul over public safety and a controversial bail reform law enacted more than three years ago.
The random incident Sunday afternoon outside his Long Island house – his two 16-year-old daughters were inside, terrified but uninjured – provided Zeldin with an opportunity, however personally unwelcome, to sharpen his message on an issue for which concerns cross party lines and potential solutions have often defied typical partisan divides.
“This is day after day after day,” Zeldin told Fox News on Monday. “And there are a lot of parents, there are a lot of families, dealing with this reality of rising crime in New York. For us, fortunately, my daughters knew exactly how to respond. But listen, they were just sitting there at the kitchen table doing homework and bullets started going off all around them.”
An ally of former President Donald Trump, Zeldin has mostly run a one-issue campaign focused on crime and his criticism of the 2019 Democratic-led enactment of a bail reform law that made it more difficult for judges to keep some suspects behind bars. The law has been amended twice, but Republicans and some Democrats have pushed for more substantial revisions. While the backlash is real, Zeldin’s ability to parlay it into a winning message remains in doubt. He has struggled to break through with voters in deep-blue New York and Hochul has used his opposition to new gun restrictions to undermine his “soft on crime” attacks.
Zeldin entered the general election at a clear disadvantage. There are more than twice as many registered Democrats in New York as Republicans, whose party has been hollowed out by a generation of cascading defeats. The last GOP victory in a statewide election came in 2002, when Gov. George Pataki won his third term in office. Hochul, nominally an incumbent after replacing disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo following his resignation last year amid a sexual harassment scandal, has distanced herself from her predecessor, but not the state’s Democratic donor apparatus, and has trounced Zeldin in fundraising.
Zeldin has employed familiar GOP attacks against Hochul over the economy and inflation, but like other Republicans around the country, he sees an opening on the criminal justice front. Last November, months after he entered the GOP primary, Republicans won a pair of district attorney races in the New York City suburbs. In Nassau County, the incumbent Democratic executive was also unseated by a Republican. The backlash to bail reform played a central role in GOP messaging in those races.
Zeldin has followed that roadmap. Perhaps, some critics suggest, too closely for a candidate whose path to an upset win requires a strong performance in the suburbs and upstate, but also a significant dent in the blue wall of New York City.
For her part, Hochul has largely focused her broadsides against Zeldin on his ties to Trump and his opposition to abortion rights. (Zeldin has said he would not seek to change state law guaranteeing access to the procedure.) When pressed on the bail reform law, Hochul has pointed to the amendments passed by the legislature.
Zeldin’s efforts to make hay over the controversy has been hamstrung by cash woes. Short on money, he turned to Trump for a fundraiser in early September. The event netted Zeldin’s campaign a reported $1.5 million but underscored a fundamental conundrum – Trump, and his wing of the Republican Party, are crucial drivers of campaign funds, but close public ties to them can be self-defeating in a state the former President lost by 23 points in 2020.
“I don’t think Zeldin is in an impossible situation. In fact, I think he’s going to do better than expected,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “But the campaign has been totally negative, hasn’t presented any positive reasons for supporting him. He says nothing about his record in prior offices. He says nothing about issues other than to attack. At some point, he has to explain why he’s a desirable alternative to Hochul.”
Zeldin has found an unwilling ally of sorts in New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who, though he endorsed Hochul, has pilloried the state’s bail reform law and demanded lawmakers hold a special session in Albany to further restrict rules over pretrial detention. His ask was rejected.
But Zeldin and Adams break sharply on gun violence, with the mayor – along with Hochul – pushing for stricter regulations on firearms. Zeldin criticized a new round of gun control measures passed in Albany and signed by Hochul this past summer that sought to circumvent a recent Supreme Court decision striking down some restrictions on concealed carry outside the home.
“I think we need to separate a law-abiding New Yorker who wants to safely and securely carry a firearm for, solely, their self-defense and the criminals who want to carry firearms illegally and commit offense after offense after offense, harming others, and then because of the system in New York, they end up back on the street,” Zeldin told Fox News in an interview from early July.
A federal court last week blocked enforcement of large chunks of the law. The ruling is being appealed by the state attorney general’s office.
Early Sunday evening, Hochul tweeted a conciliatory note in response to the incident involving Zeldin’s family.
“I’ve been briefed on the shooting outside of Congressman Zeldin’s home. As we await more details, I’m relieved to hear the Zeldin family is safe and grateful for law enforcement’s quick response,” Hochul said from her campaign’s Twitter account.
The shooting marked the second time Zeldin has been thrust into the headlines by an act of violence. The first came over the summer, when a man wielding a sharp object accosted him onstage at a campaign event near Rochester. Zeldin was not hurt, and the alleged attacker was promptly subdued and arrested.
Asked about the shooting on Monday, Hochul reiterated to reporters that her office had “sent our message right away” that the state police would be made available if desired to aid in the investigation.
“It’s a reminder, we all have to work together to get guns off the streets,” she added. “And so I will continue, as I’ve been on this journey as governor, to do everything we can to ensure that our streets are safe. That is one of my highest priorities.”