Tuesday’s third and final New York gubernatorial debate devolved into a round of finger-pointing over conservative cred as putative frontrunner Rep. Lee Zeldin insisted he was the best choice to defeat Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul this fall.
“On this stage you just have people who keep losing,” Zeldin said near the end of the hour-long Rochester slugfest hosted by Newsmax. “They say, ‘Well, I lost. It was really close in this race. It was really close when I lost in this race and it was really close where I lost this race.’”
“People who are paying attention, are scared for the future of this state, they’re hitting their breaking point,” Zeldin added. “They want to back a winner, and they will when they vote for me” in the June 28 primary.
Zeldin’s attack appeared to be aimed directly at businessman Harry Wilson and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, both of whom argued they have special appeal to general election voters — despite a losing record at the ballot box.
It was one of the few moments of friction in a debate where the four candidates largely agreed on hot-button issues like rising crime, inflation, critical race theory and firing controversial Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg – as they did in Monday night’s debate hosted by Spectrum News.
Wilson – a relative moderate – was the GOP nominee for state comptroller in 2010 and lost to Democratic incumbent Tom DiNapoli.
Winning over suburban Westchester Democrats was key to Astorino’s two successful campaigns for county executive in 2009 and 2013.
But Zeldin noted Tuesday that Astorino subsequently lost a 2014 bid for governor, a 2017 campaign to win back the county exec seat, and a 2020 election for state Senate.
“I’ve now won seven consecutive races. Rob Astorino lost three consecutive races for three different offices,” Zeldin said. “I got reelected [to the state Senate in 2012], and that’s in a Senate district that has more Democrats than Republicans.”
Former White House staffer Andrew Giuliani – who appeared on stage in person Tuesday night after participating virtually in the first two debates due to not being vaccinated against COVID-19 – has never run for elected office, and Newsmax moderator Eric Bolling suggested at one point that the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would have never made it to the debate stage if not for his famous last name.
“Most of your campaign materials say Giuliani for Governor. One word is missing: Andrew,” Bolling said.
But Zeldin was the focus of most of the attacks, with his rivals reiterating accusations that he was too close to now-disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his four-year tenure in the state Senate.
“Unfortunately, it was people in the State Senate in New York, in Albany, like Lee Zeldin, who were voting for the Cuomo budgets the entire time that got us to this point.” Astorino said while pivoting away from a question on inflation.
Zeldin has led most polling in the race while building edges over his opponents in fundraising and endorsements, including recent backing by The Post Editorial Board.
His rivals sought to score a knockout blow in the three televised debates by attacking his past comments where he praised Cuomo, while suggesting he was not sufficiently supportive of former President Donald Trump.
“This is a guy who, a couple years ago, said that President Trump made racist statements, and lied to you last night, ladies and gentlemen. Unfortunately, he’s going to flip and flop,” Giuliani said in reference to a CNN clip that he posted Monday night.
“It [was] actually selectively edited. What I had stated and what I was doing in that interview was that I said that ‘President Trump was not a racist’ and this CNN host kept trying to get me to admit to it and I said, ‘He’s not a racist.’ And that’s unfortunate,” Zeldin said in response.
“Andrew was right, you know, what we’ve seen with Lee, over the years … he gets very defensive,” Astorino needled.