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New York Republicans Head for Gubernatorial Primary

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/17/2021 Jimmy Vielkind
Lee Zeldin, Rob Astorino are posing for a picture © From left: Ting Shen/AP; John Minchillo/AP

New York Republicans are heading for their first gubernatorial primary in more than a decade next year after former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino last week joined U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin in formally declaring a bid.

It could soon become a three-way contest: Andrew Giuliani, a White House aide in the Trump administration and the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has engaged campaign staff and said he would make an announcement about his own potential bid by this week. A spokesman for Mr. Giuliani declined to comment.

The interest this year is in contrast to 2018, when GOP leaders scrambled to find a standard-bearer and didn’t settle on a full slate of statewide candidates until their party convention. The last Republican primary for governor occurred in 2010.

Mr. Zeldin, of Suffolk County, has won endorsements from county chairs representing a majority of the weighted votes of the Republican and Conservative parties. A campaign spokeswoman said he has already raised $2.5 million for his campaign, and New York Republican State Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy described him as the front-runner for the nomination after a party meeting last month.

The field has shifted since that forum, where Messrs. Astorino, Giuliani and Zeldin pitched party leaders in Albany on their viability as candidates. U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, who represents the North Country, was elevated to chair of the House Republican conference Friday. She is no longer considering a gubernatorial bid in 2022, an aide said.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who led the Republican ticket in 2018, is weighing another gubernatorial bid as well as a campaign for Congress in 2022. A spokesman said Friday he was still considering his options.

Both Messrs. Zeldin and Astorino, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014, said they believed three-term Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo is vulnerable next year. Mr. Cuomo is under investigation for accusations that he sexually harassed women who worked for him, as well as for the state’s Covid-19 policies for nursing homes.

The governor has said he did nothing wrong, and that the state’s nursing-home policies were crafted to preserve hospital capacity during the height of the pandemic. He has previously said he would seek a fourth term and rebuffed calls from fellow Democrats to resign amid the scandals.

Mr. Zeldin said he would roll back recent policies enacted by Democrats, including an income-tax increase, new benefits for undocumented immigrants and a law that restricted the use of cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses. He said the effects of full Democratic control of state government will make Republicans appealing to moderate New York voters.

He said he wasn’t sure a primary would be helpful, but he was confident in his position. “We are not going to slow down. And this is the lowest gear that is in the arsenal,” Mr. Zeldin said.

Mr. Astorino said he would forge ahead despite the endorsements that Mr. Zeldin has secured. He outlined a similar platform and said he would again push for allowing a limited amount of natural-gas hydrofracking to spur economic development. The Cuomo administration hasn’t permitted the practice, citing environmental concerns.

“Some in the establishment want to not have teams take the field, and yet it’s the first inning of the first game of a double-header,” Mr. Astorino said. “A primary is good in that our Republican principles and issues are going to get the spotlight for a year.”

It will still be a battle for the GOP: There are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans in the state, and Mr. Cuomo had a $16.8 million war chest as of January.

Democratic Party leaders have attacked Republicans seeking state offices—including Mr. Astorino during an unsuccessful run for state Senate—by associating them with former President Donald Trump, who polls have shown is viewed negatively by a majority of New Yorkers.

A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo declined to comment.

ASSEMBLY BONDING: After a series of contentious virtual discussions about the state budget and whether to impeach Mr. Cuomo, Democrats who dominate the state Assembly gathered at the Capitol earlier this month with a lighter task: getting to know each other.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, organized two nights of in-person gatherings so members could socialize—and meet the 19 members who joined the body this year.

On one night, members presented objects or images of things from their districts in a show-and-tell session, several participants said. On a second night, members played trivia.

“It was more about meeting and melding of newer and more established members that we really haven’t had an opportunity to do,” said Assemblyman John McDonald, an Albany County Democrat who showed off a picture of the Cohoes Falls.

Longtime members of the house said the inability to gather in person as a result of the pandemic has frayed relations among members. They said Mr. Heastie was upset when a recording of internal deliberations was leaked to the news media in March, and when members attacked each other on social media.

A spokesman for Mr. Heastie said virtual meetings were no substitute for face-to-face interactions. He said the recent sessions were productive and were a prelude to in-person conference meetings.

THE QUESTION: What is the nickname for the city of Cohoes, which sits at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers?

— Know the answer? Send me an email!

THE LAST ANSWER: Kingston was the first capital of New York state.

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at Jimmy.Vielkind@wsj.com

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