Kathy Hochul suddenly found herself the governor of New York after the surprise resignation of Andrew Cuomo on August 10, 2021. Cuomo had rose to national stardom for his soothing, daily COVID lockdown broadcast but suffered an equally meteoric fall from grace with the build up of sexual harrassment and assault allegations. Hochul, a moderate upstate New York politician who had served for decades in relative obscurity, found herself in the national spotlight. Her status as a scandal-free, hardworking, Great Lakes–accented upstate public servant was in stark contrast to Cuomo’s hypermasculine, bullying personality. She also was New York’s first female governor and claimed that her inauguration signaled a new era in Albany.
As a result, Hochul enjoyed decent approval ratings for her early months in office. Yet the veneer of the ethical girl boss began to fade as Governor Hochul’s tenure continued.
Despite her rhetoric of a “new era of transparency,” journalists uncovered legal but ethically dubious practices, such as granting multimillion-dollar state contracts to large donors, accepting donations from political appointees, and a contract allowing Delaware North, a food concession company where her husband serves as general counsel, to be food concession and visitor’s center operator at Niagara Falls state park. Hochul’s lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, resigned in disgrace in April 2022 when federal prosecutors unveiled his illegal campaign fundraising practices.
In addition, rather than being a technocratic executive, Hochul was willing to make decisions based on political expediency against her own policy beliefs. In a move that infuriated her own party members, as Democratic state senate and assembly members fiercely defended their 2019 bail reforms (which included eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies), Hochul included bail reform rollbacks in her 2022 Executive Budget.
In her own words, in a New York Daily News op-ed coauthored with former Lieutenant Governor Benjamin, Hochul wrote “Still, since the law was passed, we have seen a distressing increase in shootings and homicides. The data does not, however, suggest that bail reform is the main cause. . . . Blaming bail reform for the increase in violence that cities across America are facing isn’t fair and isn’t supported by the data.”
Yet despite this appeal to reason and data, Hochul then went on to argue for a rollback of bail reform, claiming that judges needed more discretion especially in cases of repeat offenders and illegal firearms. Hochul did use reform language like “holistic approaches” and mental health care, but her main pivot was the acceptance of a punitive law-and-order approach to crime and violence.
By politicizing and fueling right-wing rhetoric about crime, public safety, and rolling back criminal justice reform, Hochul now finds herself in a different place. Current polling shows Hochul leading the Donald Trump–associated Republican candidate, Lee Zeldin, by a mere seven points. In contrast, the months of June-August, immediately before and following Hochul’s primary victory, the governor polled eighteen percentage points ahead of the Republican challenger.
As a “deep blue” state, one of the few states with a Democratic trifecta, Hochul should be comfortably ahead in this race. In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden won 59-39 against Trump in New York, according to official results by the Board of Elections. So why has Kathy Hochul’s support tanked?
Hochul’s recent TV ad for the general election, released on October 21, continues Hochul’s contradictory position as a “reasonable law-and-order candidate” by centering the right-wing fears politicized and made salient by right-wing narratives. The ad discusses the importance of safe walks home at night and safe subway rides, centering the boogeyman of urban violence and fear. Yet Hochul has done almost no visible campaigning in New York City, with no mass events, very little visibility, and according to an unscientific review of my friends and neighbors (who are triple prime voters), zero mailers urging voters to turn out and vote on election day for Hochul.
New York City and surrounding areas are Democratic strongholds and her natural base. Failing to engage with this population seems like a repeat of earlier campaign flubs, like Hillary Clinton’s refusal to campaign in Wisconsin and Michigan. In the public events where Hochul does show up in New York City, these events focus on her support for more police on the streets and highlight her work on gun violence. She also has run TV ads comparing Zeldin to Trump.
The Hochul campaign provides no compelling reasons for Democrats to turn out and vote on election day, as her campaign messaging is a defense against Republican talking points, as well as the tried-and-true failed strategy to say “Trump” over and over again to discredit a Republican challenger. But you cannot out Republican a Republican. Terry McAuliffe, despite his incumbent status, was not able to stave off the challenge of Glenn Youngkin by emphasizing his ties to Trump. In 2022, the effectiveness of using Trump to delegitimize New York Republicans is clearly not working either, despite Hochul spending her millions on such a television ad.
Hochul needs a positive political vision that speaks to the needs of New Yorkers to defeat the law-and-order fearmongering of Zeldin. An appeal to our many unmet needs — the cuts to our education budgets, the failure to invest in renewable energy, lack of universal health care coverage, economic insecurity, rising rents and a holes in tenant protections, a looming recession — could change the discussion and bring voters to polls. But for now, Hochul is repeating the mistakes of overly confident Democrats who have suffered surprise losses before.