As recent polls show an unexpectedly tightening race, Democrat New York Gov. Kathy Hochul went head-to-head Tuesday night with Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin in their first and only gubernatorial debate before Election Day. With the race close to neck and neck, the election outcome could come down to Tuesday's debate, which primarily focused on crime and abortion access.
The hour-long heated debate at Pace University hosted by Spectrum News featured each candidate hammering the other on their top issues. For Zeldin, those include rising crime, including recent spikes in antisemitic hate crimes, the economy and the state's bail reform laws.
Hochul, on the other hand, highlighted her support for abortion rights, gun reform and the environment. Her campaign frequently labels Zeldin as an extremist for his anti-abortion views and his close alliance with former president Donald Trump, who last week released an endorsement for him.
During the debate, Hochul called Zeldin one of Donald Trump's "strongest and most loyal supporters" who supported the ex-president's bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
She also labeled her opponent a "climate change denier."
"You voted against the Inflation Reduction Act that would have brought more money to protect our environment. I know you're an election denier but also a climate change denier."Gov. Kathy Hochul
"You voted against the Inflation Reduction Act that would have brought more money to protect our environment," Hochul said. "I know you're an election denier but also a climate change denier."
Zeldin shot back by saying Hochul selected Brian Benjamin as her first lieutenant governor – who was forced to resign after he was indicted for alleged campaign finance corruption. Zeldin said Benjamin was the "architect of cashless bail law" when he was a state senator. "That guy who got arrested and had to resign. That was her first big decision to make him the lieutenant governor," Zeldin said.
Cost of living in the Big Apple
With affordable housing another priority for New York voters, the governor said she is providing solutions.
"In Kathy Hochul's New York, you can either have your first kid in the basement of mom and dad's house or you can move to another state."Rep. Lee Zeldin
But Zeldin insisted that New Yorkers should blame Hochul for fast-rising living costs. "In Kathy Hochul's New York, you can either have your first kid in the basement of mom and dad's house or you can move to another state," he said.
Guns and crime
Hochul turned the debate on crime to the GOP stance of gun rights prioritizing gun control.
"It is a joke to talk about a crime policy that doesn't include doing something about illegal guns," she said. "No more school massacres by teenagers. Let's have background checks. Let's have safety checks. Let's do it smart. You are nowhere to be found."
Two weeks until Election Day, race narrows
Exactly two weeks away from midterm elections, Hochul, who was the heavily favored frontrunner throughout much of the race, still leads but with only a slight 50% to her challenger Zeldin’s 46%, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week. The narrowing of the race magnified the importance of Tuesday's debate, which originally Hochul was reluctant to do, according to reports from Zeldin.
Incumbent Hochul, the state's first female governor, replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo after he resigned amidst sexual harassment charges in 2021. If elected, Zeldin, who currently represents Long Island's Suffolk County, would be the state’s first Jewish Republican governor. New York has not had a Republican governor since 2002.