US midterms: Will New York get a Republican Jewish governor?

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Rep. Lee Zeldin would be the state’s first Jewish Republican governor, if elected on November 8.

 NEW YORK Congressman and Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin shakes hands with people during the annual Columbus Day parade in New York City, earlier this month (photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON)
NEW YORK Congressman and Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin shakes hands with people during the annual Columbus Day parade in New York City, earlier this month

The Orthodox Jewish community in New York is turning into a significant factor in the upcoming election for the state’s governor.

With strong “get out the vote” campaigns and influential endorsements, the Orthodox – who represent a sizable segment of the electorate – have contributed significantly to candidate Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin’s surge in polling numbers, unexpectedly turning the race neck and neck.

With less than two weeks until Election Day on November 8, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul still leads, but with only a slight 50% to her Republican challenger’s 46%, according to a Quinnipac University poll released last week. Zeldin gained on the once heavily favored Democratic front-runner, who replaced former governor Andrew Cuomo after he resigned amid sexual harassment charges in 2021.

If elected, Zeldin would be the state’s first Jewish Republican governor. New York has not had a Republican governor since 2002.

Zeldin, one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress, is a longtime ally of Israel and a regular at Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) events. But just weeks prior to the midterm election, he has shifted to position himself in alliance with Orthodox voters who are fed up with New York City’s increased hate crimes and ongoing state attempts to regulate yeshiva schools.

 DEMOCRATIC NEW YORK Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during a New York governor primary debate in New York, earlier this year (credit: CRAIG RUTTLE/REUTERS) DEMOCRATIC NEW YORK Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during a New York governor primary debate in New York, earlier this year (credit: CRAIG RUTTLE/REUTERS)

“Lee Zeldin, by virtue of being Jewish and a pro-Israel stalwart in Congress, has a head start over your typical Republican candidate,” Michael Fragin, New York State Republican Committee senior advisor to the chairman, told The Jerusalem Post. “He puts the Jewish vote in play more than he would normally, by virtue of his track record.”

Sam Markstein, RJC national political director, pointed to the congressman’s recent visit to Brooklyn’s hassidic Borough Park neighborhood.

“The Zeldin campaign has been aggressively courting the Orthodox community over the entirety of the campaign,” Markstein told the Post.

After last month’s New York Times eye-opening piece reported that some hassidic schools, using taxpayer money, are not proving a sufficient secular education, Zeldin began touring yeshivot and pledging to support them.

“New York is wrong for pushing these substantial-equivalency standards,” Zeldin said in a statement. “As governor, I will promote more school choice, not less, and do everything in my power to fight for students first and empower parents to be in control of the family’s destiny in life.”

According to reports of the Borough Park visit, Zeldin, who at the time was still a clear underdog, was greeted enthusiastically by cheering crowds. He promised voters he would not allow government interference in parochial schools, adding that his mother was taught at a yeshiva.

English- and Yiddish-language ads have popped up this month, amplifying Zeldin’s defense of school choice. “They both want our support,” one read, referring to the two candidates. “Only Lee Zeldin stands up to defend us. Only Lee Zeldin is a friend we can rely on.”

On another “get out the vote” visit, Zeldin spent the day in hassidic Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, where he visited the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered leader of Lubavitch Hassidim. In Williamsburg, he cited statistics about antisemitic crime and suggested the state should focus concern on public schools rather that private.

Largest home to Jews outside of Israel

New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, making the Jewish vote imperative to both candidates.

According to PrimeNY, Jews (defined by the group as those with distinctive Jewish surnames) are 14% of the 3.9 million registered voters in New York City. Sixty-three percent of Jewish registered voters are enrolled as Democrats, and 15% as Republicans. Among New York’s Orthodox Jews, however, the balance tilts in the other direction: 57% are Republican or lean Republican, and 36% are Democrats or lean Democratic, according to the Pew Research Center. To beat Democrat Hochul, Zeldin would need a portion of New York Jews to flip and vote Republican.

But even if more New York Jews vote Republican than in previous elections, Democratic groups working closely with Hochul’s campaign say that Zeldin, who earned former president Donald Trump’s endorsement this month, is too extreme of a candidate for the overwhelmingly left-leaning state.

As a member of Congress, Zeldin voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results in two states. Furthermore, the Republican has a long history of antiabortion stances.

Still, Zeldin, whose campaign remains strongest in areas outside Manhattan, may have good reason to think he can flip the vote. Last year, in southern Brooklyn’s District 48, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants – many of them Jewish – helped flip a city council seat for Republicans in a landslide, the first time the seat went red in 100 years. The district has seven-to-one Democrat-to-Republican registration, but Inna Vernikov, a Jewish Democrat turned Republican, won the council seat, representing Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach, known to many as Little Odessa due to the large yet tight-knit Ukrainian population.

Those immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union have increasingly rejected Democrats – even moderates like Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams, for their ties to a party that maintains a small minority of democratic socialists and leftward drift among Democrats they have supported.

“My race has changed a lot about how [Brooklyn] votes,” Vernikov told the Post.

A staunch supporter of Israel and pro-Trump Republican who opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Vernikov ran on promises to restore funding to the New York Police Department, and back merit-based education and school choice.

“My district and even some neighboring districts are for Congressman Zeldin. The Orthodox Jewish community for the most part will vote for Congressman Zeldin,” Vernikov continued. “The Asian community and the Russian-speaking former Soviet Union immigrants also, I would say, are 97% going to vote Zeldin. Former Soviet Union immigrants didn’t vote so much in the past. Now they are focused on politics, and I think that’s an outcome from my city council election.”

Vernikov said the top priorities for Russian-speaking immigrants and Orthodox Jews are crime and inflation. “There’s a lot of national politics involved; people are upset about the direction of the country, and that progressives are shifting to communism.”

Izzy Weiss, an Orthodox resident of Brooklyn just outside of Vernikov’s district, has spent recent months campaigning for Zeldin alongside Councilwoman Vernikov.

Weiss described his “get out the vote” strategy as “door-knocking, getting in people’s faces in supermarkets.”

“What draws me to politics is combating antisemitism, because there aren’t many voices in that arena,” he told the Post. “Jews are getting assaulted. We appeal to the Orthodox community, but we also have canvassers that aren’t Jewish. It’s a mix. Crime impacts everyone.”

LIKE HER opponent, Hochul has long-term close ties with the Jewish community.

“I have been privileged to know Kathy Hochul for a number of years,” Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, told the Post last year when Hochul took over for Cuomo.

“I’ve always been impressed with her willingness to understand the breadth and depth of the Jewish community. She doesn’t attend to just one particular group, but, rather, has a very pluralistic approach, seeking to lead the diverse Jewish community. She’s also always ready to learn about who we are and what we care about. Kathy is an ardent listener; she comes in and takes notes. She doesn’t just impose her views on everyone else. When she says ‘I’ll get back to you,’ she gets back to you. I admire that kind of professionalism. And she understands the challenges of the position.”

Although the board does not endorse candidates, in an August interview Potasnik told the Post, “I was with Gov. Hochul when she signed the Holocaust education bill. I was with her when she stood strongly against antisemitism, following attacks.”

Potasnik recalled that when his father’s generation immigrated to the United States, it was common for Jewish voters to look for Jewish names on the ballot.

“I don’t think this is the case anymore; it’s not enough for a candidate to just be Jewish,” he said.

Communities are thought to often vote as a bloc, which has led politicians to commonly court the haredi Orthodox leadership in Brooklyn and in Rockland and Orange counties.

In June, ahead of the primary, Hochul secured endorsements for her reelection campaign from both sides of the Satmar community, giving her support from a voting bloc with tens of thousands of voters. Two pamphlets in Yiddish circulated endorsing Hochul. One pamphlet went out in the Satmar community led by Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum in Kiryas Joel, and the other went out in Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum’s community in Williamsburg.

Hochul has regularly toured Orthodox day schools and synagogues, fought to increase funding for Holocaust survivors and vetoed a bill that would have ceased housing development in upstate New York’s hassidic community.

As Zeldin gains on Hochul and the race tightens, the congressman received a major endorsement on Tuesday.

The Post obtained a copy of an email sent with the subject line “For NYS residents – An urgent personal message from Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz.” Nojowitz is national director of Torah Umesorah.

“The BAD news is that our children’s chinuch [education] is at stake,” the message begins in red lettering. “The GOOD news is that you can help with your VOTE.

“The Governor of New York state wields tremendous influence on the state Education Department. As governor, KATHY HOCHUL has allowed unchecked the dangerous educational standards to be adopted, threatening our yeshivos, repeatedly rebuffing efforts for meaningful dialogue. Lee Zeldin is strongly opposed to governmental intrusion into our yeshivas and will fight for their independence. Across the board – on issues ranging from decadent morals to inflation, crime, bail reform, etc. – the progressive’s overreaching agenda of identity politics and degenerate morals are an acute threat to our ability to live our lives in New York state as Torah Jews and decent law-abiding citizens in safe communities.”

The message continues: “Even if you do not usually go out and vote, this time please vote! You will be doing no less than protecting our children’s chinuch. On Tuesday, November 8, VOTE LEE ZELDIN.”

Yossi Gestetner, a current events commentator who also runs the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC), applauded voices of influence in the community who are calling on members to vote.

“I see it, and people are responding to it,” he told the Post.

More endorsements will likely come out the first week of November, according to Gestetner.

“The rumblings on the ground suggest that some surprise endorsements may be in the works,” he said.

“Crime and the independence of yeshivas seem to be the most burning issues,” Gestetner told the Post. “The governor dropped, and is still dropping, the ball on violent crime, and more so on yeshivas.”

Gestetner called both candidates “blank slates.”

“Gov. Hochul is on her job for only 14 months, while most Orthodox Jews don’t have Zeldin [who represents Suffolk County] as their congressman.”

Despite more endorsements to come, Gestetner added that “some people in leadership will sit this one out. [Some don’t want to] oppose an incumbent, but also not to back her after the mess with yeshivas,” he said.

Weiss urges all New Yorkers to cast a ballot on November 8, regardless of party.

“The goal here is to get every single person to vote on issues that matter,” he said. “It doesn’t even matter what party they are affiliated with or if they have a party affiliation. Whether it’s crime, inflation, education, any of that is great.”

Weiss expressed optimism that voter turnout will be high.

“If you’re a one-issue voter, whatever that may be, vote,” he continued. “The feeling on the ground is that crime, in general, is the driving force behind people who have never before voted, who used to staunchly sit out elections, and are now going to the polls.”