ALBANY — Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-Suffolk County has the early momentum in the jockeying to become the GOP nominee for governor, signaling Friday he has raised more than $1 million in the first day of his campaign.

But whether the Republicans coalesce behind Zeldin or one of the other potential GOP contestants, party activists are acutely aware Democrats will try to cast the election as a referendum on former President Donald Trump. In last November’s statewide balloting, President Joe Biden took 60% of the New York vote, continuing a run by Democrats here in presidential years that began in 1988.

In the North Country, Biden succeeded in flipping Essex County, where Trump prevailed four years earlier in defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton. In Western New York, Trump maintained his strength in Niagara County, which he won in 2016, flipping it to red after former President Barack Obama won it in 2012 and 2008.

To win statewide in 2021, some GOP supporters say they have two objectives: construct a statewide slate of competitive candidates, with no sacrificial lambs in the mix; and avoid a rough-and-tumble primary, using the next 19 months to tune up for the main event on Nov. 8, 2022.

“A primary would be detrimental,” said former Otsego County Republican Chairman Vincent Casale. “It would force us to focus on issues that are not on the minds of voters. We need to focus on the horrendous financial position the state is in. We need to talk about the impacts of one-party rule in New York. We need to talk about how people in nursing homes could have been better protected and were left to die by our state government.”

Much as Democrats are expected to inject Trump into the political discourse at every opportunity, Republicans are set to unload on Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Now in the latter half of his third term in Albany, the Democratic governor has been staggered by a loss of support from several senior leaders of his party, including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins

In addition, the National Organization for Women and more than 130 state lawmakers are calling on Cuomo to resign in the wake of sexual harassment and abusive treatment allegations from nine women. Cuomo is also facing a federal criminal probe into the undercount of nursing home deaths during the pandemic.

While no other Democrat has gone public with plans to run for governor, party activists say they expect Attorney General Letitia James would likely pursue the office should Cuomo, who is also facing an impeachment inquiry, not seek re-election.

On the GOP side, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-North Country, and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, defeated by Cuomo in 2018, have both left the door open to a possible run for governor.

Republican hopefuls who were supportive of Trump’s agenda, such as Zeldin, would face a steep uphill climb in a statewide race, and would likely get clobbered in New York City, said veteran Democratic strategist George Arzt.

A moderate from the mold of the late Nelson Rockefeller, who rose to vice president after winning four terms as governor, would be better positioned to resonate with New York voters, especially one willing to voice difference with Trump, Arzt contended.

“I think Cuomo could beat any of the Republican names out there, and I think Tish James could beat any of the Republicans you hear being discussed,” he said.

He suggested the Democratic party’s voter enrollment growth in recent decades gives it a “built in advantage” over candidates the Republicans may field.

Both the state Democratic and Republican parties are expected to have their state nominating conventions in May 2022.

Cuomo’s political and legal difficulties could spawn a wide field of candidates interested in his job, similar to what happened in 2018 when four Democrats competed for their party’s nod for attorney general following the abrupt resignation of Eric Schneiderman in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal.

For the GOP, party cohesion could be a tall order in the aftermath of Trump, said veteran Democratic campaign operative Leslie Berliant.

Based in Otsego County, Berliant said numerous conservative candidates are challenging incumbent Republican incumbents for local government offices, suggesting Trump supporters are out of sync with moderates, creating a fissure for the GOP.

She also contended a staunchly conservative Republican would have a hard time getting traction in New York.

As for traction, Kassar said any candidate has to have it in order to raise money, with fundraising prowess being one of the Achilles heels for GOP nominees defeated by Cuomo.

“You don’t raise money, you can’t get the traction; and you don’t get the traction, you don’t raise money,” said Kassar, suggesting Cuomo had been projected by many as invincible.

But the dynamic has changed dramatically in recent weeks, leaving Zeldin able to rake in donations at such a pace he could easily have $2 million on hand in another week, Kassar said.

In Cooperstown, Casale, who was involved in Molinaro’s run three years ago, said the GOP is already a full year ahead of where it was then in terms of organizational preparedness.

“Serious conversations” are taking place among party leaders now about constructing the strongest ticket possible, he added.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jgmahoney31@gmail.com.

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