While he didn’t win the race for New York governor last fall, Lee Zelden is largely credited with helping multiple GOP federal and state candidates win in the Empire State, including four U.S. House members.
On Thursday, the Chittenden County Republicans welcomed Zeldin, a former U.S. Congressman, to South Burlington to share his insights on how to win in blue states.
Engage with the voters
“No matter what level of the government you are at, no matter what your position is, you should always be listening to what the voters, the constituents in your area have to say, for and against,” Zeldin told True North in an interview ahead of his speech. “You listen to their arguments, engage them, explain your position.”
He said when implementing public policy it’s important to ask yourself a question: ‘What is going to be the net impact in 5 or 10 years after its implementation?’
“Right now they have a ban in New York on the extraction of natural gas, they will not approve new pipeline applications that are collecting dust,” Zeldin said. “They are proposing a statewide ban on new gas hookups, and regardless of whether or not there’s a lot of noise coming directly at you as a legislator or as a governor, it is your duty to think long-term — 5, 10, 20, 30, years down the road.”
Where was the red wave?
Zeldin said he thought the much-anticipated “red wave” of a Republican takeover of Congress and numerous state offices never materialized because the party wasn’t offering enough solutions — instead it was too focused on the failings of the Democratic Party.
“Republicans did not deserve a red wave nationally,” Zeldin said to the audience. “I don’t blame Democrats for why Republicans did not have a red wave nationally. … Red waves are not created by telling everybody what we are against, it’s about us telling people what we stand for.”
He compared what didn’t happen in 2022 to when the red wave of 1984.
“It was what we stood for that had Americans wanting that; they knew what they were investing in, they knew what they were going to get,” Zeldin said.
Zeldin said he discourages pandering to voters based on their backgrounds.
“It doesn’t work and it should work,” he said to the audience. “But when I was showing up at these Democratic areas that haven’t seen a Republican in a really long time, and they’ll say we need to make these streets where you live safe and here is exactly how we are going to get it done, we need to improve the quality of education inside of your kids’ schools.”
He said emphasizing policy messages rather than pandering to certain groups is key to political success.
More socialism in state government
New York is even bluer than Vermont, with just over 20 percent Republican versus about 30 percent om Vermont. Yet Zeldin helped start a movement that is tangibly having an impact on federal policy thanks to the four New York seats Republicans won in 2022.
“New York leads the entire nation in out-migration,” he said. “We have similar issues between New York and Vermont, with similar people in charge, similar policies. When I was in the state Senate just over a decade ago with 215 state legislators, if I walked up to any state legislator and I accused them of being a socialist, every single one of them would have taken that as a hyperbolic partisan insult.
“Now take a field trip over to Albany and there are a couple of dozen state legislators, if you accuse them of not being a socialist, they will correct you.”
Zeldin added: “There are Democrats in New York who are not happy about the direction of their state. … They are not going to vote for us unless you show up.”