The rising cost of housing. Income inequality. Household expenses skyrocketing. Affordability. 

Typically, these are talking points for Democrats running for office. But GOP candidates across the country are seizing on households’ financial distress to make their case to voters across the political spectrum — and Republicans running to be governor of New York are no exception.

While normally appeals across party lines come to the fore in a general election, Republicans vying for governor have been hammering on the theme of working class economic pain well ahead of the June 28 primary. 

“This is something that we’ve been talking about for quite a while now, but the climate hasn’t aligned in such a way that has resonated to the voters,” said Jessica Proud, a Republican strategist and spokesperson for the state’s Republican Party. “Gas prices and inflation are exacerbating that, but New York has been increasingly unaffordable for many years now.” 

With the average cost of gas in New York reaching $5 a gallon, and the price of goods up nearly 11% since last May as inflation continues to rise and soaring rents, the four Republican gubernatorial candidates pitched their plan to New Yorkers on the debate stage Monday night on how they would ease the financial burden for Empire State residents. 

While the debate hosted by CBS2 was mostly a referendum on fealty to another Republican who once called New York home, Donald Trump, the candidates have been touring the state offering salves for New Yorkers feeling their bank accounts dwindle. 

“We will make sure that New York is more affordable for everybody because nobody, nobody can afford it anymore. The middle class, the working class, they’re getting clobbered every single day,” said Rob Astorino, a former Westchester County executive who’s running again for governor. 

“This year is going to be revenge of the normal people,” Astorino asserted.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino in 2016. Credit: a katz/Shutterstock

The other candidates running are Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-L.I.), who is leading in the polls, Westchester-based businessman Harry Wilson, and Andrew Giuliani, son of former mayor and Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani.

‘The Elephant in the Room’

The 2016 presidential election ushered in a new era for the Republican Party — moving away from the notion that it’s the political party of the wealthy and “toward a populist tone,” said Proud. Trump gained significant support from union households — historically Democratic bastions — in his 2016 and 2020 runs. 

Taking their cue from Trump, the New York candidates are channeling blue collar workers’ antipathy towards the elite establishment, in a state where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office.

But Trump didn’t just lose in 2020. His fight to falsely claim he had in fact won the election played into the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and mob invasion of the U.S. Capitol, now center stage in televised House investigation hearings. Even as the candidates for governor boast of their fealty to Trump and accuse opponents of breaking the faith in the days before primary voting begins, they’re also pivoting to broaden their appeal ahead of the general election.

Echoing another past Republican president, Ronald Reagan, all four Republicans vying in the June 28 primary agree on cutting taxes to help financially strapped New Yorkers. Some are also proposing business-friendly approaches to addressing some of the issues Democrats have long claimed as their own, from affordable housing to renewable energy.

No Republican can become governor of New York without persuading large numbers of Democrats and unaffiliated voters to embrace them. Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one, and New York has slightly more voters not registered with any party than the 2.8 million registered with the GOP. 

“Unfortunately, the elephant in the room is we don’t have enrollment advantage, so we have to cross party lines,” said one longtime Republican strategist speaking on background. 

A Widespread Problem

As part of his pitch to lower utility costs, Astorino, making his second run for governor, sometimes sounds more like a liberal Democrat. He has been pushing to increase New York’s solar and wind energy production, as well as nuclear energy and “safely drilling” for natural gas. 

But he puts another kind of green ahead of helping the environment: Astorino told THE CITY he is also opposed to congestion pricing and in favor of removing speed and red light cameras that ticket drivers.

“All they do is bash the middle class and the working class over the head and it’s only going to get worse. So these are things that we’ve got to reverse course and give them real meaningful relief to people because they can’t afford the basics in life right now, let alone the luxuries,” he said. 

It’s not a topic unfamiliar to Astorino. During his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, he railed against the high cost of living in New York, which he said contributed to people leaving the state in droves. Now, with the state’s population continuing to slip, he quips that he was “ahead of my time.” 

Some of the GOP messaging has gained steam among Democrats. 

Last November, Zeldin launched a state tour highlighting high gas prices and urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to suspend taxes at the pump. 

Five months later, the Democratic-controlled state Legislature proceeded to adopt a more limited rollback, as part of the state budget. Localities can, if they choose, suspend up to 16 cents per gallon until the end of the year. 

His campaign did not respond to requests for comment. 

Meanwhile, Wilson — a former Republican candidate for state comptroller in 2010 and Obama administration advisor — is in favor of easing some regulations on products made in New York, such as dairy. 

“Obviously a lot of the root causes of inflation are driven by macro policies out of Washington. We can’t do much about that. All we can do is reduce the cost of living elsewhere and the things that are driven by Albany regulatory policy to help offset that inflation,” Wilson told THE CITY. 

While all candidates in this week’s debate voiced their support for the Second Amendment as pressure builds to regulate assault rifles in the wake of the mass killings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, Wilson also picked up on another increasingly popular GOP response: promoting mental health services to help prevent mass gun violence.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Rob Astorino, Harry Wilson, Rep. Lee Zeldin and Andrew Giuliani debated on Monday night, June 13, 2022. Credit: Screengrab/CBS News New York

Wilson is also seizing on the rising cost of housing as a theme — though he would respond with more building, in contrast to a proposal from the left of the Democratic party to regulate rents statewide.

Rent for an apartment in Johnstown, where Wilson grew up some 45 miles northwest of Albany, costs just as much if not more now than his first apartment when he worked in banking and lived near Manhattan’s Lincoln Center in the 1990s, Wilson said — an indicator of how unaffordable rent has become. 

“The income I was making at Goldman Sachs versus the average income in Johnstown, that’s why this is so painful,” he said. “This illustrates how bad the problem is and how widespread the problem is.” 

Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was not available for comment. But the younger Giuliani, like his fellow Republicans, has broadly pitched a plan to cut taxes.  

Collective Frustration

Internally, Republicans are discussing ways to appeal to the Latino and Asian communities in the lead up to the general election, according to people familiar with their discussions. 

Nationally, the Republican party is gaining some steam to appeal to Latino voters. In one of the most Latino congressional districts in the country, Texas voters on Tuesday elected Mexican-born Mayra Flores in a special election, flipping a normally Democratic seat into Republican control. 

“The Democrats are always claiming that they’re for minorities, but I don’t see it,” said the Republican strategist. “It’s this type of individual that talks down to us all the time.” 

“It’s tax, tax, tax, tax, tax,” the consultant added. “It’s hurting minority communities. Things I would go shopping for have doubled in price.” 

In the Asian community, which has seen a surge of hate crimes and high-profile attacks, Republicans see an opportunity to quell their concerns over public safety, Proud said. 

Beleaguered by two years of a pandemic, rising inflation, unemployment rates that have yet to bounce back to pre-pandemic norms and a rise in violent crimes, coupled with sinking approval ratings for the country’s top Democrat, President Joe Biden, could prove to be the concoction that propels a Republican to the executive chamber, GOP consultants argue. 

Also in play is the fact that in a non-presidential year, voter turnout is typically low. 

“New York is a blue state. No one is under any illusions about that. But it takes a climate of things going very much in the wrong direction [that] causes voters to reevaluate and do something different…. That’s how Pataki did it in ‘94,” Proud said of former governor George Pataki, a Republican who unseated liberal icon Mario Cuomo for the governor’s office. 

One of the ways to tap into different electorates that may not normally vote for a Republican has been through education, particularly for aggrieved parents that have spent the bulk of the last two years adapting through ever-changing COVID-19 policies and months of online and hybrid schooling. 

Republicans have seized on increasing parent input in their kids’ education and decrying pandemic-spurred rules in schools. 

“Parents are being ignored. They’re being shouted down. They’re being denigrate and that cannot be. Parents still and must have the final say with their children,” said Astorino. 

A new political party, The Parent Party of New York, is hoping to do just that. The party, which bills itself as “empowering parents to take back control of their child’s education from the classroom to the school board,” has already endorsed Zeldin and his lieutenant governor, Allison Esposito. 

“There’s a collective sense of frustration,” said Proud. “The problem is [Democrats] control everything and elections are often referendums of who’s in charge.”