New York’s GOP has a Trump problem

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ALBANY — A telling moment arrived about an hour into Monday’s Republican gubernatorial debate, when co-moderator Errol Louis asked the candidates if the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.

If that seems like an easy question, well, it should have been. But you wouldn’t know if from the stammering, windy prevarications that followed.

Lee Zeldin, the Long Island congressman and presumptive favorite heading into Tuesday’s primary, went first with a monologue that took us on a long journey that swerved around the question at hand. So Louis asked again, causing Zeldin to spit out a tortured word salad that again stayed clear of an actual answer.

“Stacey Abrams still hasn’t accepted her loss in Georgia,” a filibustering Zeldin said, referring to the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race. “There are still people upset with the Supreme Court decision in 2000.”

Louis took Zeldin off the hook, tossed him back in the water and poised the question to Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County executive.

Once again, viewers of the Spectrum News debate were subjected to mumbo-jumbo that didn’t include an answer.

“What was stolen from us is our belief in the election system right now,” Astorino said, adding that some Democrats believe the 2016 election was stolen. “We’ve got to have integrity in our elections.”

Louis again pressed, noting that recent hearings examining the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol have shown that Attorney General Bill Barr, Trump advisers and even some family members all told the former president that he had lost a fairly decided election.

And you, Mr. Astorino? He whirled and twirled, keeping an answer at bay.

You could almost sense viewers at home growing exasperated. Candidates who had delivered direct answers to questions about crime, the economy and more couldn’t answer this one? Seriously?

It was important to notice what Astorino and Zeldin didn’t say. They didn’t say they believed in the vast, sinister conspiracy that would be required to steal an election. They didn’t talk about Venezuelan voting machines or accuse fellow Republicans in, say, Georgia of being in on the fix. They just refused to give a direct answer.

Next up: Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“I believe that President Trump was re-elected,” he said, “and I think unfortunately we’ve seen one of the greatest crimes in American history committed against our country.”

Well, OK. After the weasel cynicism sputtered by Zeldin and Astorino, it was tempting to give young Giuliani credit for being so blunt.

Of course, it would have made international headlines had he answered otherwise, given his father’s prominence in spreading election falsehoods. We’re also left to doubt the son’s judgment, given that there is not, as Barr put it, “evidence of fraud that would have affected the outcome of the election.”

“I saw absolutely zero basis for the allegations,” said the former attorney general, a Trump appointee, during a recent congressional hearing, describing how he told his former boss that claims of systemic cheating were “complete nonsense” and “crazy stuff.”

Trump, as we know, was undeterred. He still is.

But back to Monday night, when Louis brought his simple yet revealing question to the fourth candidate in the race: Harry Wilson, the businessman and corporate-turnaround specialist.

“Sadly, Joe Biden was the duly elected president of the United States,” Wilson said. “I believe that we, Republicans, need to move on and address the problems that really hurt working families today.”

Had we been watching a game show, bells would have sounded and confetti would have rained down. Here, at last, was a candidate giving an honest acknowledgment of reality that Zeldin and Astorino must know to be true but lack the courage to admit. Wilson wins!

Will his honesty hurt him with voters on Tuesday? It could, depressingly. When practiced politicians such as Zeldin and Astorino duck and dodge, they usually know what they’re doing. In this time of tribal loyalty, they must fear the primary electorate — or the wrath of Trump himself.

But the problem for Republicans is obvious. Louis’ question will be asked again in the months ahead, and the non-answers given by Zeldin and Astorino will be poisonous in a general election. New York, after all, is not Alabama. Trump is unpopular here and relatively few believe his election poppycock. 

And so, a GOP gubernatorial nominee who refuses to acknowledge the truth about 2020 will be throwing away a winnable race against a vulnerable Kathy Hochul — another sacrifice for Trump’s altar.

But this isn’t just about the ramifications for the coming election. Candidates who know that claims about a malevolent conspiracy are false but refuse to say so are putting political ambition ahead of truth and country. They are deeply unpatriotic. They do not deserve our trust. 

[email protected] ■ 518-454-5442 ■ @chris_churchill

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