But Giuliani just might be the biggest wild card in the still-young race to run against Cuomo or another Democratic nominee in 2022. For one, he almost certainly has the highest name recognition in the field. “How’s your old man doing?” — a question one stranger asked him at the fair — is presumably not a question that Zeldin gets asked with any regularity.
All evidence suggests he’s putting real energy into his campaign and not simply resting on his family name as a lot of people in New York political circles assumed he might when he launched this spring. While he spent four years as an adviser to Donald Trump (and, by one measure, the former president’s most frequent golf companion), his only previous run for office entailed a brief flirtation with a New York City mayoral campaign.
He’s now a regular presence across upstate New York, at places like the fair in Lowville, a town of 3,500 people located to the west of the Adirondacks, about halfway between Utica and the Canadian border.
“Our goal is — and this is an impossible goal, but it doesn’t mean we don’t try to set our minds on that — is to meet as many of the 19.5 million New Yorkers as possible,” Giuliani said in an interview at the fair. “Certainly as many of the 9 million voters as possible, and in order to win this primary, as many of the 2.9 million registered Republicans as possible.”
“That’s why we go to the Lewis County Fair,” he added. “That’s why we’re going to the Greene County Fair. That’s why we’ll go up to Nascar. That’s why we’re doing the Empire Farm Days.”
Before this year, Giuliani’s most prominent appearance in New York politics came when he was just 7 and took the mayoral oath of office along with his father — a scene-stealing performance that earned him a Chris Farley portrayal on Saturday Night Live. Now 35, Giuliani’s work since has included the pursuit of a career in golf and a job in the White House, with a portfolio that included managing Trump’s interactions with sports teams.
Some of the people who have seen Giuliani on the campaign trail think his efforts should not be discounted.
“He seems to be more of an appeal to the Trump-oriented voter than Zeldin,” said Jeff Graham, the former mayor of Watertown, a city about five miles from Lake Ontario. Graham recently hosted Giuliani on his local talk radio show.
“Zeldin — there hasn’t been a lot of pizzazz in his efforts so far. If you’re going against Cuomo, you have to be a fighter, because Cuomo’s a street fighter. He’s going to throw a lot of elbows under the basket,” Graham said. “And I do think Giuliani has more spirit than what I’ve seen from the other candidates.”
Giuliani “knows that I’m supporting Lee Zeldin,” said Assemblyman Chris Tague, the GOP chair in rural Schoharie County, west of Albany.
But, Tague added, Giuliani is “very smart, very good on his feet, and he’s very personable. I was actually very impressed with him. And he has a lot of knowledge on a broad range of things, which I was also impressed with, and I think it would be wrong to just ignore him … Whether this is his time or not, to just cast him aside and not give him any respect, I think, is wrong.”
Tague backed Zeldin in a June straw poll of GOP officials. The 41-year-old Long Island congressman received 85 percent of the weighted vote, former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino got 5 percent and none of the other candidates received any support.
If there’s a similar result when party leaders officially convene this winter, then Zeldin will receive an automatic spot in the June primary and be able to characterize himself to potential donors and voters as the party’s endorsed candidate. Everybody else will need to shift their attention to collecting tens of thousands of petition signatures in order to appear on the primary ballot.
Winning a gubernatorial primary without a party’s backing is obviously a more difficult path. But it’s been done before, most recently in 2010, when Rick Lazio — who, like Zeldin, served four terms in Congress representing Long Island — was stunned by Carl Paladino, a Buffalo developer who ran a grassroots campaign appealing to the types of voters who would eventually form Trump’s coalition.
There’s another more recent example of a candidate winning a major office with negligible establishment support at this point in a race.
“[Trump] would have just announced his candidacy in 2015 for president,” Giuliani said. “That’s kind of where we are for a gubernatorial — we’re 15-and-a-half months out still. Obviously some stuff has moved quick at this point, but I think if we continue to build the grassroots by coming to these massive gathering places, we’re going to have a great chance.”
Giuliani is promising to bring something resembling a…