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The State of New York

Magical Thinking at Lee Zeldin’s ‘Victory’ Party

When the highlight of the night is an open bar, you know your candidate has fallen short.

(Aaron Short / Hell Gate)

As the polls closed at 9 p.m., Andrew Giuliani bounded up the steps of Cipriani 42nd Street with a Lee Zeldin campaign staffer, ahead of several hundred supporters waiting in line in the cold for the past hour.

"He's with me," the staffer said to another campaign worker at the entrance, as if the former gubernatorial candidate and chief Zeldin opponent wouldn't have been recognized.

No one seemed to mind. Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, who ran a hard-right campaign for governor against Andrew Cuomo in 2010 and lost a tough congressional primary in western New York earlier this year, waited patiently in a VIP line. A man holding a printed copy of his ticket was excitedly analyzing voting returns from northern Virginia on his phone while his son haphazardly paid attention. Behind him, a woman told her granddaughter to pose for a photo.

"You have to tell your teacher you're near the Empire State Building," the woman said, mistakenly pointing at One Vanderbilt. "Look, it's all lit up in blue!"

Once the crowd got inside the stately Romanesque venue, the mood was buoyant. They were there to toast the Suffolk County Republican congressman whose energetic campaign forced Governor Kathy Hochul to bring in President Biden and Hillary Clinton to stump on her behalf and barnstorm multiple subway stops in the race's closing days. 

Zeldin wasn't supposed to win, not with Democrats owning a two-to-one margin over Republicans in registered voters. Still, guests held out hope for a red wave that would carry Zeldin all the way to Albany as they sloshed down mimosas with grapefruit juice and noshed on canapés. It was an open bar after all.

(Aaron Short / Hell Gate)

As the crowd filed in, Curtis Sliwa, the 2021 Republican candidate for mayor, perched himself in front of the press riser while fans approached him for selfies. He had held a rally with Zeldin in Flushing, Queens, a few days earlier and said the enthusiasm among young Asian Americans surprised him. He said Zeldin didn't need his advice.

"It's all about crime. It's right on point," Sliwa said. "Good campaigns have three issues, great campaigns have two issues, and the best campaigns have one issue, and Zeldin has been staying in the crime lane."

"You should have won," one woman shouted at Sliwa.

"I'll get them in three years," he shouted back.

Sliwa did not bring any of his 18 cats to the party but did sneak one of them, Tuna, into his polling station when he voted earlier in the day. 

"I took Tuna with me in my sweater even though there was a big sign that said 'No pets,'" Sliwa said. "Another couple had a dog with them, and the dog smelled my cat and barked at her."

As Hochul jumped out to a 30-point lead, Brooklyn Councilmember Inna Vernikov walked onto the stage and told the crowd to enjoy themselves. A few cheers erupted when NY1 filmed a live hit from the venue, but the mood soon became more subdued. Ruben Diaz Sr., a former Democratic Bronx councilmember, and two aides parked themselves on a bench in the corner of the room near the exit.

"I'm feeling very positive," said Diaz Sr. The Pentecostal minister, who in 2019 claimed that the city council was "controlled by the homosexual community," had campaigned with Zeldin in the South Bronx. "I sent a message to Zeldin today. The Democratic Party has to pay attention to Black and Hispanic voters. [Hochul] doesn’t know anything. She's a denier. She denies the crime that's happening."

A little after 11 p.m., NBC called the race for Hochul. The New York Post, which had run multiple covers begging its readers to show up to the polls and vote for Zeldin, echoed the call a few minutes later, and the energy began to dissipate. 

Young Republicans flirted with each other while "Gloria" played on the sound system and waiters circulated mini cheesecakes and brownies. 

Still, there were no announcements from the stage. Former Assemblymember Dov Hikind had enough and sauntered toward the exit. John Burnett, a former comptroller candidate, hugged two friends. 

"It's not over yet!" Burnett shouted. "Sixty-four percent reporting! If you stop believing, then miracles can't happen."

Just before midnight, Lee Zeldin took the stage as the Fleetwood Mac classic "Don't Stop" blared through the loudspeaker. He refused to concede and told his supporters to enjoy the open bar.

"It’s going to be a little frustrating for members of the media who didn’t ever want us to be in contention here in New York. I'm sure NBC was excited about calling this race quickly," Zeldin said. "We have been crushing the Election Day vote all across the entire state. So what's going to happen over the course of the next couple of hours is you're going to see this race get closer and closer and closer."

Some supporters began heading for the exits. The VIPs were supposedly staying at the Hyatt across the street, a former Trump hotel. Manhattan resident Ruth Katz, who founded Citizens for a Safe NYC that fundraised for Republican candidates, thought Zeldin had a bright future regardless of the night's results.

"We need young blood. We need new energy to come in," she said. "Chuck Schumer has been there for 40 years. We need to have new ideas."

This post has been updated to more accurately quote Lee Zeldin's speech to the crowd.

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