New York Republican candidates are getting younger and hoping to win

An increase in the number of relatively youthful Republicans is visible on every level of the ballot this year.


BY: BILL MAHONEY | View article


ALBANY, N.Y. — If the GOP succeeds at denting Democrats’ dominance of New York in November, it will be due to the success of a particular type of candidate: young Republicans, most of whom have never run for office before.


Many of the candidates are underdogs running in blue districts. But their emergence is a shift for a state party that has struggled to build a deep bench as it has gradually lost power in recent decades — at the same time that a long list of Democrats in their 20s and 30s have commanded the spotlight.


“The perception of the Republican Party being a kind of old white man’s party is dwindling,” said Senate candidate Stefano Forte, who at 24 would be the youngest-ever member of the chamber. “We see a future that these older incumbents will never have to live through being thrust upon us. And I think this younger generation is civically minded and wants to make a change in our communities.”


An increase in the number of relatively youthful Republicans is visible on every level of the ballot this year.


The age gap between Republican nominee Lee Zeldin, 42, and Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, 64, is the widest in a gubernatorial race since 1938. New York State Young Republicans Chair Peter Giunta estimates the number of candidates 40 or younger on the GOP line for state and local offices has increased by 80 percent compared to 2020.


The jump stands out the most in races for the state Senate and Assembly, where several twenty- and thirty-somethings running in traditionally solidly blue seats appear to be making Albany’s Democratic leaders nervous.


The candidates say their generation is particularly open to messages hammered on by Republicans this year. They’re part of a wave that moved to urban areas earlier this century and are now faced with rising crime rates. They’re often the ones who struggle the most with inflation.


“We are people who want to be starting families, buying homes, building our careers,” said Alexandra Velella, 34, who moved out of Manhattan after the crime rate began to tick up a couple of years ago and is now running against Assemblymember Phil Steck, 63, in the Albany suburbs.


“I’m sure every young family has had the conversation that I’ve had with my wife — are we better off here, or going somewhere else?” said Ed Flood, 40, who’s challenging Assemblymember Steve Englebright, 76, in Suffolk County. “New York is a much more dangerous, much more expensive place than I grew up in.”


The GOP candidates are running in districts that haven’t traditionally been battlefields, but all indications are that top Democrats are taking them seriously. The Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee has spent more money in Steck’s district, where Joe Biden topped Donald Trump by 24 percentage points in 2020, than in all but two of the state’s 150 seats.


Forte is running against Democratic Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky in a Queens seat. Stavisky and her late husband have represented the area in the state Legislature since 1966, and her most competitive general election this century was in 2012, when she received 78 percent of the vote. Her campaign spent $319,000 in recent months — over five times as much as she spent in the fall the last time she faced a Republican opponent.


Democrats have campaigned in recent months that this new generation of Republicans are out of touch with their fellow young voters on issues like abortion and climate change. Candidates like Forte, who has ties to supporters of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and the Proud Boys, have been accused of being more products of the far right than more standard populist movements.


“I’m the son of a football coach and a history teacher,” said Steck, who pointed to the fact that his opponent is the daughter of the late Sen. Guy Velella, who was a powerful Bronx senator for decades. “She is the daughter of a state senator who had absolutely no connection to any kind of community in this district.”


Velella said she never planned to follow in her father’s footsteps, but was inspired by what she heard after his death in 2011: “So many people said if you ever had a problem, no matter what it was, you called his office and he would do something about it. And that’s what we need.”


The increase in Republican candidates around the age of the younger Velella comes after a couple of years in which the party as a whole has taken a rapid generational shift.


In the 12-year stretch leading up to 2018 when Republicans gradually faded from power in New York, it was common for Democrats to deride New York’s GOP as a collection of out-of-touch septuagenarian men clinging on to their last few seats as their party failed to develop a bench. As recently as 2008, a third of the state Senate’s Republican conference was born in the 1920s or 1930s.


But that has changed.


Rob Ortt, 43, became the Senate GOP’s leader when he was the youngest member of that conference in 2020. Nick Langworthy, 41, became the youngest-ever chair of the state GOP in 2019. In August, he upset one-time state Republican standard-bearer Carl Paladino, 76, in a congressional primary in Western New York.


Other Republican congressional nominees in competitive races in November include Colin Schmitt, 32, and Mike Lawler, 36, as well as incumbent Reps. Andrew Garbarino, 38, and Nicole Malliotakis, 41. If she wins another term in a Republican-friendly seat, the dean of the state’s GOP delegation in Washington will be Rep. Elise Stefanik, who is 38.


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 71, is being challenged by Republican Joe Pinion, 39. Pinion and Zeldin are the first-ever nominees for statewide office in New York who were born in the 1980s.


The statewide hopefuls will need everything to break their way to pull off any upsets in November. But there’s a more direct path for some of the young Republicans running for state Legislature: Simply show modest improvements over the performance of the GOP candidates for local office in their districts in 2021.


The core of the seat where Steck and Velella are running is Colonie, a moderate Albany suburb. Republicans flipped the town supervisor’s office and the majority of the town board there last year.


Democrats have regularly won majorities in the corner of Queens where Forte and Stavisky are running. But they haven’t always been as commanding as elsewhere in the city: New York City Mayor Eric Adams received 51 percent of the vote there last year, and Republican Vickie Paladino pulled off an upset win in an partially-overlapping City Council district.


The Young Republicans are endorsing six non-incumbents, including Flood, in Assembly races in Nassau and Suffolk. And last year was Republicans’ best showing in decades on Long Island.


If enough of the GOP candidates pull off upsets, there could well be a post-Election Day narrative that draws parallels to the midterm election in 2018. That year, Democrats gained a jolt of energy when five first-time candidates in their 20s or 30s won primary battles against moderates in the Assembly and Senate. That happened a couple of months after the 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a Democratic primary and became the youngest woman to be elected to the House.


“A lot of those Democrats that lost their seats to younger Democrats were in office for 10, 15 years,” Giunta said. “They were institutions themselves. Now, we have young Republicans who are running against Democrats who have been there for too long.”


He noted, however, the elections are different since “we’re not cannibalizing one another. We’re running against Democrats.”


And the campaigns are less formally allied than with some of the recently run by insurgents on the left.


Organizations like Giunta’s group and the separate New York Young Republican Club — which recently won a lawsuit overturning the new Assembly lines against the wishes of the GOP establishment in the Assembly — have helped drum up support for young candidates in their party.


But there’s still not the same level of coordination as in some of the campaigns from the left in recent years. For example, there’s nothing like the group text chains that some of the young Democrats running similar campaigns throughout the state have had in recent years, where they’ve kept in regular contact with other upstarts to vent and discuss strategy.


“I really wish that we were that organized to have a big group chat,” Forte said. “I would be honest with you: If we did it, it would look more like a memes page.”

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