Speakers at the New York State Republican convention on Long Island last week rallied around a single issue they're hoping could break a 20-year streak of consecutive losses in statewide races: crime.

One by one, Republicans took to the rostrum at the four-star Garden City Hotel, backing a slate of candidates for this year's statewide elections and extolling a vision for the future of a party that is outnumbered in New York even by independent voters.

If Republicans are to make a serious run in the governor’s race or any other statewide contest in New York in 2022 they have to make an appeal across the aisle as well as garner support from a large number of the state’s 2.8 million independent voters. And, so far, they’re centering their campaigns on the public’s concern over an increase in crime, in hopes of attracting voters to their party’s message, according to Nick Langworthy, the state GOP chair.

"I think it's the single-most potent issue I've ever seen, and it has changed the dynamics of politics in this state,” Langworthy said after the convention. “And it’s driving people that have never before looked at the Republican Party as an alternative.”

Traditionally, the New York GOP has struggled to find candidates and issues that appeal to a more-conservative electorate in the primaries and a more-liberal electorate in November. But by pushing a law-and-order message, Langworthy said Republicans are centering on an issue they believe can help attract votes from outside their party.

Given the running theme at this year’s convention speeches, Langworthy’s fellow Republicans have clearly gotten the message, mirroring a strategy adopted by Republicans in other parts of the country.

From the podium, Langworthy said his party will “restore safety to the streets.” Rob Ortt, the state Senate minority leader, chastised Democrats for their “soft on crime policies.” His counterpart in the Assembly, Will Barclay, said crime is on the rise “due to the policies and the rhetoric of the Democratic Party.”

Even Paul Rodriguez, running for state comptroller, branded Democrats the party of “crime and public disorder.”

Crime Surge

So far, much of the Republicans’ focus has been centered on crime in New York City, where more than 40% of the state’s electorate lives.

Recent crime data has shown an increase in crime compared to last year and two years ago. Democrats are quick to point out it largely mirrors a national trend.

On Thursday, the NYPD posted data for New York City showing index crimes – seven major felonies including murder, rape and vehicle theft – were at 9,139 in February 2022, a 58.7% increase from 5,759 in February 2021.

For all of 2021, there were 102,741 of those seven felony charges in the city, up from 95,593 the year before. It was the highest single-year total since 2015, but well under the numbers in the early part of the century, including 184,652 in the year 2000, according to the NYPD.

In Buffalo, the state’s second largest city, those same crimes actually ticked down in 2021, dropping to 10,139 from 10,877 in 2020. (Statewide crime data is not yet available for 2021.)

But when it comes to politics, it matters how voters feel about the issue of crime. And a recent poll clearly showed it’s on their mind.

A Siena College poll last month found 60% of New York voters think crime is a “very serious” issue in the state. Another 31% found it to be “somewhat serious.” Combine them, and that encompasses about 9 in 10 voters in the state.

“I think there's no question that crime in February and March of 2022 is a major issue for voters right now,” said Steve Greenberg, Siena College’s political pollster.

The poll showed why Republicans think there is an opportunity to pick off Democratic and independent votes based on their tough-on-crime rhetoric. A total of 76% of Republicans said crime was a very serious issue, but so did 53% of Democrats and 58% of independents.

Battle Over Bail Reform

In relation to crime, the Republican candidates for New York governor have zeroed in on the issue of bail reform.

In 2019, legislative Democrats and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo reshaped the state’s bail laws to prohibit judges from requiring cash or bond as a condition for release for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges. The idea was to avoid what some said was in effect criminalizing poverty, only allowing pre-trial release for those who could afford it financially.

But the reforms have drawn consistent criticism from Republicans and even some Democrats like New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who are trying to pressure the Democrat-led state Legislature to scale them back and give judges more discretion.

Republicans are clearly trying to make it an issue in the governor’s race, where Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is seeking her first full term if she can survive a three-way primary. (One of her Democratic opponents, Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island, is also making crime a central part of his campaign.)

At the GOP convention, each of the four major Republican gubernatorial candidates – Rep. Lee Zeldin, former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, business consultant Harry Wilson and Andrew Giuliani, son of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani – all mentioned the bail laws in some form during their speeches asking for the party’s nomination.

Zeldin in particular has latched on. He has backed Alison Esposito – a 24-year veteran of the NYPD who currently runs Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct – as his preferred running mate, in part to bolster his campaign’s tough-on-crime message.

"In blue counties inside of New York City and elsewhere, they want to feel safe outside of their homes,” he said during his speech. “They care about their sons’ and daughters' educations, and that transcends party loyalty."

Zeldin won the backing of Republican Party leaders on Tuesday, which gives him an automatic spot on the June 28 primary ballot.

But, scaling back bail reform would require support from Democrats in Albany. And to this point, neither Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers nor Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx have backed any effort to repeal what they passed in 2019.

Hochul, too, has sought to highlight the issue of crime, particularly as it relates to recent high-profile incidents in the New York City subway system.

In February, she held a joint news conference with Adams to unveil a subway safety plan that sought to emphasize mental health treatment for those who find shelter in the transit system. Hochul said people on the street have stopped her and said they don’t feel safe anymore.

“And that hits me right here in my heart,” Hochul said. “Because this is the greatest city that the world has ever known. We just have to take care of some problems and give people that faith again.”

Hochul, meanwhile, has been careful in her public comments about the bail laws, saying she’s willing to discuss changes but stopping short of endorsing anything specific.

She’s accused Republicans of trying to “politicize” the issue. And she’s also spoken of the reasons she believes bail reform was necessary in the first place, pointing to the case of Kalief Browder, who died by suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island on a petty robbery charge that ended up being dismissed.

“I don’t cave to pressure,” Hochul told reporters in January. “I do what’s right based on all the facts that come before me.”