December 5, 2022

Ronald S. Lauder, a 78-year-old cosmetics heir, philanthropist and art collector who is among the richest men in New York, has become the most prolific state political donor in memory this fall, fueling a Republican’s surging candidacy for governor in one of the country’s most liberal states.

Mr. Lauder has long been a gale-force disrupter, throwing millions of dollars behind conservative causes and candidates, including creating term limits in New York City and even his own failed mayoral campaign. Now at the twilight of his public life, he is marshaling his multibillion-dollar fortune behind an extraordinary intervention into this week’s midterm elections.

As a lead donor to two super PACs, he has spent more than $11 million to date trying to put Representative Lee Zeldin, a Trump-aligned Republican, in the governor’s mansion. Millions of dollars more, some of it not previously reported, have gone to successful legal and public relations campaigns to stop Democrats from gerrymandering the state’s congressional districts.

The Republican surge in contests across left-leaning New York can be traced to myriad factors, from rising crime to lackluster Democratic enthusiasm and the usual midterm backlash.

But there is little doubt that Mr. Lauder has single-handedly tilted the playing field for his party. Since he began spending on a barrage of attack ads, Gov. Kathy Hochul, the Democratic incumbent, has watched polling and fund-raising advantages that once looked insurmountable dwindle. And Democrats fighting to hold the House of Representatives have seen their blue firewall crumble.

What, precisely, is motivating Mr. Lauder’s spending has been a matter of fierce debate.

Ms. Hochul and her allies argue that he is driven by self-interest and pique to back a candidate who wants to do away with the estate tax, and to punish a governor moving forward with an offshore wind farm he opposes. Some of Mr. Lauder’s former associates have speculated that he sees the potential for a new Republican king in New York and wants to play kingmaker.

But in a rare sit-down interview last week, Mr. Lauder said his overriding goal was straightforward, even selfless: He fears rising crime is driving people from the city, and wants to capitalize on an unusually favorable political climate to try to revive New York’s moribund Republican Party after years of losses.

“I’m no ogre,” he said, over tea at Café Sabarsky, a Viennese-style cafe in the Neue Galerie, his Upper East Side museum devoted to the culture of prewar Austria and Germany, another of his lifelong, and costly, passions.

“It’s a question of one thing I believe in, always have,” he continued. “I want two parties. I want a Republican and a Democratic Party. When you have just one party, I believe things go wrong.”

Mr. Lauder’s outside spending is in league with some of the most prolific political donors across the country, who have plowed increasingly large sums into races for the Senate and the White House through super PACs with few legal restrictions. But his spending is unlike anything New York has seen before in a race for governor. Campaign finance experts said they feared it could be the start of an arms race that could alter contests for decades to come.

Ms. Hochul spent over a year pulling together a $50 million war chest from her own deep-pocketed donors — including Mr. Lauder’s brother, Leonard — at hundreds of fund-raising events that Republicans frequently attacked as ethically dubious. Mr. Zeldin himself raised only about half that. But with just a few checks (including one for $250,000 the day he sat for an interview) to the super PACs, Mr. Lauder and a small cohort of other big donors have significantly narrowed the gap and funded what amounts to a shadow campaign apparatus.

In recent weeks, the television ads financed by Mr. Lauder have come to feel omnipresent across the state. Featuring ominous music, they tie Ms. Hochul to a rise in crime and to prosecutors like Alvin L. Bragg, Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, an elected official Mr. Zeldin has cast as soft on crime.

One of the super PACs, Safe Together New York, has also paid for newspaper ads, giveaway Zeldin lawn signs and a texting campaign spreading context-free claims about crime.

“It is Lauder versus Hochul, or Hochul’s army,” said John Kaehny, the executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good-government group that analyzed the race and found that Mr. Lauder was responsible for close to half of all pro-Zeldin spending between August and late October. “It’s extraordinary and unprecedented and a real threat to democracy.”

Mr. Zeldin’s campaign declined to comment for this story, but he has welcomed the super PACs’ support in the past and encouraged large donors to follow Mr. Lauder’s lead. And as Republican spending has ramped up, wealthy donors and labor unions have raced to fund their own pro-Hochul super PACs, albeit at a fraction of the size.

Mr. Lauder’s efforts have not been limited to individual candidates. Last year, he bankrolled a $3 million campaign by the state’s Conservative Party to defeat three constitutional amendments that would have lowered barriers to vote but would also have made it easier for Democrats to gerrymander congressional maps this year.

Later, after Democrats in Albany pushed through maps favoring their party, Mr. Lauder quietly put up money to sue, helping convince other donors to join him. His funding has not been previously reported.

The plaintiffs won and new, more neutral maps were drawn up in court, paving the way for Republicans to make House gains this fall.

“There’s no way we would have succeeded on redistricting without Ronald Lauder,” said John Faso, a former Republican congressman who helped orchestrate the lawsuit and is now helping run the other super PAC Mr. Lauder supports, Save Our State Inc. He and Mr. Lauder declined to say how much the billionaire had spent.

But where Mr. Lauder sees a boon for democracy, his critics see a mockery of the democratic process that could send a Democratic state into four years of conservative governance.

“He’s a walking example of the villainy of the Citizens United decision,” said Michael Gianaris, a Democratic State Senate leader who lost to Mr. Lauder in the redistricting lawsuit. “The ability of someone of unlimited wealth to pervert democracy by spending untold millions to skew elections is the entire reason why campaign finance reform is so important.”

There is no real limit to how much the groups can raise and spend as long as they remain separate from Mr. Zeldin’s actual campaign. But the state’s top elections watchdog is now seeking a subpoena as part of an investigation into whether Mr. Zeldin’s campaign violated state law by coordinating with Save Our State and Safe Together New York.

Multiple individuals appear to have overlapping roles with the PACs and with Mr. Zeldin’s campaign or the state parties coordinating with it, including Allen H. Roth, a vice chairman of the Conservative Party and an adviser to Mr. Lauder who is kept close: His office adjoining Estée Lauder headquarters is just down the hallway from the billionaire.

Though he has spent magnitudes more money over the years on art and philanthropy to Jewish causes, major political giving is not new to Mr. Lauder. He has spent at least $35 million in the last few decades supporting mostly Republicans for state and federal office, including some $200,000 for former President Donald J. Trump. He also spent seven figures on the campaign to preserve the entrance exams for elite public high schools in the city, like the one he graduated from.

The most expensive race he invested in until now was his own. In 1989, when Mr. Lauder ran for mayor in the Republican primary against Rudolph W. Giuliani, he spent $14 million, or around $33 million in today’s dollars.

In 1993, he mounted a successful campaign to impose a limit of two four-year terms on New York City politicians, to their nagging chagrin. (In 2008, he briefly reversed himself and gave his blessing to Michael R. Bloomberg, a fellow billionaire, to seek a third term as mayor.)

Despite his willingness to back Republican causes, Mr. Lauder’s own politics do not neatly align with his party’s, or with Mr. Zeldin’s. He said he supports “a woman’s right to choose,” while Mr. Zeldin has long sought to limit abortion rights.

In Mr. Lauder’s view, he is more of political outsider — a remnant of a once thriving strain of moderate Rockefeller Republicanism.

“I’m Chingachgook,” he joked, referring to the fictional Native American chief in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”

He brushed off Mr. Zeldin’s vote to overturn the 2020 election but also declined to defend the former president, whom he has known since college: “I’m not there for Trump, I’m there for the Republican Party.”

If there is a single issue that unites Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Lauder, it is crime. Mr. Lauder said he was bothered that Ms. Hochul did not push harder to reverse changes to the state’s bail law that barred prosecutors from seeking cash bail for less serious crimes. Ms. Hochul did work to toughen the law, but Mr. Zeldin has made overturning it the centerpiece of his campaign.

“You couldn’t pay me to get on the subway,” Mr. Lauder said, adding that he did not want his children and grandchildren “to have to go with bodyguards.” (Mr. Lauder travels with a bodyguard.)

“He sees the city heading in the direction that it headed in the mid 1970s,” said Richard D. Parsons, the former chairman of Citigroup, and one of Mr. Lauder’s closest friends. “He doesn’t want to see that. And I understand that.”

But some around Mr. Lauder have another, less charitable theory for what is driving his push to elect Mr. Zeldin. For years now, Mr. Lauder and his wealthy neighbors in Wainscott, a hamlet in the Hamptons, have been fighting to stop the state from allowing a wind-powered transmission cable to run near their properties.

Last October, just months after Ms. Hochul took office, Mr. Lauder hosted the new governor at his Park Avenue duplex for dinner. For Ms. Hochul, it was a chance to make nice with one of the city’s most powerful people. Mr. Lauder used it as an opportunity to talk about the wind farm, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The project is currently going ahead as planned, part of Ms. Hochul’s ambitious effort to decarbonize the state.

Mr. Lauder dismissed the idea that the governor’s decision affected his.

“I had dinner with her,” he said. “That’s not why I’m doing it.”

Either way, Mr. Lauder’s spending spree has now made an enemy out of Ms. Hochul. She name-checked him at a fund-raiser last month, lamenting that after a year of raising, she was still badly in need of cash because Democrats had not foreseen Mr. Lauder’s decision to jump into the race with such enthusiasm.

In a brief interview, Ms. Hochul said that she believed that he was not motivated by personal animus, but by self-interest.

“It’s not a beef. It’s what he’s going to get in return,” she said, citing Mr. Zeldin’s promise to slash taxes, including on large estates. “Ron Lauder is going to get a lot more than a thank-you note from Lee Zeldin.”

Mr. Lauder scoffed at that suggestion, too.

“It has nothing to do with money for myself, a millionaire tax,” he said. “Frankly, if I was a different person, I would have moved already.”

Whatever the outcome this week, Mr. Lauder said he does not plan to follow his friends to Palm Beach, Fla. His home, and his art, are in New York City.

Besides, Mr. Lauder has other plans on election night. While other supporters of Mr. Zeldin gather for a watch party, he will be greeting friends and admirers at the Neue Galerie for an opening reception of a new show featuring some 500 works, including a nearly 600-year-old Flemish tapestry and an 800-year-old chess piece made of walrus ivory, from the personal collection of Ronald S. Lauder.

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