Lee Zeldin
Lee ZeldinREUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Lee Zeldin, the Republican Jewish congressman who mounted a stronger-than-expected but failed bid to be New York’s governor, says he has decided not to run to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

But in a sign that he expects to have continued influence despite exiting Congress, Zeldin, who has been the top-ranked Jewish Republican in the country, this week joined the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

That means he will play a key role in animating political giving by Republican Jews at a time when the future of the Republican Party is under contention. Zeldin, a Long Island Republican whose strong showing in New York is credited with flipping four formerly Democratic congressional seats there, issued a blistering statement on Wednesday morning accusing the incumbent RNC chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, of a “disappointing” performance during her three two-year terms in the job.

“The grassroots is frustrated, deflated, and defeated,” he said, referring to a string of defeats since McDaniel assumed the party leadership at the behest of former President Donald Trump in 2017. “They are tired of coming up short like what happened again just yesterday.”

Zeldin was referring to the defeat Tuesday in Georgia of GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker, the former NFL star who challenged incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. Warnock bested Walker in a runoff, becoming the only statewide win for Democrats in Georgia this cycle.

The election season has been a crushing disappointment for Republicans who anticipated a “red wave” of victories because President Joe Biden remains unpopular. Instead, Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and maintained control of the chamber; lost the U.S. House of Representatives to Republicans, but barely; and kept a number of governorships that were seen as vulnerable, flipping a number of state legislatures in the process.

On McDaniel’s watch, Republicans also lost the presidency and the Senate in 2020, and the House in 2018.

Zeldin said he was not running because McDaniel’s reelection was “baked in”; she is believed to have the support of at least 100 of the 168 party officials who comprise the voting membership of the RNC.

Zeldin said he has the support of the party’s grassroots, although how he made that assessment is not clear. He also has said that Republican donors would be more likely to give if he were elected and recently named two to the New York Post: Blackstone Group chairman Stephen Schwartzman and steel magnate Andrew Sabin. Both are Jewish. Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir and the president of the World Jewish Congress, poured millions into Zeldin’s gubernatorial bid.

Zeldin in his statement said there still was time for McDaniel to withdraw from the race before the election early next year and suggested he would consider running were she to do so.

“The better path forward would be for Chairwoman McDaniel to listen to and respect the wishes of the actual grassroots voters of our party, and allow the RNC to forge ahead with new leadership,” he said. “Her greatest service to the Republican Party at this time would be to make room for a new Chair.”

Both McDaniel and Zeldin were seen as close to Trump. Zeldin was on the team that defended the former president during one of his impeachment trials and also voted not to certify Biden’s election after Trump’s lies about the election results spurred a deadly insurrection at the Capitol.

Zeldin distanced himself from Trump during the gubernatorial election, not appearing with him in a state where Trump, although a native, is deeply unpopular. Now, Republicans are blaming Trump and his insistence on loyalty to his false claims about the 2020 election for their poor performance. Zeldin did not mention Trump in his statement.