She defeated Republican congressman Lee Zeldin, an ally of Donald Trump who ran a campaign focused on fear of violent crime.
"Tonight you made your voices heard loud and clear. And, and you made me the first woman ever elected to be the governor of the state of New York. But I'm not here to make history, I'm here to make a difference," Hochul told supporters Tuesday night.
"I have felt a weight on my shoulders to make sure that every little girl and all the women of the state who've had to bang up against glass ceilings everywhere they turn, to know that a woman could be elected in her own right and successfully govern a state as rough and tumble as New York."
Hochul, a Buffalo native, had been expected to win in a state where there are more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. New Yorkers haven't elected a Republican as governor since Gov. George Pataki won a third term in 2002. But Zeldin made the race competitive, closing in on Hochul in the final weeks and appearing to spur her to speak more about public safety.
"I would like to congratulate New York Governor Kathy Hochul on her election to a full four-year term," Zeldin said in a statement Wednesday. "This race was a once in a generation campaign, with a very close margin in the bluest of blue states. The unrelenting passion and hard work of our grassroots volunteers and supporters made this incredibly close race possible and helped us win at least 49 of New York's 62 counties."
Hochul's formidable campaign fundraising allowed her to buy TV ads portraying herself as a defender of abortion rights and describing Zeldin as "extreme and dangerous" because of his ties to Trump and his vote against certifying the 2020 election results.
As a nod to the history Hochul hoped to make as the first woman to be elected governor, she appeared at a rally days before the election with Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected to the country's second-highest office, and Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be a major party's presidential nominee and New York's first female senator. Hochul is among eight women who have won statewide elections in New York, a group she initially joined when she was elected lieutenant governor in 2014. She became the first woman to serve as governor when she took over for Cuomo.
Hochul's steady path was upset in the final weeks as the race tightened. Democrats faced national headwinds in this year's midterm elections as the party in power, which typically bears the brunt of voter frustrations. This year, those frustrations include stubborn inflation and a shaky economy, but in New York, concerns about crime took precedence.
Though Hochul has been governor for a year, she is not as well known as her predecessor.
A former congresswoman, she served as Cuomo's lieutenant governor before taking over in August 2021 and has tried to cast herself as a fresh start from Cuomo. He resigned amid sexual harassment allegations, which he denies.
Hochul's campaign fundraising brought in more than $50 million, about double what Zeldin reported, but outside groups spent heavily in the race — especially two outside groups boosting Zeldin that took in about $9 million from Estée Lauder heir Ronald Lauder.
Zeldin is an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who has represented eastern Long Island in Congress since 2015 and was a vocal defender of Trump during his two impeachments.
As a gubernatorial candidate, Zeldin tried to sidestep his ties to Trump, appearing with the former president at a closed-door campaign fundraiser but not at any public rallies, as candidates elsewhere have done. He brushed aside questions from reporters after Trump endorsed him, saying "it shouldn't have been news" because the former president had backed him previously.
Instead, Zeldin focused almost exclusively on sending a message that violent crime is out of control, casting blame on policies passed by Democrats in Albany who control the Legislature, along with Hochul and Cuomo.
The issue became personal for Zeldin in the final month of the election, when two teenage boys were wounded in a drive-by-shooting in front of his Long Island home.
He has called for toughening the state's bail laws and declaring a crime "emergency" that would allow him to suspend laws that curb solitary confinement in jails and that stopped automatically treating 16 and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.
Hochul meanwhile, poured blame on Republicans and conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court for opposing gun control measures. She led an effort to tighten licensing rules for semiautomatic rifles after a racist mass shooting killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in her home town of Buffalo last spring.
Hochul was dogged by an early scandal in her administration, when her first lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, was arrested in April. Benjamin, who was accused of funneling state aid to a supporter in exchange for campaign contributions, denied wrongdoing but resigned. His arrest has not been raised on the campaign trail since Hochul handily won the Democratic primary in June.