Ronald S. Lauder has donated over $11 million to two super PACs backing right-wing gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Billionaire cosmetics heir and art collector Ronald S. Lauder, who co-founded New York’s Neue Galerie museum of German and Austrian art, has reportedly shelled out more money funding insurgent Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin than any other single donor has spent on New York’s state elections this midterm cycle.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Lauder donated over $11 million to two Super PACs seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul from office and replace her with Representative Lee Zeldin, a longtime Trump apologist. According to the nonprofit group Reinvent Albany, Lauder’s money accounts for almost half of all spending backing Zeldin that took place between August and the end of October.

Although Hochul is still the most likely candidate to win on Tuesday, the latest polls show the race tightening — in no small part a consequence of the unprecedented expenditures Lauder has made, which experts worry may set a new standard for state campaign finance for many races to come. Since mid-October, Zeldin’s allies’ ad purchases have outpaced those made by Hochul’s supporters. 

Lauder, the youngest son of makeup entrepreneur Estée Lauder, serves as the chairman of Clinique Laboratories. Besides pouring his family fortune into Republican candidates including Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump, Lauder has also made major donations to art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In late 2020, he made a monumental gift of 91 European arms and armor objects to the Met in addition to financial support of an undisclosed amount. In recognition of Lauder’s patronage, the Met renamed 11 of its galleries the Ronald S. Lauder Galleries of Arms and Armor. Along with art dealer Serge Sabarsky, Lauder co-founded the Neue Galerie in 2001, where around 500 works from his personal collection are currently on view. Lauder is also an honorary trustee of the World Monuments Fund, and an honorary chairman of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Lauder’s brother, Leonard A. Lauder, is also a collector and former chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and has promised his collection of 81 Cubist artworks to the Met. Notably, however, the brothers are split in their political allegiances: Leonard contributed to Hochul’s campaign, according to the Times.

Lauder is not the only patron of the arts to make significant donations to the Republican party. Kenneth Griffin, CEO of Citadel, a Whitney Museum trustee, and a major donor to MoMA and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, has donated almost $50 million to Republicans. Larry Ellison, former Oracle CEO and a collector whose works were exhibited as part of an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2013, has donated about $21 million to the party.

In an interview last week, Lauder claimed that his recent political contributions have been driven by his disapproval of rising crime — despite the fact that crime in the city in recent years has been at an all-time low — as well as his desire for balanced government. 

Tom Finkelpearl, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Bill de Blasio, pled on Instagram for New York voters to “please … let’s not let this one right wing, art-loving billionaire sway the NY Governor’s race to an appalling Trumpite with his millions in contributions.”

“To all you Bernie-loving compatriots, Bloomberg democrats, even moderate republicans, please get out and vote for Hochul,” Finkelpearl wrote in a call to action. “Zeldin would be a nightmare for the state and the city!”

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.