Incumbent Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his bid for a third term, has drawn the ire of a newly invigorated Democratic base that has sought to oust him—and a host of other Democrats in Albany who have partnered with him, and with the Republicans who control the state Senate—in favor of fresh faces who can actualize the vision of New York as the nation’s progressive beacon.
The avatar for that change is Cynthia Nixon, an actress and longtime activist, who has spent the campaign arguing that Cuomo has allowed the New York City subway system to wither, cultivated a culture of corruption in the state’s capital and failed to realize liberal policy goals of a single-payer health care system and marijuana legalization.
Her efforts, while comparatively underfunded—he’s spending nearly as much each day now as she’s raised, much of it from out-of-state donors and in small-dollar contributions, over the course of the campaign—have led Cuomo to mount a late-stage slash-and-burn campaign, touting key endorsements and flooding the airwaves with millions in advertising.
“I think that they are not taking this win for granted,” a Democratic operative, unaffiliated with either campaign, told The Daily Beast on background. “They’re killing an ant with a bazooka. They have one speed, which is kill.”
Cuomo’s spending on the race—$7.5 million from mid-July to mid-August—has kept Nixon from gaining much traction in publicly available polling, with her trailing by a whopping 41 points in the most recent Siena College survey. Yet since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District, no incumbent, particularly in New York, has wanted to be caught off guard.
In the last week, Cuomo, seeking to protect his position, has damaged it with a brutal series of self-inflicted negative headlines and stories. He was joined by Hillary Clinton for a ceremonial opening of the new Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, named after his father, only for the project to be delayed due to concerns that remnants of the old adjacent Tappan Zee Bridge could collapse onto it. And a mailer from the New York State Democratic Committee controlled by Cuomo that accused Nixon of being anti-Semitic prompted outrage from elected Democrats and voters across the state. An editorial from The New York Times, which had offered Cuomo an exceptionally tepid endorsement days earlier, blasted the the mailer’s “dirty politics” and called on Cuomo to apologize to Nixon for the smear.
While the governor claimed he knew nothing about it, a Tuesday night report from The New York Post cast doubt on that assertion. The article claimed that a top campaign aide tried to shop a story to the outlet about Nixon’s support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement just a day before the mailer hit voters’ mailboxes. A subsequent story reported that the mailer had been approved by close advisers.
“Anti-Semitism is on the rise, not just across the country but across the globe,” Nixon reportedly said in response to the mailer on Sunday. “My children are Jewish. I fear for them. And to have me accused in such a blatant way of something that is so completely untrue is deeply, deeply offensive to me.”
The Nixon campaign went a step further Wednesday, calling on Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, who made the unusual move of endorsing Cuomo in his personal capacity, to address the mailer.
“Tom Perez was chosen to lead our party, so now we need him to lead,” Nixon senior strategist Rebecca Katz said. “The Democratic Party is smearing a Democratic candidate. What is he going to do about it?” A DNC spokesperson responded in a tweet saying “As Tom has said before, we should never tear down other Democrats in primaries. Period. And this is no exception.”
This fracas underscores the uncomfortable position Cuomo has been put in with a base that is not willing to give him a pass just for accomplishments like legalizing same-sex marriage and passing gun control legislation. That hasn’t stopped him from receiving the backing of Democratic institutional leaders like Hillary Clinton and former vice president Joe Biden who have branded him an effective leader. Cuomo has run his campaign largely against President Trump (who is not in fact on the ballot) while Nixon has run hers against Cuomo, a throughline that became even clearer in their first and only debate.
Cuomo has spent far more in this election cycle than in 2014, when he was faced with a challenge from Fordham University Law Professor Zephyr Teachout, whom Cuomo tried not to mention at all and infamously refused to shake hands with or debate. Teachout nonetheless ended up capturing a third of the primary vote, indicating that there was some viability in a challenge from the governor’s left.
And now Teachout is a candidate for Attorney General gaining steam in a crowded primary, where the chance for a left-wing challenger to break through could be greater than at the top of the ticket.
“Donald Trump’s election woke a lot of people up to New York politics,” Teachout, said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “After Trump was elected, people started paying a lot more attention to what was happening in New York and realizing that we, although are broadly known as the progressive state, actually had a lot of policies that were driving inequality. Not funding our schools. We’re not even a sanctuary state. And that New York could be so much better.”
Teachout, who this week put up a buzzed-about ad online featuring her getting an ultrasound, is running on a two-pronged approach of being a check on both the Trump administration and Albany corruption. She often cites the fact that she sued the administration for taking money from foreign governments through Trump’s businesses during the president’s first week in office.
Locked in a tight contest with New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) despite being vastly outspent after pledging not to accept corporate contributions, Teachout may be lifted by endorsements from The New York Times and Daily News. Even as it went with Cuomo, the city’s paper of record backed Teachout, along with New York City Council member Jumaane Williams, who is challenging current lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul, arguing that Cuomo would only deliver for New York if forced to by pressure on his left.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Monday also backed Teachout and Williams, while offering no nod in the race at the top of the ticket.
This has led some political observers to think that there could be a lot of ticket-splitting on Thursday, with voters selecting Cuomo but also one of these challengers in order to provide a check on his prospective third term.
“The election is really going to be a referendum on whether or not ordinary Democratic voters are going to tolerate moderates like Cuomo or whether or not the progressive Democrats are really galvanizing power and are trying to transform the party,” observed Stephen Pampinella, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz. “You don’t need to defeat Cuomo to do that.”
Democrats dominate much of the state, and Thursday’s primaries will likely decide who will be in Albany next year.
Part of that equation is the defeat of a group of members of the New York State Senate known as the Independent Democratic Conference. The IDC whose members allied with Senate Republicans to help them keep control of the body—their last position of strength in the state government—dissolved earlier this year at Cuomo’s behest. But that didn’t tamp down voter anger and now those eight senators, including conference leader Jeff Klein, who was recently accused of sexual misconduct, all face challengers on Thursday.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) endorsed four of them: Alessandra Biaggi in the Bronx and Westchester, Jessica Ramos in Queens, Robert Jackson in upper Manhattan and Zellnor Myrie in Brooklyn. The New York Times also backed all of them save for Jackson.
Activists think that if those insurgent Democrats defeat the former IDC members they’re challenging, that could force Cuomo’s hand in the next administration. The IDC, whose members have shifted over the years, was key to Cuomo’s signature legislative wins on guns and gay marriage, even as it worked with Republicans to bottle up other progressive priorities.
“The IDC has been the central stumbling block to progressive change—and for years, Cuomo used them as cover to claim he couldn’t get anything done in Albany,” Monica Klein, a spokesperson for the Working Families Party, whose firm worked with Ramos, told The Daily Beast. “It’s an open secret that Cuomo helped support and sustain the IDC, using them to keep Republicans in power and keep taxes low for his corporate donors.”
Nixon acknowledged the tough climb during her closing appeal Wednesday evening.
“This has been a David and Goliath battle, but we can win.”