NEW YORK – Gov. Andrew Cuomo won the Democratic nomination for a third term, easily defeating a challenge from his left by progressive activist and actress Cynthia Nixon.
The Empire State primary marked the final opportunity this year for left-wing insurgents to unseat powerful Democratic incumbents. But Cuomo, a battle-tested campaigner with deep pockets, consolidated establishment support in the spring and spent the summer blitzing the airwaves, spending more than $8 million over three weeks late in the contest to head off any momentum growing around Nixon’s insurgent bid.
The “Sex and the City” star’s decision to run was met with a hard line of resistance from top party officials inside the state and nationally, who backed Cuomo as both a liberal champion and the best positioned candidate to stand as a bulwark against the Trump administration and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.
Pushing for universal rent control, single-payer health care, new funding for public schools and a large-scale renewal of New York City’s broken-down subway system, which is controlled by the state, Nixon spent much of the spring and summer relentlessly attacking Cuomo and his political agenda as insufficiently ambitious for one of the country’s bluest states.
CNN had projected that New York City Public Advocate Tish James, who was endorsed by Cuomo, will be the party’s nominee for attorney general and, if she wins in November, the first black woman elected to statewide office. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will hold off New York City councilman Jumaane Williams, Nixon’s running mate, CNN projects.
On Thursday night, after months of campaigning, Nixon touted down ballot victories for progressive allies and called her own bid, which offered a rare rebuke to Cuomo, a victory in itself.
“We have fundamentally changed the political landscape in this state,” she told supporters gathered at Brooklyn’s Omar Cafe. “We have changed what is expected of a Democratic candidate running in New York and what we can demand from our elected leaders. Progressive rhetoric alone is not enough — people are struggling just to survive here, and they need to see real substantive policies that address racial, gender and economic inequality.”
New York progressives have for years blamed Cuomo for the state’s failure to pass its own DREAM Act, legislation to protect abortion rights and serious campaign finance revisions. And while they credit his successful push to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011, years before most other states took the step, his critics also point to it as evidence that he is not committed to delivering on other liberal priorities.
On the trail last weekend, Cuomo veered strategically between listing his achievements and railing against Trump.
“The President says, ‘I’m fighting with Gov. Cuomo but it’s just Gov. Cuomo that I’m fighting with, just Gov. Cuomo — everybody else agrees with me,'” Cuomo said at a rally on Long Island, rehashing his recent Twitter dust-up with Trump before framing the ask: “I want you to come out Thursday and vote for me. And I want, when you fill in that little hole there on that little ballot, I want you to be saying, ‘No, President Trump, it’s not just Andrew who disagrees with you. Every decent New Yorker disagrees with you.’ ”
Cuomo will face Republican Marc Molinaro in the November general election.
A fight, at least in the press, to the end
Throughout the campaign, Cuomo mostly left the work of chopping away at Nixon to campaign aides and supporters. Live-tweeting through the primary’s only debate, in late August, Cuomo staffers called Nixon “unhinged” while the governor, onstage, fought to keep his cool. Last weekend, he publicly distanced himself from the printing and distribution of a mailer, sent to Jewish voters by the state party, that falsely accused Nixon of being “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism.”
Nixon’s campaign, which operated as the tip of a spear of a slate of progressive challengers down the ballot, alternated between searing criticism of Cuomo directly and broader objections to a state government they view as grotesquely transactional.
The battle lines were drawn early on, when within weeks of Nixon’s entering the race in March, she secured the backing of the New York-based progressive Working Families Party, a process that led to a rift within that party that its leaders blamed on Cuomo. From April on, the New York Democratic establishment and its progressive insurgency would wage one of the primary season’s hottest conflicts.
Groups like Indivisible and local Democratic Socialists of America chapters eventually lined up with Nixon while organized labor, the state party Cuomo effectively controls and most of New York’s top elected officials — along with Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Joe Biden — backed the governor, who also secured a lukewarm endorsement from the New York Times editorial board.
For all the respect and support her campaign has amassed on the left, Nixon never trailed Cuomo in public polling by less than 20 percentage points. Cuomo’s lead grew over the summer as his campaign unleashed a torrent of television ads — including one that aired right before the debate — that often featured Biden’s kind words.
Nixon, who was outspent at a nearly 20-to-1 clip, mostly directed her limited resources to digital efforts and field work.
Cuomo supporters, like Stu Loeser, the longtime former spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the governor’s advantage heading into primary went beyond the gulf in spending — and pointed to a misreading of the electorate by Cuomo’s Democratic opponents.
“Progressives say all decisions should be made purely on the merits and that’s why we should be pursuing affordable housing and everything else,” Loeser said. “And there are a lot of people out there who think, ‘We lose every time that happens. And this guy is concerned about us.'”
The progressive insurgency grows — but can it win?
The stakes of the primary escalated further in May, when then-state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned after multiple women alleged, in a New Yorker report, that he had assaulted them. Suddenly, one of the most powerful statewide jobs in the country — and a launching pad to higher office — was up for grabs.
The Cuomo-backed James, who is expected to also receive the Working Families Party ballot line, defeated a strong field including Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and progressive favorite Zephyr Teachout, the anti-corruption activist who campaigned alongside Nixon for much of the primary.
Teachout and Williams had, along with Nixon, come together to form a de facto progressive ticket, one that extended into the handful of state Senate races where grass-roots-powered primary challengers — a mostly young, diverse group seeking to oust entrenched incumbents — pledged to unlock the seemingly impenetrable maneuvering that steers Albany, the state’s corruption-plagued capital.
“There is a movement happening,” Nixon senior adviser Rebecca Katz said earlier in the week. “It began with (Alexandria) Ocasio-Cortez and we’ve cross-endorsed state Senate candidates, we’ve cross-endorsed other challengers, Zephyr, Jumaane — it’s a different feel because we’re all in this together. That will be a lasting thing.”
Big drama down the ballot
Even with Nixon’s loss, progressives on Thursday scored significant victories in their push to empower their agenda in Albany — and in the process fundamentally shift the state’s politics.
In the 34th state Senate district, Alessandra Biaggi, a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide and lawyer in Cuomo’s counsel’s office, declared victory over Jeff Klein, the powerful erstwhile leader of a breakaway band of Democrats who, for seven years, collaborated with state Republicans.
Klein was a charter member of the so-called “Independent Democratic Conference,” a group of eight Democrats (by the time it folded last spring) that effectively guaranteed GOP control of the chamber.
Their power grab inflamed the progressive opposition to Cuomo, who critics say blessed the arrangement because it allowed him greater influence over the kind of legislation that hit his desk — and protected him from the kinds of liberal bills he never intended to sign but also didn’t want to be seen vetoing.
The successes of Biaggi and allies — including Jessica Ramos and Zellnor Myrie, all three of them endorsed by the Times — means Cuomo could begin his next term without some old allies and, potentially, be forced to take up a more aggressive agenda.
In an interview earlier this week, Biaggi praised Nixon for immediately bringing the Independent Democratic Conference into the headlines upon entering the race, but said it was Ocasio-Cortez’s win in late June that began to open doors for her own bid — sometimes literally.
“Her race put a massive crack in cynicism, in a way that people said, ‘Whoa, this is possible and it can happen here,'” Biaggi said. “More volunteers came in, more shifts knocking doors, more small-dollar donations, and it has been one of the key pieces to our progress right now.”