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How Worried Should Andrew Cuomo Be?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's upset is a warning for more moderate incumbents like New York's governor, who can't feel safe while the Democratic Party is shifting to the left.

Cuomo and Nixon
(AP/Frank Franklin II/Mary Altaffer)
It's always tough for incumbents to win third terms. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- who is likely considering a 2020 run for president -- faces an even tougher problem: The energy of his own party is moving against him.

Four years ago, a little-known and underfunded law professor named Zephyr Teachout took a third of the Democratic primary vote by running to Cuomo's left. This time around, Cuomo faces another progressive primary opponent in "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon, who is receiving all the attention that New York media outlets can gin up.

With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's shocking upset against New York Congressman Joseph Crowley last week, Cuomo received a fresh reminder that more moderate incumbents can't feel safe when the Democratic Party is shifting to the left.

"It's big momentum for Cynthia," says Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party, a progressive alliance that backed Cuomo in 2014 but has endorsed Nixon. "Our phones are ringing off the hook from people who want to work on Cynthia's campaign, who want to make contributions and who want to endorse."

Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, who had been a Crowley supporter, endorsed Nixon just two days after the victory of Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democratic Socialist who worked on Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

“Two days ago, we saw an epic, transformational moment in the political history of Queens, the city and maybe even the country with the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Van Bramer said. “Alexandria’s epic and monumental victory is certainly one that all Democrats who are in office, or want to be in office, should respond to."

New York splits its federal and state primaries, with the gubernatorial contest coming on Sept. 13. Primary turnout is always lower than in November, but having two separate primary dates lowers turnout even further. That could give a big boost to Nixon, whose supporters may be more ardent than Cuomo's.

"For Cuomo, this is a continuation of what he had in the Zephyr Teachout challenge," says Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College. "It does speak to where the party is headed."

Cuomo will not be caught napping. Knowing this challenge was coming, he has used his bully pulpit aggressively, putting out multiple news releases a day that are targeted to different parts of the state.

"He's a guy who grew up loving to campaign," says Daniel DiSalvo, a political scientist at City College of New York. "In that sense, he has more an attitude of 'bring it on.'"

When Cuomo's June 30 fundraising totals are released, they're expected to be in the neighborhood of $50 million. Nixon will have a fraction of that amount -- although Ocasio-Cortez won despite being outspent by Crowley by about 10-to-1.

"Anytime you run for a third term, you're vulnerable to begin with," says Blair Horner, director of New York Public Interest Group, a government watchdog. "The governor knows that, and that's why he's been so aggressive about raising money."

Cuomo has real liabilities. There have long been complaints that the governor hasn't done enough to make good on his early promise to clean up Albany. Instead, critics say he's been complicit in its culture of corruption. Joseph Percoco, a former top aide, was found guilty of corruption charges in March. Cuomo has not been charged with any wrongdoing but Percoco's will not be the only government contracting trial this year. 

Many New York City residents have also been irate about repeated delays in subway service, directing their anger at Cuomo because the governor appoints a majority of the board members at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Cuomo's biggest political headaches, however, stem from what should be his area of greatest strength. He has delivered on numerous progressive goals, including early adoption of same-sex marriage, the nation's highest minimum wage, generous family leave policies, a ban on fracking and free college tuition for up to four years.

"The governor has more of a progressive record than most of the elected officials in the country," says Kevin Parker, the Democratic whip in the state Senate.

But progressives distrust him. They remain angry about the austerity budgets of his first term and his support for charter schools. They seem to believe he comes around on their issues only when circumstances force him, rather than giving him credit for having the political instincts to make his moves at the right moments.

In April, Cuomo helped resolve a split within the Senate Democratic caucus that kept the GOP in control of the chamber, but the sense that he spent too long consorting with Republicans continues to linger in progressive circles.

"People are mostly objecting to the process and not the policy," Parker says. "You can't really argue the policy, because he's done it."

In the face of the challenge from Nixon, Cuomo has spent the year polishing his progressive credentials, engaged in an informal competition with his West Coast peers over who can attack President Trump loudest and most often. Anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court's anti-union decision last week in the Janus case, Cuomo has closely embraced the agenda of unions that he'd fought earlier in his term. In May, he called immediately for state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to resign over a report that he had abused several women.

Nixon has gone after Cuomo over the subways, his record of economic development in upstate New York and income inequality, claiming he relies on support from well-heeled donors who have benefited from his policies.

On some issues, though, she hasn't found all that much room to Cuomo's left.

Nixon, like Ocasio-Cortez, is among the Democratic candidates calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the federal Department of Homeland Security. Cuomo hasn't gone that far, but he has sued to block the Trump administration over its "zero tolerance" policy that has led to the arrest of immigrants in the country illegally.


Lessons From His Father's Career

In 1990, Andrew Cuomo's father, Mario Cuomo, took just 53 percent of the vote to win a third term as New York governor before going on to lose his bid for a fourth term in 1994. Andrew Cuomo has worked assiduously not to lose favor with the upstate voters who ended his father's career.

In the end, that might offer the governor his biggest advantage against Nixon: The rest of the state is not like the Bronx-Queens district where Ocasio-Cortez scored her victory, or even like New York City as a whole. The city gave Hillary Clinton a big margin of victory in 2016, but the rest of the state was essentially tied in its presidential vote.

Having said that, Democrats in New York City are likely to cast about 60 percent of the statewide primary vote in September. If enough liberals are fired up and the traditional Democrats who have supported incumbents like Cuomo aren't as motivated, Nixon could give Cuomo a real scare.

"It's possible, even though not plausible, that she'll win, and the governor is taking her very seriously," says Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. "It's within the realm of possibility."

Assuming Cuomo wins renomination, his troubles won't be over. Even if Nixon loses as a Democrat, she can appear on the ballot as the nominee of the Working Families Party. Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is seeking a place on the ballot as an independent and has been attacking Cuomo on ethics. 

"The governor has this unique challenge where he's attacked from the left, right and center," Horner says.

Whoever wins in September will face Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor. In New York, with its multiparty ballots, it's not unheard of for the vote to be split -- including between moderates and liberals.

"It's possible, in a four-way race, if Nixon takes enough votes from Cuomo, a Republican can win [the general election]," says Muzzio.

The most likely scenario is that Cuomo will win both the primary and the general election. But it's going to be less of a coronation than he would have hoped for, in terms of setting him up for a potential presidential run.

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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