The Democratic gubernatorial primary began in earnest on Tuesday, with Cynthia Nixon and allies of Governor Andrew Cuomo trading barbs over who should be considered a true progressive leader in New York state.
Nixon, the actress and activist who launched a primary bid against two-term incumbent Cuomo this week, made her first campaign appearance before of a largely black audience in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on Tuesday. She tied her opponent to a corrupt culture in Albany and New York City’s deteriorating subway system, and questioned his credentials as a “real Democrat.”
Although Nixon is challenging a relatively popular governor with $30 million in his campaign coffers, experts are divided on whether she has a credible path to victory in the September primary.
Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said that the muscle behind Nixon’s campaign suggests this is a serious bid. NY1 reported earlier this month that Nixon had hired Rebecca Katz and Bill Hyers, alumni of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 campaign. Nixon, an ally of de Blasio’s, was a prominent campaign surrogate during his 2013 mayoral bid.
“These are people who understand not just the electorate, but they also understand Cuomo as well,” Greer said about Katz and Hyers. The decision to make Nixon’s campaign debut in Brownsville demonstrates a strategy to appeal to minority voters in the city, and an attempt to convince black voters—who have supported Cuomo in the past—to reject the governor’s bid for a third term. “These are the people who understand that right now black women are the keepers of the Democratic Party and democracy, and they go to a district where black women are the voters.”
Nixon’s progressive campaign is also inviting comparisons to Zephyr Teachout’s grass-roots primary bid against Cuomo in 2014. Teachout, who received 34 percent of the vote and carried much of upstate New York, is now Nixon’s campaign treasurer. Greer said that Nixon may be able to improve upon Teachout’s performance in New York City, largely due to frustration over poor performance of the subway system. In her campaign launch, Nixon, who has been a prominent advocate on education issues, also criticized school segregation and inequality.
Bruce Gyory, a senior adviser at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who has worked for past Democratic governors, expressed deep skepticism that Nixon would even be able to reach the 34 percent threshold that Teachout obtained in 2014. He suggested that Cuomo was vulnerable four years ago in a way that he is not today, as he was battling prominent unions at the time and was criticized by Teachout supporters for not opposing hydraulic fracturing more vehemently. This year, Cuomo has already obtained the support of several unions, and he can point to a laundry list of progressive accomplishments since his re-election, including raising the minimum wage, banning fracking and paid family leave.
While leaders of liberal organizations may still be frustrated with Cuomo, the reality may be different among actual voters.
“When you look at the polling data in light of the issue choices that Cuomo has made, I question the veracity of whether Cuomo has a problem with the liberal base voters anymore,” Gyory said.
While incumbents enjoy benefits in fundraising and name recognition, and they can use the power and prestige of their office to promote their message, Greer argues that Cuomo has a hurdle to overcome because he is seeking a third term and voters may be fatigued with his leadership. She said that Nixon also will be able to make inroads with voters who oppose the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of eight Democrats in the state Senate who share power with Senate Republicans. Progressive activists have accused Cuomo of tacitly allowing for this arrangement to continue, although he currently supports a plan for reunification between the IDC and the mainline Democrats.
However, Cuomo may have stronger support among progressives than conventional wisdom suggests. A Siena College Poll released Monday found that 65 percent of Democrats said they would re-elect Cuomo. In a hypothetical matchup against Nixon, 66 percent of Democratic voters said they would vote for Cuomo, while 19 percent supported Nixon. Sixty-three percent of liberals and 68 percent of New York City voters, ostensibly Nixon’s prospective base, also supported Cuomo.
While seeking a third term might work against Cuomo, Gyory noted that the demographics are still in the incumbent’s favor. He said that even if Nixon were able to win over the New York City area, only 52 percent of Democratic primary voters hail from the city—18 percent are in the suburbs and 30 percent are upstate. He questioned her strategy of focusing so heavily on city issues, including problems with the MTA.
“If you spend all your time talking about that, you’re not talking to the 30 percent of the electorate that casts its vote north and west of Westchester and Rockland,” he said. He also noted that it’s difficult for first-time candidates to gain name recognition in the state, even if they are celebrities.
Gyory also pointed out that Cuomo was likely to garner support from black, Jewish, Latino and white Catholic voters. His emphasis on aiding Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria and his recent announcement of additional funding for the New York City Housing Authority is aimed at some of those constituencies. And, as Gyory repeatedly emphasized, “No Cuomo since 1974 has lost the white Catholic vote in a Democratic primary.”
Other key Democratic demographic groups may give Cuomo trouble, however, Nixon enthusiasts said. Greer noted that the existence of the IDC keeps a black woman—state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins—from holding a position of power. “It’s not like women of color and voters of color haven’t noticed that,” she said.
“I’m sure his people will float the idea, like, ‘No, no, no, Cuomo’s a hardcore Democrat, he’s always been a friend of voters of color.’ Well, show me the receipts,” Greer said.
Gyory acknowledged that, however dim her prospects may be, Nixon could at least exploit a weakness of Cuomo’s—his tendency to go on the offensive when confronting political opponents, and his pugnacious personality. “The only thing that can get in the way of his running up the score is if he tries to bully her or is angry with her,” Gyory said. Greer said that “smart women” are Cuomo’s “Achilles’ heel.”
“When you’re going against a strong female and your natural inclination is to be a bully, that does not bode well with a lot of your supporters,” she said.
Nixon already seems to be following the playbook of criticizing Cuomo and highlighting his weaknesses, and focusing more heavily on downstate. She has even exploited his weakness for aggressive campaigning, albeit by addressing the words of Cuomo ally Christine Quinn, the president and CEO of Win, who dismissed Nixon as an “unqualified lesbian,” although she later apologized. “Calling all qualified and unqualified lesbians and everyone who wants funded schools, affordable housing & working subways: Join our Campaign Launch Party 3/21 at the Stonewall Inn, 6-9PM,” Nixon wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
Grace Segers a digital reporter for City & State, a politics and policy journal with which The Public shares content.