In Statewide Primaries, Incumbents Prevail

Last week, the State of New York held primaries affecting statewide offices.

The majority of the action on primary day took place within the Democratic Party, which is in the midst of a fight for control between the liberal Democratic establishment and far-left insurgents. (The same struggle was on full display in the 2016 presidential primaries, as liberal establishment Democrat Hillary Clinton faced a strong challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-identified Democratic socialist. While Secretary Clinton survived that challenge, she received an unexpectedly close call; if the Democrats’ nomination process had not favored the establishment candidate, the outcome may have been different.) The establishment won this round.

This year’s congressional primaries left no doubt that there was a great deal of energy and intensity behind far-left candidates. In June, Democratic voters in Queens made national news when they voted out longtime Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY14). Rep. Crowley, a powerful political boss who had been mentioned as a potential successor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), was trounced in the primary by a previously unheard-of 28-year-old Democratic socialist named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on a platform of universal health care and abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and has become something of a national celebrity on the far left since her primary victory.

In this year’s gubernatorial race, Gov. Andrew Cuomo—the establishment candidate—faced a far-left primary challenge from actress and activist Cynthia Nixon. While Gov. Cuomo can take credit for a number of left-wing laws and regulations like the NY SAFE Act, same-sex “marriage,” a ban on hydrofracking, and a major minimum wage increase, he had infuriated the far left by failing to push for a Democratic takeover of the State Senate during his first seven years in office. (At NYCF, we believe that the Governor quietly supported Republican leadership in the State Senate because a divided legislature increases his political power. When the Assembly is led by Democrats and the Senate is led by Republicans, Gov. Cuomo can play the two houses off against each other.) Leftists assert that if Gov. Cuomo had used his political capital and fundraising prowess to help Democrats take control of the State Senate, other left-wing priorities such as abortion expansion, universal healthcare, marijuana legalization, and the Bathroom Bill could have become law.

The Governor did not take his re-nomination for granted; recognizing that the far left was gaining influence, he made strides in their direction—especially after Nixon announced her primary challenge. (Some political commentators referred to the Governor’s leftward shift as “the Cynthia effect.”) In March, the Governor joined students who engaged in a “die-in” gun control protest at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan; this site was the location of the original “Occupy Wall Street” protests in 2011. In April, Gov. Cuomo—who had vetoed a proposed New York City plastic bag fee in 2017—called for a statewide plastic bag ban. Also in April, after Nixon called for the full legalization of marijuana, the Governor—who had previously opposed legalization—stated that he was “reconsidering” his position on the issue; he has since created a panel to draft a marijuana legalization bill. In May, Gov. Cuomo issued a “blanket pardon” that restored the voting rights of 24,000 parolees, including sex offenders. Gov. Cuomo has made it a priority to attack President Donald Trump and the policies of his administration repeatedly. Perhaps most significantly, Gov. Cuomo asked the members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC)—a dissident group of Democratic state senators who had helped Republicans retain control of the chamber—to abandon their alliance with the GOP and rejoin the Senate Democratic Conference; the IDC members obliged, and the Governor has called for a Democratic takeover of the Senate.

On election night, Gov. Cuomo defeated Cynthia Nixon by 30 percentage points. While Nixon won a swath of 11 counties in the greater Capital Region, the Governor won 49 of the other 51 counties in the state. Gov. Cuomo won the Borough of Manhattan and overwhelmed Nixon in the outer boroughs of New York City. It is possible that the Governor’s shift to the left helped him to this lopsided victory; however, it is also possible that he succeeded due to name recognition, the power of incumbency, and the $21.4 million that his campaign spent between mid-January and early September.

The Governor’s allies also won their respective statewide primaries, but their races were much closer than his was. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul defeated New York City Councilmember Jumaane Williams by a single-digit margin for the Lieutenant Governor nod. Lt. Gov. Hochul’s path to victory was different than the Governor’s; while the Lieutenant Governor won 58 of New York’s 62 counties, Councilmember Williams kept the race close by winning a resounding victory in his native Brooklyn and by prevailing in Manhattan. The Governor and the Lieutenant Governor now move on to face the Republican ticket of Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and former Rye City Councilmember Julie Killian, as well as a series of third-party candidates.

In the four-way race for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, New York City Public Advocate and Cuomo ally Letitia “Tish” James prevailed. (Incumbent Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who became Attorney General following the resignation of Eric Schneiderman, is not seeking election.) James enjoyed a nearly 10% margin of victory over her closest challenger, leftist law professor and 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary challenger Zephyr Teachout. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY18) took third place with approximately 25% of the vote, while former Cuomo administration official Leecia Eve was a nonfactor in the race. James faces Republican attorney Keith Wofford and others in November.

Now that the statewide primaries are over and the establishment candidates have prevailed, three questions remain. First, will Gov. Cuomo’s leftward shift hurt him in the general election? Second, will Cynthia Nixon continue her campaign on the Working Families Party line? Third, if the Governor is re-elected, will he continue to embrace the leftist positions that he took this year? Time will tell.