For weeks now, New York politicos have been jazzed about former Sex and the City co-star Cynthia Nixon’s insurgent campaign for New York governor. The incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, has become a villain on the party’s left even as he reportedly draws up plans to join the throng of Democrats likely to run for the presidency in 2020. Nixon, speaking stridently on topics like wealth inequality and mass incarceration, has directed her pitch squarely at those disgruntled progressives. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, she’s gained 16 points worth of ground against Cuomo in the past month, although he still holds a healthy lead, 58 percent to 27. Cuomo’s approval rating has also slipped beneath 50 percent for the first time since 2015.
The new numbers aren’t terribly surprising, as Nixon’s been the subject of glowing coverage in the local and national press. Strong evidence that the hype has spooked Cuomo’s camp came Monday in a New York Daily News piece on the likelihood of Bernie Sanders making an endorsement in the race. “The governor and Sen. Sanders are in lock-step,” Cuomo campaign spokesperson Abbey Fousher told the paper. “Our focus is on passing progressive policies and 100% on beating Republicans to take back the House, and the state Senate here in New York.” Not long afterward, Nixon’s team sent out an email noting that Cuomo, unlike Sanders, has been a fan of tax cuts and came into office promising tussles with unions too, among other differences. The email also linked to a 2014 article on comments Cuomo had made about reaching out to Republicans. “When it comes to fiscal issues, you look at the way we’ve managed this state, we managed it a way that any Republican would be proud,” he’d told reporters. Voices from Sanders’ circles were equally incredulous. “The idea that Andrew Cuomo and Bernie Sanders are lock step on policy is 100% Grade A American bullshit,” tweeted Sanders senior adviser Ari Rabin-Havt.
The “lock-step” comment was of a piece with Cuomo’s ongoing efforts to burnish his progressive credentials. He launched a paid family leave program in January, for instance, and has championed both gun control measures and LGBT rights. On Wednesday, he granted New York’s ex-felons on parole the right to vote by executive order. His supporters count the state’s $15 minimum wage hike and a free college program endorsed by Sanders among his achievements as well, although progressive skeptics have criticized the scope of both initiatives: The free college program is expected to cover only about 32,000 students by 2021 and there’s no set timetable yet for when the minimum wage will actually reach $15 for workers outside of New York City, Long Island, and Westchester.
Moreover, as the quote dredged up by Nixon’s team illustrates, Cuomo has spent much of his tenure as a committed centrist. He hardly campaigned for Democratic candidates for the state legislature in 2014 and went on the trail for them only reluctantly and belatedly in 2016, initially taking care, as the New York Daily News’ Kenneth Lovett reported, not to stop in districts held by incumbent Republicans. State Democrats have been additionally frustrated by Cuomo’s ambivalence over the Independent Democratic Conference, a small group of state Senate Democrats that began conferencing with Republicans in 2011, securing a GOP majority that has stalled progressive priorities like a state single-payer program and a version of the DREAM Act. In 2014, Blake Zeff reported in Politico that, according to anonymous insiders, Cuomo had involved himself behind the scenes with the IDC’s creation and messaging with the intention of keeping Republicans in control in the state Senate “so that he wouldn’t be handing over power to New York City Democrats.” Cuomo insisted for years on end that he had no power over the group, before promising, in 2014, to break up the coalition as part of a deal with the progressive and influential Working Families Party. That didn’t happen until earlier this month, when Cuomo abruptly killed the IDC in a press conference with state Senate Democratic Conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and IDC leader Jeff Klein, where they announced the sudden acceleration of a reunification deal reached in December.
It’s unclear whether Cuomo will try framing this record as results-driven pragmatism or insist he’s been a progressive all along if he runs for president in 2020. But it’s clear that the immediate task of quashing Nixon’s primary challenge demands a leftward shift that is already underway. Cuomo called marijuana legalization an inevitability last week after Nixon released a video on her support for it and declared a state of emergency to take over and manage new funding at the New York City Housing Authority earlier this month after years of diffidence from the state.
Again, although Cuomo’s playing catch-up with the state’s progressives, his chances of running away with the race remain strong. Siena’s poll shows that Cuomo has a 3-to-1 lead over Nixon in New York City and is well ahead in the city’s suburbs. Most of the state’s primary voters live in and around the city, which carried Hillary Clinton to victory in 2016 even as Bernie Sanders cleaned up across most of the state.
Nixon is certain to secure the support of Sanders veterans in her bid to outdo his margins. She was invited to address progressive activists at an event in Washington last Friday co-hosted by Our Revolution, a group formed by Sanders supporters to continue pushing his message. “The time is up for corporate Democrats, for politicians who campaign as Democrats but govern as Republicans,” she told the crowd. “It can’t just be business as usual anymore.” The moves Cuomo’s made since her entrance into the race suggest business as usual may already be on the way out, whether she stands a real chance of beating him or not.