Almost a quarter of a century ago, New York voters, weary of Governor Mario Cuomo’s sanctimonious bullyragging, rejected the three-term incumbent. Mario’s son Andrew, now seeking his own third term in office, has worn out his welcome with greater celerity. But then the son has all of dad’s bad qualities (i.e., he’s an arrogant prick) and none of the good (Mario’s wit and his ability to put a poetic gloss on standard-issue New Dealism).
The latest Siena College poll finds Andrew Cuomo’s favourable/unfavourable ratio balanced at a precarious 49-44 per cent. In the colony of Upstate New York, where detestation of the Cuomo name is ingested with a child’s first chicken wing, he is viewed unfavourably by a margin of 60-37 per cent.
Family history is instructively portentous. The Governor’s father, in his bid for a third term in 1990, tallied just 53 per cent of the vote against an opposition that amounted to a forfeit: Republican Pierre Rinfret, an obscure economist (is there any other kind?), and underfunded Conservative Party academic Herb London. The bell was tolling, though few recognised it at the time. Four years later, Mario Cuomo lost to the virtually unknown state senator George Pataki. Margins in some Upstate counties approached 4-1 against Cuomo.
Voter fatigue with Cuomo fils was already setting in when he ran for re-election in 2014. In the Democratic primary he lost about half of New York’s counties to Zephyr Teachout, a fresh-faced reformer with a wealth of ideas and a dearth of cash. (Cuomo outspent her by 30-1.) He then won 54 per cent of the vote in November despite outspending the opposition by a margin of over 5-1.
Distrusted by unions for his neoliberal economics, despised by rural Upstaters as a gun controller, a disappointment to liberals because of his budgetary centrism, Cuomo lacks any hard core of support. He’s just the incumbent, and perhaps that will be enough.
But Andrew Cuomo is scrambling, clumsily, to adapt to the age of identity politics. He has claimed, falsely, and with reference to his Italian immigrant ancestors, “I’m an undocumented person.” He has said that “extreme conservatives who are right-to-life” have “no place in the state of New York.” (Deportation, anyone?) He has publicly badgered his loyal lieutenant governor, the capable moderate ex-congresswoman Kathy Hochul, to remove herself from the ticket and run what would probably be an unwinnable race against Trump-supporting Republican Rep. Chris Collins. Hochul, it seems, is the wrong color for this year’s model. (Cuomo, by the way, elbowed his way into office in 2010 by muscling aside the blind African American Governor David Paterson. But that’s ancient history.)
As in 2014, Cuomo faces a Democratic primary challenger. Actress Cynthia Nixon of the schlocky middlebrow TV series Sex and the City is campaigning as the tribune of wealthy white woke Manhattan-Brooklyn progressives. Some of what she says is quite sensible – legalise marijuana, for instance – but Nixon betrays an almost comic ignorance of the mid-sized cities, small towns, and farms of the misleadingly nicknamed Empire State. (New York is among the nation’s leading producers of apples, cabbage, dairy, grapes, and sweet corn.) When asked where Upstate New York begins, Nixon guessed “Ithaca,” which was only off by 150-200 miles.
Nevertheless, Nixon trails Cuomo Upstate by just 48-37 per cent—heck, you the reader would trail Cuomo by just 48-37 per cent—and may win numerous Upstate counties in the primary, a la Zephyr Teachout. If, after losing the primary, she runs in the fall as the nominee of the union-backed Working Families Party, Nixon could pull 5-10 per cent of the general election vote. Given also the energetic campaigns of Green Party stalwart Howie Hawkins and the Libertarian candidate, African American businessman Larry Sharpe, Cuomo’s share of the statewide vote will likely dip below 50 per cent.
Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro is the probable recipient of the usually otiose GOP nomination. If his campaign can achieve the adjectival trifecta of populist, competent, and well-funded, not necessarily in that order, an upset of Pataki-Cuomo magnitude is not out of the question.
I’m not saying Andrew Cuomo will lose in November. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by more than two to one, and 22 per cent of the state’s population is foreign-born (a cohort that votes overwhelmingly Democratic), compared to 16 per cent in 1994, when Mario met his un-maker. But, well, arrogant pricks have been known to get their comeuppance.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, including Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America