Cuomo’s possible comeback bid puts Democrats on edge
Andrew Cuomo has New York Democrats biting their nails as he considers a disruptive entry into the state’s gubernatorial race, threatening to turn it into one of the nation’s most acrimonious midterm contests.
In remarks, a television ad blitz and renewed public appearances, the former governor, who resigned in disgrace last year, has indicated he has a strong eye on returning to the office from which he claims he was unjustly evicted. Polling also shows he retains a small but stubborn base of support that would make him a force in a gubernatorial race, fueling Democratic handwringing over the blood that could be spilled trying to spurn a comeback.
Cuomo is facing a deadline next week to file enough petitions to qualify for a Democratic primary but could also opt to run as a third-party candidate, which would provide him more time to submit the necessary paperwork, or even ultimately not run. But regardless of what he chooses, Democrats agree on one thing: he’ll be a headache no matter what.
“It’s like a zombie effort. He thinks that someday he is going to be vindicated, and so he’s gonna do everything he can to try and reach that vindication,” said one New York Democratic strategist. “And he doesn’t care if he burns the house down behind him.”
Handwringing over Cuomo’s next move is intensifying ahead of the Thursday deadline to file the petitions he would need to make the Democratic primary.
He’s in a crunch to file the 15,000 signatures, including at least 100 from at least half of the state’s congressional districts. However, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), who resigned in 2008 for patronizing a prostitution ring, garnered 27,000 signatures in four days to run for New York City comptroller in 2013. The deadline might also move amid a court battle over New York’s legislative maps.
Should Cuomo miss that date though, he wouldn’t have to file any signatures until the end of May to run as a third-party candidate. And should he decide not to run at all, he still has an eight-figure campaign account – a dangling, if unspoken, threat.
“Will he continue to make mischief? Bet on that. A man with that kind of money left in a campaign fund who is aggrieved will seek the appropriate opportunity. It may not be in 2022, but it will be in the future. And he has a strong sense of vengeance,” said New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
Democrats would much rather leave Cuomo in their rearview mirror after he resigned over sexual misconduct and harassment allegations last year, but he’s indicated that’s not in his current playbook.
Cuomo invested part of his campaign account into an ad blitz to rehabilitate his image. He’s also started making public appearances in friendly venues to rail against the “cancel culture” he says unjustly pushed him out and state Attorney General Letitia James, whose report on the allegations against him fueled the fire for his departure.
The spree comes amid polling showing Cuomo retaining a base of support and giving Democrats palpitations.
A Siena College Research Institute poll released Monday showed Cuomo trailing Hochul by just 8 points in a primary, garnering 30 percent support. The survey came weeks after a poll from The Hill and Emerson College found Hochul with just a 4-point lead in a hypothetical primary matchup.
Observers say the latest survey suggests his ceiling hovers around 30 percent – only a third of Democrats said they wanted to see him run again, and only 32 percent said they think he did not harass and assault the women who accused him.
“Some of the polls are showing that he does have support within the Democratic Party. I think there’s a real ceiling over it because when they look at the favorable/unfavorable questions, he started getting everybody who’s favorable towards him and none of the people who don’t like him, and the dislikes are much larger than the likes,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Hochul also amassed a $22 million war chest by the end of January and has yet to launch her own ad buys. She’s also swallowed up many of Cuomo’s former backers and donors.
But still, a source familiar with the matter said people have approached Cuomo about running after seeing the two polls, and he’s listening to what they have to say, potentially foreshadowing a brutal primary if he runs as a Democrat.
“If for some reason he does surmount these hurdles and get into the primary, it’s going to be scorched earth, acidic, extremely disruptive to a state that’s trying to rebound from job loss and a pandemic that hit us harder than anyone else,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.
While Democrats shudder to think of how bloody such a primary could be, they voice even more concern about Cuomo waging a third-party bid, worrying he could take a sizeable enough chunk out of Hochul’s support to open a path for Republicans in one of the country’s bluest states.
“Republicans are going to get low-to-mid-40s no matter what. That’s never enough in New York because the Democrats get the remaining mid-50s or higher. But if Andrew Cuomo could get 15 or 20 percent off the top of that, you can do the math,” said state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D).
Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesperson, said the former governor is still “evaluating his options.”
“The rest of this is just idle nonsense from professional institutionalists who for whatever reason are preoccupied with us and have nothing better to do while the budget doesn’t get passed.,” he added.
Even a decision by Cuomo to not run would still not be a panacea for Democrats – his beefy war chest ensures he’d be able to take pot shots at James and others and disseminate whatever message he wants without the constraints of a victory at stake.
Beyond what he specifically says, any public presence at all for Cuomo could have ramifications for Democrats outside of just New York.
For a party that has tried to be on the right side of issues surrounding sexual misconduct, officials expressed exasperation about having to answer inevitable questions about Cuomo’s past – and their inability to do anything about it.
“It’s frustrating,” conceded Suzanne Berger, the chair of the Westchester County Democratic Committee. “It’s not ideal, but we don’t cancel our voters, we let them speak their mind.”
A number of local district attorneys reviewed allegations made against Cuomo in their jurisdictions and have thus far declined to bring any charges.
Questions about the allegations could have outsized implications across the country and for down-ballot races. Democrats say they anticipate Cuomo to be featured in attack ads beyond New York and worry the former governor puts their House majority at even more risk.
Democrats must run up the margins in House races in New York this year after a gerrymander handed them a favorable map. But if Cuomo turns off some voters, Democrats worry it’ll cost them winnable seats, a troubling prospect when the party is defending just a five-seat majority.
“I can certainly assume that Republicans, the media would seek to see what Democrats running for office had to say about Andrew Cuomo … If I’m Elise Stefanik, I’m going to do what I can using my messaging bullhorn as Republican Conference chair to try to grill, especially in my home state, as many Democrats as possible about Andrew Cuomo,” Reinish said, referencing New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who directs the House GOP’s messaging.
In the end, a half-dozen Democrats told The Hill their best-case scenario is if Cuomo ultimately fades from public view. But they recognize that’s unlikely.
“The uncertainty is huge,” Sheinkopf said, “and the best thing they can do is pray every night that he somehow goes on vacation for about six months.”
Updated: 6:58 p.m.