New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has a lot to prove to progressives if he wants to be reelected, let alone make a go at running for the White House in 2020, say Democratic strategists and political observers in the Empire State.
Cynthia Nixon’s surprise entry into the state’s gubernatorial primary has put Cuomo on the defensive with liberals as he seeks to win over progressives in advance of the September primary.
Nixon — known nationally for her high-profile role as Miranda in the HBO series “Sex and the City” and two subsequent movies — is making Cuomo take notice and run further to the left, strategists say.
In some ways, it’s similar to what happened to Cuomo in 2014, when the progressive Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout challenged him and won a surprising 34 percent of the vote.
This time, he is facing a more formidable challenger in Nixon — and progressives are four years wearier of some of his tactics.
“Here comes someone who sounds a lot like Teachout, is emphasizing progressive values and issues, but the difference is, this woman is better connected,” said Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University. “People know her, and he is obviously worried about it and worried he’ll lose a significant chunk of the left.”
Cuomo remains the favorite to win reelection, but Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist who worked as a special adviser to Cuomo in 2014, said he has reason to be worried.
“He is concerned, as well he should be,” Del Percio said. “He promised a progressive agenda and didn’t do much with it.”
And if Cuomo is labeled as insufficiently progressive in New York, it could make it that much harder for him to compete in a Democratic presidential primary if he chooses to take the plunge.
The Cuomo-Nixon battle is creating tough choices for groups like the Working Families Party, a progressive group that has its own line on the ballot.
Cuomo is actively courting the group for its support, according to The New York Times, but some members see him as insufficiently liberal.
This week, Bertha Lewis, who co-founded the Working Families Party, gave Nixon an early endorsement, slamming Cuomo’s progressive credentials.
“He talks a good game,” she said of Cuomo, according to the New York Post.
Cuomo allies reject the notion that the governor is pivoting left in response to Nixon’s candidacy. They say he has long been an advocate for issues like marriage equality, increasing the minimum wage, gun safety laws and combatting sexual harassment
“The governor has long been pushing progressive policies long before Cynthia Nixon entered the race,” one source close to the governor said, adding that Cuomo’s record “is really second to none.”
Cuomo signed legislation upping the minimum wage in New York and creating a free tuition program at public colleges.
“Anyone saying that he’s tacking left is a little disingenuous. Take it or leave it, he has a record that really can’t be challenged,” the source close to the governor said.
New York observers saw a recent deal between Cuomo and the Independent Democratic Conference as a sign that the governor sees Nixon as a threat.
The Independent Democratic Conference was a group of Democratic senators that since 2011, a week after Cuomo was sworn in as governor, had worked with Republicans to give the GOP a larger majority — or in 2012, when Democrats held more Senate seats, an actual majority.
The group frustrated liberals for years by effectively denying Democratic leaders control of the Senate when they won a majority in 2012.
Last week, Cuomo presided over a ceremony in which the Independent Democratic Conference disbanded and its eight members joined the Democratic conference.
Cuomo cast the reunited Democrats as coming together because of President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE’s attacks on progressive values and rejected assertions that it had anything to do with Nixon.
He also offered a defense of his record on behalf of progressives.
“I’m proud of my record. I think we have the most progressive record in the country, in this state,” he said. “When you look at what we passed together with the ladies and gentlemen in this room, our record stands up to any state anywhere.”
Nixon said Cuomo was at fault for working in the past with the renegade Democrats.
“If you’ve set your own house on fire and watched it burn for eight years, finally turning on a hose doesn’t make you a hero,” she said in a statement.
In addition to his challenge from Nixon, Cuomo also has to contend with the aftermath of corruption charges against a former top aide, Joseph Percoco. The former aide was convicted late last month on three corruption charges and was found guilty on two counts of conspiracy as part of pay-to-play scams.
David Birdsell, the dean at the Marxe School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York, said the corruption charges only contribute to the pressure on Cuomo.
“He’s feeling the misfortunes of those close to him and the residue of the choices he’s made,” Birdsell said.
Close observers say the race against Nixon will be a sign of whether Cuomo can be competitive in a 2020 presidential primary.
If he emerges bloodied from the fight, he could be written off, say some observers.
On the other hand, if he beats expectations it could provide some momentum for a presidential bid.
“If he’s able to hold Nixon to under 30 percent, that will put some fresh wind behind the sail of his national ambitions,” Birdsell said.