Cynthia Nixon is unlikely to beat Andrew Cuomo in the New York Democratic primary. But she’ll be the biggest demonstration yet of the visceral loathing and distrust of the governor among liberals that will clearly haunt him if he tries to run for president in 2020.
The “Sex and the City” actress is in serious conversations about jumping in and has begun reaching out to potential campaign staffers, according to a person familiar with her plans, though she has not yet pulled the trigger.
Though there's been chatter for months that Nixon would run, Cuomo’s team was caught by surprise Tuesday, several people close to the governor said, as word spread that she was getting more serious. The famous plotting politician received the news without any polling on Nixon or any other potential primary challenger. The governor and his team didn’t expect one to materialize.
The potential showdown captures the state of Democratic politics right now: A popular two-term big-state governor with a long record and a talent on the stump should make him a natural presidential front-runner. But instead, his Bill Clinton-style triangulation and personal spats have enraged an activist base that's becoming ever more energized and liberal, and ready to sign up for party infighting with their own celebrity from outside of politics to make a point.
Cuomo has avoided any major strategic decisions about a potential bid for president. But he and his orbit understand that his problems with the left — however tribal it is, and however block-headed and unfair they believe it is — would be a problem if he does give it a go.
Already, national operatives talk regularly about how they don’t like Cuomo or his politics, or that they know enough other people who don’t.
Now, with New York’s very late primary — it's not until mid-September — Nixon will have months to exploit that distrust on a range of issues. Cuomo's 2014 primary challenger, Zephyr Teachout, won more than a third of the vote — without Nixon's star power.
“What we saw was with a weird name and basically no money or name recognition, almost immediately when I started running, people came out of the woodwork in various communities saying they felt betrayed, he wasn’t supporting Democrats or addressing the real issues,” Teachout said on Tuesday. “The core dissatisfaction has not only remained, but it’s grown.”
Many Cuomo defenders are confounded by all the ill will. Of all the prospective Democratic presidential candidates, he has one of the thickest records of actual progressive accomplishments, from legalizing gay marriage early in 2011 to passing significant gun laws in 2013 after the Sandy Hook shooting, to actions around climate change and economic growth.
In recent months, Cuomo has stepped up nationally — he used to insist that doing his job as governor required avoiding politics beyond the borders of New York — and started swinging at President Donald Trump and Republicans about the tax bill, gun laws and more.
But he also has a record of getting police to clear out Occupy protesters and stopping tax increases. And then there's his nonstop grudge match with eager lefty avatar New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and years of Cuomo propping up a renegade faction of state senators who have helped keep the chamber in Republican control.
Enter Ms. Could Be Big.
“For eight years, this guy has governed as a Republican in New York, literally empowering a Republican state Senate, bashing Democrats, putting forward a centrist agenda and coasting on his last name,” said one person who’s spoken to Nixon about a possible run. “Add to that the fact that his administration is perpetually mired in corruption and the subways don’t work. The guy’s got real problems.”
Alarms went off in Cuomo’s orbit Tuesday as the news spread, and supporters quickly went on the attack.
Christine Quinn, the former New York City council speaker and state Democratic Party vice chair, pointed out that Cuomo has already been endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, the state Service Employees International Union and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. She said more are coming.
“The guy’s record, from a left perspective, is flawless. It’s just flawless,” Quinn said.
But Cuomo has done some things that have very much rankled the left.
In 2012, he pushed to reduce pension benefits for new public employees in exchange for allowing legislators to draw their own district lines, breaking a campaign promise to reformers and helping Republicans retain their grip on power in the state Senate. Cuomo later angered teachers by pushing a new evaluation system, and he has increased aid to public schools at a level that they say is not adequate.
Cuomo also rolled back New York’s estate tax, eliminated the dedicated bank tax, cut corporate taxes and has increased economic development spending that critics on the left and right deride as corporate welfare. The governor says it’s important to change the perception that New York is not business-friendly; in 2014, he ran for reelection with the endorsement of the state’s business council but not New York's AFL-CIO.
Since Teachout’s 2014 challenge, though, Cuomo has tacked considerably to the left. He banned natural gas hydrofracking about a month after the election, responding to environmental activism that Teachout harnessed in upstate areas.
Cuomo also softened his rhetoric on teachers, and in his second term has pushed to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and create a new scholarship to make public colleges “tuition-free” for middle-class students. He has pushed through criminal justice reforms, including an increase in the age of criminal responsibility and, this year, a proposal to eliminate cash bail.
Politics in New York is always personal. And Quinn — who, in the small world of New York Democratic infighting, lost a 2013 mayoral primary in which Nixon campaigned for de Blasio — mocked the actress for saying recently that she felt called into running.
“You need to run for a reason,” Quinn said. “And you need to run not just because of your own desire, your own ‘calling.’”
Cuomo pollster Jef Pollock also dismissed Nixon for waging “a vanity run.” He argued that the 2014 primary was driven by anger over Cuomo’s stance on fracking and fights with public employee unions that has faded in the four year since. Pollock said that anger has been replaced by support for Cuomo's efforts since to raise the minimum wage to $15, provide hurricane relief to Puerto Rico, expand paid family and more.
“In Democratic primaries all over the country, I have looked at the outsider/insider dynamic, and voters are overwhelmingly in favor of a candidate with real government experience over an outsider, particularly a celebrity,” Pollock said. “They look to Washington, D.C., and see what a celebrity in office means, and they don’t want anything like that.”
Plus, Pollock argued, Nixon is the wrong type of celebrity.
“Let’s not overstate the name ID of Cynthia Nixon statewide. It’s not that high, and in a primary electorate in New York state that is far more demographically attuned to ‘60 Minutes’ more than ‘Sex and the City,’ I wouldn’t think that Nixon or the characters she has played have the kind of broad recognition one would need to run in New York state,” he said.
In a familiar dynamic for Democrats, Nixon’s prospective run has operatives in New York worried that it will sap attention and resources from the seven House races in the state Democrats are looking to flip and that are crucial to taking the majority. Cuomo had said he’d focus on campaigning in those districts this year.
But Jonathan Tasini, a Bernie Sanders supporter who ran in a New York Senate primary in 2006 to the left of Hillary Clinton, said he’s hoping a Nixon bid exposes Cuomo’s problems with the left to the country.
“What I’d say to a person in Iowa is, be very, very suspicious about what Andrew Cuomo says. He’s a very tactical politician who has no deep-seeded ideology or moral compass. It’s all about tactics and how he could win,” Tasini said.
Cuomo, for his part, chose not to engage on the topic of his potential challengers Tuesday.
“On people who may or may not run for governor on both sides of the aisle,” he said on a conference call with reporters, “that’s up to them, and we’ll deal with it as the campaign progresses.”