ALBANY - Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is using his first major television ads of this gubernatorial campaign to try to brand his Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, as an extreme conservative.
Political observers say Cuomo's campaign is attempting to define Astorino, the Westchester County executive, to voters in a flash of visceral images and red-hot rhetoric before he can define himself.
A review of Astorino's public positions shows that while his anti-abortion stance, and his opposition to Cuomo's gun control law and to gay marriage aren't in step with most of the blue state, his views are shared by what a pollster calls sizable minorities of New Yorkers.
Astorino, four years after Cuomo soundly beat the more unabashedly conservative Carl Paladino, has taken a more pragmatic approach to the hot-button issues than Paladino, trying to stake out nuances in his positions that could snare larger segments of voters.
How well Cuomo can define Astorino and how well Astorino can persuade voters to accept his portrayal of himself is one of the first hurdles early in the campaign.
"This election is a civil war within the Republican Party between the moderate and the far-right Republicans like Rob Astorino," said Peter Kauffmann of the state Democratic Committee. "Like Washington, ultraconservatives are trying to take over the Republican Party and have much different positions than moderate Republicans on fundamental issues."
But David Laska of the state Republican Committee said any claims that Astorino is an extremist is "a laughably inaccurate comment. He just won re-election in a Democratic county with a 2 to 1 Democratic enrollment."
The Cuomo campaign's strategy of branding Astorino an extremist became clear earlier this month in two TV ads aired in New York City over the federal government's contention that Westchester County is not abiding by a settlement calling for it to build more affordable housing.
The ads accused Astorino of ignoring New York's tradition of fighting discrimination and racism, comparing his views to those predominant in the South of decades ago.
Astorino, 47, promptly accused Cuomo of playing "the race card" in the low-income housing dispute, which he noted is also being played out in Nassau County. He said he's fighting the federal government's attempt to dictate local zoning community planning.
By calling Astorino "the ultraconservative choice for governor," Cuomo is mirroring a line that was widely considered a rare gaffe by the governor in January. He said in a public radio interview that: "Extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay . . . have no place in the state of New York."
Cuomo had used the label repeatedly against other critics on his right opposed to his spending and taxing policies, and to critics on the left opposed to his tax incentives to Wall Street and employers. But the radio comment touched off rage on national talk radio shows and among New York Republicans, many of whom have been Cuomo allies. Days later, Cuomo's staff walked the comment back, saying Cuomo meant that an extreme conservative candidate can't win statewide office in progressive New York.
But even using Cuomo's own definition of an extreme conservative -- opposition to abortion, assault weapon bans and gay marriage -- Astorino's public views, while clearly to the right of Cuomo and most New Yorkers, are shared by more voters than just those on the fringes, according to recent polls.
In this re-election campaign, Cuomo said abortion is a simple issue: You are either pro-abortion rights or anti-abortion. Last year, Cuomo resurrected the divisive, but long dormant issue in New York, which has some of the nation's strongest laws protecting abortion rights.
'Codify' state, federal law
Cuomo said he wanted to "codify" state with the federal law to assure abortions could be performed into the ninth month of pregnancy. Although already legal under federal law, he said the state measure is needed in case the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Roe v. Wade decision.
Cuomo made the issue a crescendo in his 2013 State of the State speech -- "Because it's her body! It's her choice!" But Senate Republicans, as expected, ultimately blocked the measure.
State records show few New Yorkers seek abortions as late as the ninth month of pregnancy. Of 97,502 abortions in New York in 2012, just 2.6 percent came after the fifth month of pregnancy, according to the state Health Department.
Astorino last week called Cuomo's proposal to protect ninth-month abortions "sick, I think that's ghastly. . . . I would veto that in a second."
But he said he wouldn't try to erode current abortion laws. "I'm pro-life. This is a pro-choice state. I get that," Astorino said in a March news conference in Buffalo. "What I will not do is expand abortion up to birth, which is what Governor Cuomo's bill would do."
While a March Siena College poll found overwhelming support for Cuomo's abortion proposal, it was described broadly as "aimed at protecting reproductive freedom for women, ensuring a woman's right to make private health care decisions regarding pregnancy." But in the same poll, 1 in 4 New Yorkers said they shared Astorino's anti-abortion views.
Astorino argues that abortion and gay marriage are non-issues ginned up by Cuomo and the Democrats to energize their larger voter bloc, the biggest of which is in New York City, but which tends to mostly sit out statewide elections.
But Astorino also has used a politically charged issue to try to ignite his base of voters, criticizing the SAFE Act gun control measure, which Cuomo pushed through the legislature in a closed-door deal without public hearings one month after the Newtown school massacre.
"Forget the extremists -- it's simple," Cuomo said in his 2013 State of the State speech. "No one hunts with an assault rifle."
Two months ago, 56 percent of New Yorkers opposed any effort to repeal the law. But the support for the SAFE Act has since cooled for voters, Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said.
"Voters are now virtually evenly divided on whether or not the law was 'rushed through' or was the 'right thing to do,' " Greenberg said.
At an East Rochester gun shop in March, Astorino told the crowd he wants gun laws to focus on keeping firearms from criminals and the mentally ill and he would use the power of the governor to do so. "I would use it to repeal [the SAFE Act] and replace it with something that doesn't demonize law-abiding citizens."
But a repeal is unlikely, requiring overwhelming support from the Assembly's Democratic majority, which is dominated by New York City members who strongly back the SAFE Act.
As for gay marriage -- Cuomo's third litmus test for an extreme conservative -- Astorino opposed it. But he said he won't try to erode the 2011 law.
"Quite frankly, it was done the right way . . . through the legislature," Astorino said. "It was not done by a judge. That's the law of the land and I respect that."
"A sizable minority of New York voters agree with Rob Astorino on guns, agree with Rob Astorino on the issue of a woman's right to choose," Greenberg said. "But to a lot of liberal Democrats, Rob Astorino's positions on a number of issues are, in fact, extremist. Likewise, to a large number of conservative Republicans, Andrew Cuomo's positions on those issues are extremist."
"I knew this was going to be hardball," said professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs. "Andrew Cuomo pitches at your head."
But Muzzio said Astorino can't objectively be seen as ultraconservative or an extremist. "If you talking about south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Astorino is a flaming liberal," Muzzio said. "Is he an extremist? I would say certainly not in temperament, but I don't think in policy, either."
But Muzzio said the point is that polarization makes good campaign fodder. "Do you want bland? No. We want good vs. evil," he said. "We need a story."