ALBANY -- Though well-funded and ahead in the polls, Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is accelerating his efforts to make inroads with Republicans as his re-election bid gets underway and possibly positioning himself for future campaigns.
In just the past few weeks, the governor has:
Talked to GOP senators about why they should think twice about backing Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive.
Held a third, Republicans-for-Cuomo fundraiser appealing to wealthy New Yorkers.
Hired a "special adviser" for his government staff who over the past decade has been running Republican gubernatorial and Senate campaigns.
Further, Cuomo has stepped up his efforts to tout ideas supporting charter schools and cutting corporate taxes, issues that generally resonate with Republican voters.
Analysts, Republicans and other sources said Cuomo's foray is about several things at once: trying to deprive Astorino or any other challenger of big Republican donors by getting them on his side early; collecting intelligence on Republican strategies; laying the groundwork to win by as big a margin as possible; and showing he can work with Republicans if he decides to run for president in 2016.
"Remember, it's never just one thing with Cuomo -- it's several pieces moving at once," said one Democrat who asked not to be named.
Cuomo hasn't officially kicked off his gubernatorial campaign, even though he said in a TV interview last month, "I'm running for governor of the state of New York." But he's taken obvious steps, including stockpiling $33 million in his campaign account. Since Jan. 1, nothing has stood out more than his efforts with Republicans.
"Making inroads with Republicans is a great idea -- if it doesn't cost you more with your Democratic base," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
"Very few politicians are able to do that," Levy continued. "Cuomo has the comfort of a big lead in popularity and fundraising and he's playing for a big win. . . . He can be set up strongly if he wants to try for the presidency a few years later."
Reaching across the aisle
Costas Panagopoulos, the head of Fordham University's Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, said Cuomo's campaign efforts "are not inconsistent with his attempts to reach across the political aisle" to score policy victories over the past three years. Prime examples include the legalization of same-sex marriage and implementation of a property-tax cap. He said some Republican donors must see Cuomo's 40-point lead in the polls and want to be on the winning side this fall.
"My sense is they see the writing on the wall," Panagopoulos said.
State Republican chairman Ed Cox countered that Cuomo's actions show he's worried about Astorino.
"There's no doubt he's making a very strong effort with Republicans and that shows his respect for Rob Astorino as a strong leader," Cox said. "He would not be making this effort if Rob Astorino weren't a candidate with real potential."
On the left, not everyone is charmed. Progressive groups have criticized Cuomo for proposing corporate, bank and estate tax cuts, and failing to fulfill promises to implement public financing of political campaigns. Nationally, Cuomo's efforts caught the attention of the Daily Kos, an influential liberal political blog that accused him of "conspiring with Republicans, hiring Republicans, pushing Republican policies."
Republicans who back the governor said Cuomo has a conservative fiscal record and had restored order to state government.
"It's very important for a governor who has a fiscal conservative orientation with progressive social positions to gain credibility with the public. And the time-tested way to do that is gaining bipartisan support," said Michael Balboni, a former state senator from Nassau County who is among the leaders of the Republicans for Cuomo committee.
Republicans for Cuomo held a fundraiser last Tuesday in Manhattan, which Balboni said he attended. Tickets reportedly started at $5,000 per person. It was at least the third Cuomo campaign event built around GOP support since the New Year.
That same day, Cuomo announced he hired Republican political consultant Susan Del Percio, at a salary of $160,000 annually, as a special adviser.
Astorino has sought to downplay Cuomo's attempts to choke off Republican support. "The political season is starting soon and I feel very strongly that the Republicans will coalesce when the time comes," Astorino said during his campaign kickoff tour earlier this month.
Meanwhile, some liberal groups have increased their criticism of Cuomo.
"We just can't afford to give out new tax cuts to Wall Street banks and millionaires," said Michael Kink of the Strong Economy For All Coalition, one of several groups criticizing Cuomo on taxes and education spending.
But it's unclear whether voters on the left would abandon Cuomo. Levy believes the risk is small -- and outweighed by the potential long-term benefits of cross-party support for Cuomo.
"What's more valuable to him down the road in an article about the short list of Democratic challengers if Hillary doesn't run?" Levy said, referring to Hillary Clinton being the current Democratic presidential front-runner for 2016. "A supportive quote from a liberal Democrat from New York City or a quote from a conservative Republican from Nassau County?"
Cox disagreed with the bipartisan-support-for-2016 notion. "That's good in theory," Cox said. "But he'd have to go hard left in order to get the 2016 [Democratic nomination] and then he'd lose Republican support."