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Cuomo easily defeats Molinaro, wins third term as governor

The Democratic incumbent cast himself as a bulwark against the Trump administration as voters' feelings about the White House loomed over local elections.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo celebrates his win Tuesday

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo celebrates his win Tuesday night at the New York State Democratic Committee's election night watch party at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo easily won a third term Tuesday, capping a campaign he focused more on President Donald Trump than on his Republican adversary, Marc Molinaro.

The Associated Press declared Cuomo, 60, the winner shortly after polls closed at 9 p.m. Later, with 80 percent of districts across New York reporting, Cuomo led Molinaro 58 percent to 38 percent.

With the victory, the Democrat matched the three terms won by his father, the late Mario Cuomo, governor of New York from 1983-94.

Cuomo began the year combating harsh criticism from the left wing of the Democratic Party for being what it said was insufficiently progressive on a range of issues. He concluded it by dispensing Cynthia Nixon in a Democratic primary, then rolling past Molinaro in the general election.

To do so, he moved left on some key issues, spent massive amounts of campaign money, regained union support he’d previously lost and relentlessly cast himself as a bulwark against the Trump administration.

It was a deft strategy in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and in a year in which voters’ feelings about the White House loomed over local elections, analysts said.

As a result, Cuomo wasn’t hindered by negative approval ratings and the conviction of some of his political donors and former aides in bid-rigging schemes earlier this year.

In fact, Cuomo aimed his victory speech at Trump and, possibly, a national audience.

“Today’s election makes clear New York is not buying what President Trump is selling,” Cuomo told supporters Tuesday night at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel in midtown Manhattan. “The President said he’d make America great again but he doesn’t understand what made America great in the first place. He uses fear to separate Americans. He preaches that diversity is the enemy … To attack diversity is to attack our essence. It is the very foundation of this state and this nation.”

The governor referred to himself as a “pragmatic progressive,” which he defined as “getting the job done” for working people and advancing progressive legislation such as a higher minimum wage and paid family leave — two of his signature accomplishments. It’s the type of political profile he has suggested Democrats use against Trump in 2020.

“We’re about helping real people with real problems and our progressive government is proving that we can provide opportunity for all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said.

Criticized at times for lacking a third term agenda, the Cuomo campaign had said the governor’s “No. 1 priority is fighting back against Washington.”

He railed at Trump at Democratic rallies and from church pulpits. During his only debate with Molinaro, Cuomo ignored moderators’ questions and asked the Republican multiple times whether he supported Trump, who isn’t popular in New York.

“In New York, we are moving forward and fighting back — holding up New York as the alternative to Trump’s America,” Cuomo said in a statement early Tuesday. It was a theme he hit on frequently to promote a Democratic takeover of Congress and the State Senate.

To be sure, Cuomo also reminded New Yorkers of his tally of progressive accomplishments, from approving same-sex marriage to boosting minimum wage to expanding the state’s college tuition assistance program.

He also spent lots of money — not only to defeat Molinaro but also Cynthia Nixon in a Democratic primary in September. Cuomo had already gone through $30 million 11 days before Election Day.

The bulk — about $25 million — was spent to defeat Nixon, a former star of “Sex and the City,” who called him a fake Democrat and “Andrew the Bully.” But Cuomo fought back with a substantial ad campaign — and by moving to the left on criminal justice and environmental issues.

After defeating Nixon, Cuomo turned not to Molinaro, but Trump.

Cuomo ran a few attack ads against Molinaro but rarely acknowledged him. He agreed to a single debate.

Molinaro, 43, the Dutchess County executive, had hoped to repeat a legendary upset of Cuomo's father, who was ousted by George Pataki in 1994.

Molinaro said he called Cuomo to concede the race. During his concession speech to supporters in Poughkeepsie, Molinaro said, according to media reports: “I challenge Governor Cuomo to work with all those New Yorkers who feel like they are on the outside looking in.”

The Republican faced serious challenges in his upstart bid: relatively no campaign money, a massive and growing voter-enrollment disadvantage statewide, and a national political climate that favored Democrats after two years of Trump in office.

He criticized Cuomo as running the “most corrupt administration” in the nation, following the conviction of Joseph Percoco, the governor’s former top aide, and others.

He campaigned as an “ordinary” New Yorker, refused to embrace or denounce Trump and aimed to cash in on possible Cuomo fatigue — the latest Siena College poll showed 49 percent of voters viewed the governor unfavorably and just 45 percent favorably.

But 2018 was much different from 1994, when congressional elections produced a Republican wave and Pataki raised more money than Mario Cuomo did.

Fundraising proved difficult for Molinaro, who reported spending only about $2 million on the campaign as of late October. National Republican donors focused on protecting incumbent GOP governors and congressional members; Molinaro received almost no outside financial help.

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