All the New York political world will be watching when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Democratic rival Cynthia Nixon take the stage Wednesday at Hofstra University.
Watching because it will be the one and only debate between the two contestants in the Sept. 13 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Watching because it will mark Cuomo’s first one-on-one debate in 12 years. Watching to see whether a seasoned politician or a seasoned actress performs better on a TV screen.
Watching because this race will mark the latest battle for the direction of the party between progressives and establishment Democrats, following a summer of surprising victories for upstarts.
With a huge advantage in fundraising and public-opinion polls, Cuomo would appear to have little to gain in the debate but much to lose. While he may strive to make the event as low-key as possible, Nixon will be under pressure to make a splash, experts said.
“If she doesn’t come out strong in the debate, it will be hard for her to overcome the odds and win on Sept. 13,” said Jeanne Zaino, an Iona College political scientist who tracks state politics.
For Cuomo, “the goal will be to make as little news as possible” and not make “mistakes,” Zaino said, such as his recent remark that “America was never that great,” which triggered heated criticism from Republicans. Zaino added: “That will be the big challenge for him.”
Nixon, a former star of “Sex and the City” and an education activist, has run a campaign that echoes Sen. Bernie Sanders’ run against Hillary Clinton for the 2016 presidential nomination, saying that the party favorite isn’t sufficiently progressive and that the party has moved left.
Nixon trails Cuomo, a two-term incumbent, by around 30 percentage points in the latest polls. But she dismisses those surveys as not accurately capturing the electorate — especially younger voters and newly enrolled Democrats.
“I think that the polls right now are not capturing the new progressive voters and the hunger for real change,” Nixon told reporters last week after addressing supporters at an Albany church.
She points to the June 26 congressional primaries, where polls badly missed on two startling upsets. Newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez routed Rep. Joseph Crowley in a Queens-Bronx district after trailing the incumbent by about 36 points in the polls just three weeks before the vote. In Syracuse, polls said Juanita Perez Williams (the party favorite) held a 13-point lead with two weeks to go — but she wound up losing to Dana Balter by 25 points.
“We’ve got thousands of volunteers across the state. And we’re mobilizing our army,” Nixon said.
But district-bound primaries are harder to predict than statewide contests because they involve a smaller group of people to measure — and Cuomo’s lead has stayed steady. That puts Nixon in position of needing to play offense during the debate; while Cuomo plays defense, said Grant Reeher, a Syracuse University political scientist.
Look for Nixon to push Cuomo on issues where’s he’s “vulnerable,” Reeher said, such as the condition of the subways and the string of Albany corruption trials that resulted in the conviction of Cuomo’s former closest aide, Joseph Percoco, among others.
“People now associate him with Albany, whereas when he first ran he was going to do something to Albany,” Reeher said, referring to Cuomo’s 2010 campaign pledge to make corruption a top issue.
Cuomo is expected to tout his liberal accomplishments, such as signing laws to legalize same-sex marriage, eventually raise the minimum wage to $15 downstate and expand gun control. The governor might try to “win on policy knowledge, push her on details she’s not able to explain,” Reeher said.
President Donald Trump’s name is sure to be invoked many, many times. Cuomo will present his administration as a bulwark against the Republican’s agenda, as he has done at numerous campaign stops and news conferences in 2018.
Nixon, meanwhile, will try to paint Cuomo as a Trump crony, emphasizing the corporate tax cuts the governor enacted previously and highlighting political donations from Trump to Cuomo more than a decade ago. She likely will fall back on her oft-repeated line that Cuomo has “governed like a Republican.”
The two candidates might even be speaking to slightly different target audiences, Zaino said. Nixon will be attempting to shore up and fire up the left wing of the party and perhaps appeal to those fatigued by Cuomo after two terms. The governor is likely to appeal to the party core and pragmatic Democrats because the far left is unattainable to him.
“He’s never going to be seen by progressives as authentic,” Zaino said. “So I would say reach for the ones you can.”