ALBANY — Thursday’s Democratic primary between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon will be the latest test for control of the Democratic Party, pitting the progressive, Bernie Sanders wing against the establishment wing.
But that’s not the only thing it will test.
It will test whether Democrats favor experience or a fresh voice. Whether the stunning upsets progressives scored in some congressional primaries can be repeated on a statewide basis. Whether polls that were wrong in those local primaries are more accurate in a statewide contest.
It will test whether Cuomo’s move to the political left on a host of issues has stolen Nixon’s thunder and pacified progressive critics. Whether the working relationship with Republicans he boasted of in his first term hurts him with a mobilized Democratic electorate.
And finally It will test whether the crumbling subway system, public-corruption trials, marijuana legalization or any of the matters Nixon has raised are difference-making campaign issues.
“The big story is once again it’s a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist. “It is a classic Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton fight. An [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez versus Joe Crowley. It’s a newly revived left pitted against the old-line, Democratic machine.”
In this latest installment of the ongoing battle, Cuomo is Clinton, Crowley and the Democratic machine. He’s a two-term governor who has amassed a $30 million campaign fund and has lined up traditional support from the state’s major unions. He’s running more on a theme of his accomplishments over the last eight years than a new, third-term agenda.
Nixon is Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez (who ousted veteran Queens Congressman Crowley in a June primary) and the newly revived left. The former star of “Sex and the City” has raised about $2.5 million, mostly through small donations and has help from the labor-backed Working Families Party. She says Cuomo has “governed like a Republican” and only moved further left when challenged.
And it’s a different political landscape than 2014 or 2010, Cuomo’s last two runs, experts said.
“A two-term incumbent with a lot of money and a lot of issues on which he can claim success is under serious challenge and that, in and of itself, is an enormous story,” said Richard Brodsky, a former state legislator from Westchester County. “The country and the state are in flux and this race reflects that change.”
That Cuomo is even facing an internal Democratic challenge stems from a combination of his own “horrendous mistakes” and a broad desire for political change that is “generational and serious,” said Brodsky, also a Democrat.
“His record is pretty strong, from a left point of view,” Brodsky said, noting the legalization of same-sex marriage, a minimum wage hike and tougher gun laws. “What people can’t forgive him is his promise to elect and reunite (state Senate) Democrats in 2014, a promise he broke.”
Cuomo, facing rejection by the Working Families Party in 2014, promised to work to elect a Democratic State Senate and reunite party factions within the chamber, which had helped Republicans keep control. But he did scant campaigning for Senate candidates and Republicans won a majority. Cuomo didn’t flex his power to force a breakaway group to rejoin the mainline Democrats until last April — after Nixon entered the campaign.
Earlier in his term, Cuomo had said he was powerless to rein in the renegades, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, because it was a legislative matter. Critics say he, at minimum, enabled Republicans, who blocked Democratic bills. Cuomo said he’s made New York the “most progressive” state in the nation.
On the campaign trail, Cuomo has touted minimum wage and same-sex marriage, along with an infrastructure building spree such as committing to a third track for the Long Island Rail Road.
Nixon has proposed significantly boosting school spending, legalizing marijuana, ending cash bail and implementing a “single payer” (government run) health care system. She’s also sought to blame Cuomo for worsening mass transit problems, staging ads and campaign stops on the troubled subways.
But she’s also faced questions of how the state would afford to pay for her school and health care plans. She wants to raise taxes on the rich and corporations and institute a pollution tax. It’s unclear if that would be sufficient or that the State Legislature would go along.
During their only debate Aug. 29, Cuomo sought to use Nixon’s lack of experience against her, saying she lived in a “world of fiction.”
“It’s about doing. It’s about managing. This is real life,” Cuomo said, about running state government.
“I’m not an Albany insider like Governor Cuomo. But I think experience doesn’t mean much if you aren’t actually good at governing,” Nixon shot back.
Cuomo certainly is treating the campaign differently than the 2014 Democratic primary. He faced Zephyr Teachout, then an unknown college professor. He largely ignored her and refused to debate, so it surprised many when Teachout nabbed 34 percent of the vote.
This time, Cuomo already has spent $16 million, largely on TV ads championing the economy and his liberal achievements.
“The inference would be that he’s more worried about this one,” said Grant Reeher, a Syracuse University political scientist. Teachout’s surprise showing in ’14, the flurry of corruption convictions associated with some of Cuomo’s upstate development projects and the “mobilization of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party” has had the governor “more on guard” this time, he said.
Throughout the summer, upstarts such as Ocasio-Cortez have pulled off a number of upsets in congressional primaries, not just in New York. But those occurred in discreet districts, not a sprawling statewide race. Reeher said it’s unclear if the below-the-radar, grass roots campaign tactics (social media, texting) will work in a broader playing field.
“That type of canvassing needs to be harnessed and it’s much easier to do in a congressional primary,” Reeher said. “You need far fewer numbers … It’s much harder to do statewide.”