ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo scored a resounding victory over actress Cynthia Nixon in a Democratic primary Thursday, turning back a challenge fueled by a national progressive insurgency that claimed other high-profile, entrenched Democrats this summer.
Cuomo, the two-term incumbent, had 65 percent of the vote, and Nixon 35 percent, with 95 percent of the vote in.
Cuomo, 60, avoided the fate of other “establishment” Democrats by spending large amounts of cash and moving politically left after Nixon entered the race last spring.
She had tried to brand him as a “fake Democrat” who governed like a Republican. He countered with a list of liberal achievements such as approving same-sex marriage and a $15-per-hour minimum wage downstate.
Cuomo dodged a bullet when his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, beat back a strong challenge from New York City Council member Jumaane Williams.
The governor’s race was under the national microscope, not only because of Nixon’s celebrity status as a former star of “Sex and the City,” but also because it was the latest in a “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” stemming from the 2016 presidential campaign.
Incumbency, money and a strong “ground game” — a network of allies working to turn out voters — all were part of the advantages Cuomo had in defeating a first-time candidate, said Jeanne Zaino, an Iona College political scientist. And while he was criticized by some for not being progressive enough, he had enough liberal achievements to win over rank-and-file Democrats.
“The governor might not be able to excite people as an on-the-ground, retail politician,” Zaino said. “But he’s done some very good things for progressives. To try to cast him as [Republican President Donald] Trump or a Republican just didn’t work.”
Cuomo will seek a third term in November, facing Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.
Nixon can stay in the race through November on the Working Families Party ballot line. However, she is expected to be pressured by Cuomo backers to not campaign hard so as to not benefit Molinaro.
Though the final totals showed a rout, Nixon, in her concession speech, called her campaign a success because it pushed Cuomo to the political left and made him address issues that had been ignored.
“Before even a single vote was cast in this election, we had already won,” Nixon told supporters in Brooklyn. “We have fundamentally changed the political landscape in this state and we have changed what is expected of a Democratic candidate running in New York and what we can demand from our elected leaders.”
Cuomo didn’t hold an election-night rally or immediately issue a statement.
Cuomo seemed to take the threat of a primary more seriously than four years ago. Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University professor, captured a surprising 34 percent as Cuomo campaigned lightly.
This time, Cuomo put on a push with ads and rallies. As a result, the Nixon camp was hoping for the consolation of garnering more of the vote than Teachout.
Notably, the down-ballot candidates aligned with Cuomo — Hochul and attorney general candidate Letitia James — also won against more progressive candidates. However, progressives succeeded in ousting several Senate Democrats who had drawn liberals’ scorn by allying with Senate Republicans.
Nixon, effectively carrying the mantle of the Sen. Bernie Sanders wing of the party, had bashed Cuomo’s bruising style, calling him “Andrew the Bully.” More important, she called him out for being too centrist.
Nixon also hit him for tacitly backing Republican control of the State Senate for years, which she said bottled up progressive legislation.
The line of attack waylaid other old-line Democrats this summer — particularly Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens), who was routed by newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a June primary.
Cuomo countered with moves to the left and campaign cash.
After Nixon entered the race, Cuomo announced a series of liberal policies and initiatives, big and small, from proposing a ban on plastic shopping bags to restoring parolees’ voting rights. Once a marijuana opponent, Cuomo has tiptoed toward legalization of recreational marijuana, calling for a round of state hearings.
Significantly, he also used his power to bring a band of eight breakaway Senate Democrats, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, back into the mainline Democrats in April. For years, the IDC had formed a governing coalition with Republicans, helping give the GOP control of the Senate even when Democrats had a numerical majority.
For years, Cuomo had resisted calls to unify the party. It was a “horrendous mistake” that helped enrage the party’s left, former state Assemb. Richard Brodsky of Westchester County recently told Newsday.
The governor also spent a great deal of money.
Since July, Cuomo’s campaign spent $16 million — including an average of more than $400,000 per day in the final month of the campaign. Much of it bankrolled television ads.
Some of the money also went to fund a last-minute flyer that implied Nixon was anti-Semitic. It went out to targeted households last weekend and was paid for by the New York State Democratic Committee, which has been backing Cuomo.
Cuomo initially called it a “mistake” and “inappropriate” and said he didn’t know about it before news reports. Subsequently, news media outlets reported Larry Schwartz, the governor’s former secretary who is helping the campaign, had approved the literature.
Cuomo, after voting Thursday in Westchester County, told reporters the language of the flyer — falsely claiming Nixon was “silent” on anti-Semitism and supported an Israel boycott — was a proofreading mistake.
“It was not proofread, and that was a mistake that the Democratic Party made, and there’s no doubt about that,” he said at a Mount Kisco polling place, according to news media reports. He added: “I did not do the name-calling and the tone of that mailer was wrong.”
It was just the icing on what had become a bitter campaign, marked by name-calling and nasty Twitter exchanges by the Cuomo and Nixon staffs. The public got a glimpse of it during the one and only debate two weeks ago at Hofstra University.
“Can you stop interrupting?” Cuomo said to Nixon at one point.
“Can you stop lying?” Nixon countered.
“As soon as you do,” Cuomo snapped.
Some of the left’s unrest with Cuomo began in his first term when he governed “like a right-winger on the economy and a left-winger on social issues,” Brodsky said.
Cuomo came into office in 2011, championing tax cuts, property-tax caps and spending freezes, and threatening 10,000 union layoffs. He also fought with teachers’ unions over curricula and evaluations. He offset that with a successful push to legalize same-sex marriage.
When Democrats nationally began to move left, Cuomo did too.
Once an opponent of a $15 minimum wage, he got the state Legislature to approve it for downstate. After securing a series of tuition hikes at State University of New York campuses, he embraced Sanders’ “free college tuition” idea.
Cuomo’s legislation didn’t make SUNY tuition-free. But it did expand annual income limits for families to obtain financial aid to offset tuition from roughly $50,000 to $125,000.
He also made peace with the public-employee unions, offering better contract terms and not threatening layoffs. He quit the fight with teachers too, calling for a moratorium on the newteacher evaluation process.
With Candice Ferrette