ALBANY – Mid-January always marks a key milestone in a New York election year and this time provides a clear picture of the political landscape:
Gov. Kathy Hochul is in a formidable position.
Hochul, a Buffalo Democrat, became governor just five months ago when Andrew M. Cuomo resigned in the face of a likely impeachment trial. Despite being lieutenant governor, Hochul had little name recognition or campaign funds.
Now, Hochul, 63, has a massive lead in fundraising, after announcing Tuesday she’s pulled in $21.9 million in campaign donations since becoming governor and has a $21.6 million campaign balance. She also has a large lead over two Democratic rivals in a poll released Tuesday. That same day she announced New York has a budget surplus that will allow her to spread money around the state this year.
That doesn’t mean she’s a lock to win, given the volatility of the pandemic and national politics and some simmering issues, such as crime, analysts said. Still, at this point, the race is hers to lose.
"Hochul is in the best possible position she could be in," said Mike Dawidziak, a Long Island political consultant who works mostly with Republicans. "First of all, she’s in the job. She’s got a terrific budget – how many times can you describe the state budget as flush with cash?"
But there are warning signs, Dawidziak said. She’s going to be attacked from both the left and right. Republicans posted notable wins in New York in 2021 and are predicting more success this year. He also considers the race not really underway yet in a way that gets the public’s attention.
"This could still turn out to be a rocky road for her," Dawidziak said. "It forces her to straddle the line, not go too far left or too far right.
"In terms of polling, Hochul is just an overwhelming favorite right now," said Jim Twombly, a professor of political science at Elmira College. "I think voters are saying this woman looks like the real thing … and are willing to give her a chance."
The new Siena College survey showed Hochul favored by 46% of New York Democrats, compared to 12% each for former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (who has dropped out of the race) and New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and 6% for Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove.
"The person who has an outside chance of giving her the best run might be Tom Suozzi," Twombly said, calling him a "tough campaigner" with a downstate base of support.
But Twombly noted state primaries are now in June, not September as in the past, giving Suozzi a "short calendar" to catch up to Hochul. Suozzi has $5.2 million in his campaign account. Williams raised $221,996 since June and has $189,221 on hand.
Siena didn’t ask Republican voters whom they favored in a party primary. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) leads in fundraising ($4.2 million since July and $5.6 million in the bank) and endorsements. But Siena did find Zeldin remains unknown by almost two-thirds of New Yorkers who participated in the poll.
Among other Republican hopefuls, Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County executive and the party's 2014 gubernatorial nominee, received $764,204 in contributions and has $1.3 million in the bank. Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, raised $85,601 and has $188,409.
The Republican nominee will have to overcome Democrats’ 2-1 enrollment advantage in the state to win.
"You have to go in with an expectation that Kathy Hochul, as the incumbent, is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination," said Nick Langworthy, the Republican state chairman.
But he sees the landscape as still developing, calling the polls and fundraising reports "snapshots in time."
"It shows you a progress report," Langworthy said. "I read the polling a lot differently. She’s ahead of her Democratic primary opponents but there are a lot of unknowns out there."
Langworthy decried Hochul’s fundraising haul as "selling government out the back door" to special interests. He said Hochul’s budget proposal is "larded up with programs and giveaways that aren’t sustainable." Further, he said the 2021 elections and national politics bode well for his party.
"I feel very strongly about this election," said Langworthy, who is backing Zeldin, a strong ally of former President Donald Trump. "You see the results of 2021. You see the direction nationally. You see the polling on the direction of the state – people are not optimistic … There a lot of unhappy New Yorkers."
State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs calls Hochul "the overwhelming favorite as she should be." Jacobs, who has endorsed Hochul and asked other Democrats to withdraw, cited her poll numbers and the "complete lack of support for any of her opponents."
The next campaign milestone comes in February when the Democrats and Republicans hold their state conventions. Democrats are eyeing Feb. 16-17 in Manhattan; Republicans, Feb. 28-March 1 in Garden City.
Party frontrunners Hochul and Zeldin are assured of receiving the minimum amount of delegate votes at the convention – 25% -- to get on the ballot for a June primary.
It’s unsure if their challengers will. If they don’t, they’ll have to gather thousands of petition signatures to get on the ballot. Deploying a team to gather petitions often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, putting a further strain on a candidate’s finances.