ALBANY — As the race for governor accelerates, Republican nominee Marc Molinaro says the campaign of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is trying falsely to define him as an ultraconservative out of step with most New Yorkers on social issues.
“If they think that diminishing and demeaning people is the way to win an election, God bless them,” Molinaro said in an interview.
The Cuomo campaign routinely refers to Molinaro as “Trump mini-me . . . who has an ‘A’ rating from the NRA and is the NY GOP’s hand-picked anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ candidate.”
It’s part of a standard election strategy as the campaign moves past last month’s political conventions: Brand your opponent before he or she gets a chance to do so himself.
For his part, Molinaro said his positions are more nuanced.
The Dutchess County executive says he would, for example, enforce abortion rights protected by law, but would not expand access to late-term abortions.
He didn’t vote for President Donald Trump. He opposes the administration’s policy that resulted in separation of migrant families at the border, calling it “not American.” But he supports the president’s tax cuts.
Molinaro considers gay marriage and protections for gay, bisexual and transgender people as basic civil rights.
He defends the right of the National Rifle Association to be included in discussion of gun control and school safety.
But he refuses to take campaign contributions from the NRA.
As a state assemblyman, he voted against hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas and he supported the Hudson River PCB cleanup.
Molinaro doesn’t consider himself a hard-right Republican and says Cuomo’s attempts to portray him as such are “absurd” election-year tactics.
The Cuomo campaign isn’t backing off, hammering Molinaro with his record as an assemblyman from 2007-11.
“Molinaro’s record doesn’t lie,” said Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer. “He’s the same anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, pro-gun candidate he’s always been. Now, he wants to sit by while Trump and the Republicans roll back a woman’s right to choose, he’s actively worked against transgender rights and he gets a ‘A’ rating from the NRA.”
In billing himself as a social moderate who will hold the line on taxes, Molinaro, 42, is following the playbook New York Republicans have used for decades to survive in a heavily Democratic state.
At the same time, Democrats here think they have a new weapon this year — the policies and actions of President Donald Trump, who isn’t popular in New York — to damage Republicans.
Cuomo, while facing a challenge from his left flank from Cynthia Nixon for the Democratic nomination, repeatedly has sought to paint Molinaro as extreme and link him to Trump.
The governor also has sought to put abortion and other social issues front and center — as he did in his 2010 and 2014 campaigns for governor as a way to bash a Republican foe.
Nixon declined to comment about Molinaro, saying she was focused on Cuomo.
A fourth candidate in the race, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, also has aimed her criticism largely at Cuomo. When asked about Molinaro, who is running as an independent as part of the Serve America Movement, she said: “I don’t believe a member of Trump’s party can go against the Trump orthodoxy.”
A Siena Research Institute poll released June 13 said Cuomo had a 19-point lead over Molinaro statewide. In June 2014, Cuomo had a 36-point lead over Republican candidate Rob Astorino.
The Siena poll also found Molinaro was still largely unknown to 71 percent of likely voters, underscoring why the struggle to define Molinaro — either through his own efforts or by Democrats — is so crucial to the race.
“Can Marc Molinaro win? Yes,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena poll. “I would say he is a prohibitive underdog at the moment, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win in November. On the other hand, in a state with more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans, it does mean the stars have to align and lightning has to strike.”
Molinaro treads carefully when speaking about Trump. Regarding the tax overhaul that Trump signed in December, Molinaro said: “I think providing meaningful tax relief, stimulating our economy, job growth — I think those are things we need.”
In contrast, Molinaro ripped Trump for saying there were “some very fine people” among the white nationalists who clashed with liberal protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
“It was horrifically wrong to say what he did,” Molinaro said.
Cuomo has called Trump’s administration “repugnant” and “anti-American.”
Polls show independent voters and Democrats disapprove of Trump.
On abortion, Molinaro says his stance is somewhat like that of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo’s father.
“I have a personal belief . . . I do not support late-term abortion,” Molinaro said. But “I realize Roe v. Wade is settled law.
Fashouer responded: “The state already allows doctors to decide what is medically best for women and their reproductive health. By saying he doesn’t support late term abortions he is saying he wants to roll back existing state law.”
Cuomo has proposed codifying rights guaranteed by the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision into state law. Senate Republicans have blocked his proposal, saying it would expand access to late-term abortions by broadening eligibility.
On same-sex marriage, Molinaro said he’s “evolved” — not unlike some notable Democrats.
Now, he says his view is: “Is it a civil right? Of course it is.”
Cuomo pushed through legislation in 2011 to legalize gay marriage in New York.
Cuomo’s campaign notes Molinaro, as an assemblyman, voted against requiring “microstamping” identification on semi-automatic pistols to track bullets and requiring renewals for pistol permits. The Cuomo campaign also notes that Molinaro voted against prohibiting domestic violence perpetrators from possessing firearms.
On the NRA, which Cuomo has called the obstacle to making schools safer from shootings, Molinaro said: “I think any stakeholder has a right and responsibility to be part of the conversation.”
Further, Molinaro pointed to Cuomo’s comments in 2014 that “extreme conservatives” — whom the governor defined as “right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, anti-gay” — have “no place” in New York.
Molinaro said Cuomo’s remarks show which candidate is actually more open to a wide range of viewpoints.
“This governor believes that if you disagree with him . . . if you are right-of-center, there is no place for you in the state of New York,” Molinaro said. “I believe that anyone who is honest and earnest about the conversation ought to be a part of it.”