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New York primary: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo defeats Cynthia Nixon after move to the left

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 9/14/2018 Mike DeBonis, David Weigel
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Video by Reuters

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York easily won renomination for a third term Thursday against actor and activist Cynthia Nixon, in a race that offered a snapshot of a Democratic Party in flux as voters balance local desires with resistance to President Trump in a political landscape transformed by a resurgent left wing.

Nixon courted a liberal insurgency that wants immediate action on immigration, housing and health care, while Cuomo ran on a record of accomplishment after tacking left with his policy agenda in response to the challenge.

With more than three-fourths of the precincts reporting, Cuomo was beating Nixon by a 2-to-1 ratio — roughly the same spread as his 2014 primary victory over another liberal challenger.

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In remarks to supporters Thursday night, Nixon declared a moral victory, saying she had “fundamentally changed the political landscape” in New York by helping lead a revolt against establishment Democrats.

In a clear sign of Democratic enthusiasm, turnout more than doubled from 2014. The biggest surge came in New York City and its suburbs.

“We have changed what is expected of a Democratic candidate running in New York and what we can demand from our elected leaders,” Nixon said. “Some have called this the ‘Cynthia effect.’ I call it what happens when we hold our leaders accountable.”

Cuomo did not address the public Thursday night. While supporters rallied in New York City, the governor returned to Albany after a combative and bitter end to the campaign.

Its final days were consumed in controversy over a mailer sent by the state Democratic Party accusing Nixon, who is raising Jewish children, of anti-Semitism. The Cuomo campaign acknowledged Wednesday that political operatives linked to the governor wrote and approved the ad, which the governor disavowed.

That controversy added late intrigue to a race that had otherwise hinged on Nixon’s attacks on Cuomo as a “corporate Democrat” out of touch with the needs of working-class residents — particularly those in New York City dependent on a subway system that has deteriorated under Cuomo’s watch.

Cuomo struck back by highlighting his work over two terms to tighten state gun laws, ban natural gas drilling, raise the minimum wage and move forward with major public-works projects — while also arguing that a lifetime of public service in one of New York’s most prominent political families has made him the best choice to take on Trump, who has shown hostility to his home state’s priorities in Washington.

“He worked hard for the votes, and he delivered,” Cuomo spokeswoman Lis Smith said in an interview with the NY1 network Thursday night. “He is a politician, and he is a leader who actually has the ability to get things done.”

Nixon, too, attempted to run an issues-first campaign, arguing that a liberal state like New York has been run too long by Democrats too willing to work with Republicans and too timid to take on donors. On the trail, she endorsed statewide universal health care, free college tuition, rent regulation and a public transportation plan that would rebuild the commuter rail system.

The race served as an echo of contests throughout this midterm year in which establishment Democrats like Cuomo have moved to the left to try to assuage voters and activists energized by insurgent candidates such as Nixon. That has often given the establishment the win but delivered ideological bragging rights to the left.

Since Nixon was first rumored to pursue a challenge in the spring, Cuomo pursued liberal policies he had resisted earlier in his tenure, such as granting voting rights to parolees, embracing a softer line on marijuana and banning plastic shopping bags.

Cuomo also dramatically outspent Nixon, pouring at least $25 million into his campaign, and polls had shown him leading her by 30 to 40 points.

“There is no question that she pushed him further to the left,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), a former Long Island prosecutor who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general with Cuomo’s endorsement in 2010.

The winners of the Democratic gubernatorial primary will face Republican Marc Molinaro and running mate Julie Killian in November. Each ran unopposed in Thursday’s primaries, which were held on Thursday to avoid the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah on Tuesday.

Nixon on Thursday night declared common cause with other insurgents — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who shocked the political world by unseating Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), and Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who won Florida’s gubernatorial nomination against better-financed and more moderate challengers.

But the notion that the party’s left wing is on the march was belied by the results in New York’s other statewide races.

Jumaane Williams — a member of the New York City Council who challenged Cuomo’s running mate, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, from the left — outpolled Nixon but fell to Hochul, thanks to her strong showing upstate.

Williams, who would have been the state’s second black lieutenant governor, attacked Hochul for conservative votes and statements she made while representing a Republican-leaning House seat and argued that she had enabled Cuomo’s worst instincts.

Slideshow by photo services

And in a race for attorney general that was seen as wide open, victory went to Letitia James, New York City’s elected public advocate, who secured the party’s endorsement and Cuomo’s support.

The unique situation in the race — the resignation of Eric Schneiderman after women accused him of physical abuse created a short, four-month primary season — led to a four-way scrum.

Nixon, Williams and liberal groups had gotten behind the anti-corruption, anti-monopoly candidacy of Zephyr Teachout. Rep. Sean Maloney (D) and Verizon Vice President Leecia Eve jumped into the race, with Maloney transferring money from his congressional campaign to run TV ads that made him competitive with James.

The perception that James was too close to Cuomo created an opening for Teachout, who ran unsuccessfully for governor against Cuomo in 2014 and for Congress in 2016. After a slow start, she attracted money and endorsements — including a New York Times endorsement that is front and center in all of her advertisements. Teach­out, who rejected “corporate money” and discussed how little-used state laws could help her investigate Wall Street and the Trump administration, began commanding most of the attention in the race.

But James racked up big margins in New York City, while Maloney and Teachout largely split the vote in the rest of the state.

James’s win was quietly welcomed by Democratic Party officials in Washington, who were concerned that a Maloney win could have an impact on Democrats’ efforts to win the House of Representatives. Maloney, one of just 12 Democrats who represents districts won in 2016 by Donald Trump, would have had to abandon his House race had he won Thursday’s primary. And while Democrats would have been able to pick a new candidate, a race seen as unwinnable for Republicans in 2018 would become a possible pickup. (Primaries for the House were held in June.)

Liberals secured an unalloyed victory, however, in state legislative races by appearing to unseat several state senators, elected as Democrats, who had formed an “Independent Democratic Conference” that voted for Republican control of the state Senate.

All eight IDC members faced challengers, some of whom were endorsed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other powerful Democrats.

With most votes counted Thursday night, six of the eight IDC incumbents had either lost their races, according to Associated Press projections, or were trailing more liberal challengers.

Another Democrat who was not in the IDC, Martin Dilan, lost to Julia Salazar, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who received glowing early coverage, then was buffeted by accusations that she had falsely let herself be portrayed as a working-class immigrant.

Bill Lipton, director of the New York Working Families Party, which had campaigned for Nixon and against the IDC members, said the results of the legislative races meant that the “center of gravity has shifted” in New York politics.

“Andrew Cuomo will face a radically different Albany,” he said. “Cuomo will have to deal with something new for him after November: a Democratic legislature. A new generation of leaders are heading to Albany to fight for a New York that works for the many, not the fortunate few.”

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