Democrats Duel to Survive New York’s 2018 Primaries

Evan Farley, ‘20

With the 2018 midterms just over a month away, national politics have been dominating the news lately, but local politics are hotter than ever. On Thursday, September 13th, New York held primaries for positions ranging from positions in the Democratic County Committee to Governor. It was an exciting night, but ended without any major consensus on the state of State politics. New York has few swing districts, meaning many districts are very blue or, if one were to venture upstate, very red. Because of this split, many races are decided in the primary, which means the September election is often more important than the November election for statewide campaigns. Voters recognized the significance and consequently, the turn-out hit a record high: some 1.5 million New Yorkers cast their ballot, tripling the number from the 2014 statewide primary election. That equates to 27% of registered voters in the state heading to the polls this year (and if you think that sounds low, it is, but the problems with NY’s voting laws are an issue for another time).

At the top of the ticket was the battle for residence of the Governor’s mansion and the job that comes with it. Incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo battled Sex and the City actress-turned-activist Cynthia Nixon. Nixon embraced the progressive wave that has swept the country in recent months, highlighted by her frequent campaigning with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic Socialist who has become the face of the movement since her upset victory over ten-term Queens Congressman Joe Crowley in the federal primary in June. Ocasio-Cortez had been down 12 percentage points in the polls, yet pulled off a surprise win. Nixon, who consistently polled down by more than 30 points, was hoping to replicate that success, but ultimately came up short. The race attracted national attention, be it for the issues the candidates were debating or the scandals surrounding the campaign (Mailergate, Bridgegate, and Bagelgate come to mind, although some are worthier of the -gate suffix than others), particularly in the last week of the campaign. It was New York (i.e. dirty) politics through and through and in the end, there were no surprises. Cuomo celebrated his 31 point win in the Governor’s mansion, his home for the next four years (barring a presidential run he has vowed against), away from any parties or press.  

Less publicized but more competitive was the race for Lieutenant Governor. Incumbent Kathy Hochul, a former Congresswoman who has served in her position since 2014, faced off against New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams. In New York primaries, there is no ticket, so even though each candidate for governor typically has a preferred running mate, that is not always who wins. Cuomo campaigned with Hochul, and Nixon with Williams, but a split ticket seemed possible with Cuomo and Williams on the ballot this November. Williams characterized himself as a check on the governor. Rather than use the position as a ceremonial ribbon cutter, as Williams claimed his opponent has done, he planned to offer policy advice and use what limited powers are allotted to the Lt. Governor. Hochul, for her part, could not offer one instance in the last four years she has broken from the administration’s stance on an issue, instead choosing to tout her experience and run with a message of unity. This seemed to have done the job, as 53% of voters chose Hochul as the Democratic nominee.

The position of New York State Attorney General was thought to be an uncontested race until May, when the New Yorker published an article detailing allegations of physical assault against then Attorney General and former BHSEC parent Eric Schneiderman. He resigned seven hours later, and his deputy, Barbara Underwood, was chosen by the New York State Assembly to fill his seat for the remainder of the term. Four Democrats campaigned for the position come November: Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate and former NYC Councilwoman, was selected by the New York State Democratic Party as its candidate of choice; Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor who unsuccessfully ran for Governor against Cuomo in 2014 and for Congress in 2016, was endorsed by Nixon and Williams as the progressive candidate of choice; Sean Patrick Maloney, a Congressman from the Hudson Valley who was simultaneously running for reelection for his seat in the House; and Leecia Eve, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and a current Verizon lobbyist. There were several debates and forums for candidates to introduce themselves to voters, but even so, the race was marred by voter indecision. A Siena College poll from early August showed over 40% of voters as undecided, and on September 10th, just three days before the election, Siena College reported that 35% of voters were still unsure. In the end, it was New York City which decided the race. Maloney and Teachout won every county north of Westchester, but the massive geographical win matters not in a representative democracy. James’ eight downstate counties gave her 41% of the vote, compared to Teachout’s twenty-three counties providing 31% and Maloney’s thirty-one counties providing 25%. Eve did not win any counties and took 3% of the vote. If James wins the general election, as she is expected to, the office of NYC Public Advocate will be vacant. Already more than 20 names have been thrown around for the special election likely to happen mid-February of 2019. If elected, she will be the first woman of color elected to any statewide office in New York and the second woman in the Attorney General’s office, the first being Underwood.

Many have tried to find meaning in the rejection of the statewide progressive ticket. One common theme among the three races simply seems to be name recognition. Money did not hurt the chances of any candidate, but while Cuomo spent millions of dollars, to the effect of over $20 per vote, James spent less than any of her opponents and still came out on top. James, once the insurgent in the New York City Council and subsequently Public Advocate, easily won reelection in the 2017 citywide election, a victory that certainly boosted her reputation and recognition. Williams, while a popular candidate in his district, did not have the statewide exposure that Hochul has enjoyed for years. The three establishment candidates have earned that title by working in government for decades, likely how they cruised to victory.

Arguably more significant than any of the statewide races were the victories that progressives took in the New York State Senate. For seven years, until April 2018, a group of eight Democratic senators caucused with Republicans. This meant that even though more Democrats were elected to the Senate than Republicans, the minority became the majority. This group, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, or the IDC, has garnered much criticism from liberal leaders around the state for blocking progressive policy and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in return. IDC members have asserted they have done no such thing and acted in the best interest of their constituents. September 13th marked a decisive thumbs-down to this line of messaging. Six of the eight so-called insurgent candidates, those challenging IDC members, won their elections in districts ranging from Brooklyn to Syracuse. Most notably, Alessandra Biaggi won her election against Jeff Klein, the former leader of the IDC who once ruled over Albany second only to the Governor. In addition, in one of the most dramatic races that included a scandal with former Mets player Keith Hernandez, fabrications about the candidate’s background, and resulted in the suspension of the international spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, Julia Salazar beat incumbent Senator Martin Dilan. These seven victories are an objectively impressive feat of organization. It is unusual for three incumbents, much less seven, to lose their seat in any given election. Journalists and elected officials on both sides of the aisle are expecting major changes coming from the Legislative Office Building.

Not all is lost for conservatives in the Capitol. Two former IDC members held on to their seats, and Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat who runs as both a Democrat and Republican, held off primary challenger Blake Morris with two-thirds of the vote. Since the IDC disbanded, Felder has continued to caucus with the Republicans, keeping the minority party in power. He most likely will continue this practice into the 2019 session. And the defeated Klein is now being considered for an appointment to a judgeship. Primary season is over but the machine rumbles on.