In her bid to unseat Gov. Andrew Cuomo in this year’s Democratic primary, Cynthia Nixon is pursuing the same thematic game plan as Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign: Appeal to the left wing of the Democrat Party, tap into progressive activists’ energy and dissatisfaction, and declare that time is up for an “establishment” candidate.
Cuomo is aiming for much of the same audience, saying he’s made New York the “most progressive” state in the nation and recently asserting through a campaign aide that he and Sanders are in “lockstep” on many issues.
Both Nixon and Cuomo backed Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. And yet both are eagerly trying to identify themselves with Sanders in this year’s governor’s race, in part by using terms that took on a particular meaning during the 2016 presidential race: “progressive” and “establishment.”
What it shows, political analysts say, is that the Cuomo-Nixon contest has the feel of the Clinton-Sanders battle, with the perceived “establishment” candidate being pursued from the left by a candidate who voters perceive as the more “progressive” of the two. And analysts say the same dynamic is playing out in races across the country, with the term “establishment” often being a synonym for “incumbent”: In California’s Senate race, for example, longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein is being challenged from the left by state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who — somewhat shockingly — won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party. Both Feinstein and de Leon were Hillary Clinton backers.
“We’re certainly seeing it in primaries around the country: the Bernie candidate versus the establishment candidate,” said Adrienne Elrod, who was the director of strategic communications for Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Sanders himself has been picking his spots. Although he opted not to pick sides in the Feinstein-de Leon race, he did come out for the challenger in a hotly contested Illinois congressional primary, Marie Newman, a Democrat who is trying to unseat incumbent Rep. Daniel Lipinski. Neither Sanders nor Clinton has weighed in on the New York gubernatorial primary.
With two terms under his belt, $30 million in campaign funds and a 22-point lead in the latest poll, Cuomo is a strong favorite. But Elrod noted how much of the conventional wisdom was “tossed to the curb” in 2016. That includes the idea that Democrats shouldn’t challenge their own front-runner or incumbent because it might move the party too far left and ultimately help the Republicans.
“That’s always been the core argument of the establishment,” Elrod said. “That’s why a lot of people have been dissuaded from running in the past. But I think more than ever people are not going to allow that be the determining factor on whether they run.”
Clinton’s loss to President Donald Trump amplified both the rift within the party and the Democrats’ desire for a victory, another analyst said.
This year’s contests are “playing out some of the same tensions from the 2016 primaries,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs. “The feelings on both sides are even more urgent in the era of Trump. The stakes seem higher.”
There are risks for candidates as they try to calibrate how far left they should pivot during primary season: too little, and they risk turning off a change-hungry Democratic electorate; too much, and they risk turning off mainstream voters in the general election.
“The danger for Cuomo is that the grassroots challenge proves stronger and more serious than he thinks,” Zelizer said. “Incumbents simply should not underestimate the potential for these kinds of moments to upset the status quo.”
Nixon is “very serious about wanting a victory,” Zelizer said, adding, “Of course, neither should she underestimate the power of the Democratic machine as well as Cuomo’s ability to reach voters beyond the base of the party.”
Cuomo backers have been walking a fine line, touting their candidate’s progressive policy victories on same-sex marriage, the minimum wage and paid family leave, but also trying not to depict him as too far left. At stake is not just the governor’s race but also the balance of the state Senate, which is now under Republican control but could flip in November.
Cuomo’s allies say that Nixon backers are putting too much stock in finding a candidate with the “perfect” progressive credentials.
“The price of perfection will bankrupt us,” said Jay Jacobs, Nassau County Democratic chairman, former state party chairman and Cuomo ally. He is dismissive of those who call Cuomo a “fake Democrat,” who tend to be in the Nixon camp.
“They want the perfect candidate,” Jacobs said. “Well, you’ve got a governor running on a great progressive record. and he’s getting things done. I would love to know what Cynthia Nixon would have done better in the last four years and actually have gotten done.”
The Republican who will run against the victor in the Cuomo-Nixon primary is Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. He faces long odds in the heavily Democratic state, but some Republicans are hoping Nixon can either defeat Cuomo, damage him in the primary or sway discontented Democrats to vote for her in November on the Working Families ballot line, siphoning votes from Cuomo.
Sanders supporters say they saw how close their candidate came to upsetting Clinton, and their deep frustration at the loss stung even more when they saw the “centrist” Democrat lose to Trump anyway. At a recent rally outside the State Capitol, some Nixon backers said they were tired of settling for the candidate billed as the pragmatic choice.
“The establishment always tells us to ‘Play it safe, and maybe next time,’” said Ryan Madden of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a Nixon supporter. “Well, next time never comes.”
This year, Madden and others say they are trying to use lessons from the Sanders-Clinton fight to win. “I really think the progressive wing is galvanizing around 2018 and is determined to show what progressive activism looks like,” Madden said.