ALBANY – In a politically humbling message sent by some urban, rural and suburban Democrats, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo saw his little-known opponent, Zephyr Teachout, capture more than a third of the state’s primary vote on Tuesday. This despite the governor benefitting from an outsized campaign bank account and the power of party and union organizing.
Cuomo won about 61 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. But the showing by Teachout, who proved to be a relentless thorn in the side of the governor while he sought to ignore her candidacy, ended up being considerably more than many Democratic Party insiders had predicted.
Cuomo ran especially strong in Erie County, where he has put a focus the past four years after losing the region in 2010, but lost to Teachout in a number of upstate rural areas and locations in the Hudson Valley, including the Albany area.
Whether Teachout, a Fordham University law professor, caused any lasting damage to the governor will be tested in less than two months. That’s when Cuomo faces a general election electorate in a race against Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, in a state where there are twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
In what reports indicated was low turnout in much of the state, Cuomo received 61 percent of the vote, according to results with about 87 percent of the vote counted, while Teachout captured 35 percent. A third primary candidate, Randy Credico, received the rest.
A Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Teachout getting more than 25 percent of the vote would prove to be an embarrassment for Cuomo.
The governor, who found himself battling to hold on to his reputation as a left-of-center Democrat on many policy issues, remained out of public view Tuesday night, and instead issued a written statement saying his victory “is a testament to the progress we have made together over the last four years.”
Cuomo, who made a point of not using Teachout’s name the past couple months, congratulated her and Tim Wu, her running mate, for “having the courage to make their voices heard.”
For her part, Teachout said her campaign moved Cuomo on issues pertaining to income inequality and forced Cuomo to take environmentalists up on their urgings that he visit a Pennsylvania fracking site to examine the controversial drilling procedure.
“We’ve certainly seen Andrew Cuomo had to listen, even while pretending there was not a primary, to core Democratic concerns,” Teachout said in an interview Tuesday night.
Cuomo picked Erie County’s Kathleen Hochul as his running mate and traveled often to the Buffalo area in his bid to win a region of the state he lost in his first race in 2010. Today, Cuomo begins his general election campaign in earnest with a fundraiser at the Jacobs estate in East Aurora.
The governor found himself with a far more tricky primary campaign than anything he and his political advisers would have imagined just a few months ago. Teachout has worked for months at undermining Cuomo’s self-described status as a “progressive Democrat,” saying he has ruled for four years more as a Republican with such policies as tax cuts for big banks and a property tax cap that should have resulted in Albany providing more state aid for schools.
The governor’s approach was to all but publicly ignore Teachout. Still, his campaign had to run an expensive ad campaign and Hochul, who also won Tuesday, spent weeks trying to convince Democratic insiders and officeholders in New York City that she isn’t as conservative as her opponents portrayed her.
As New York Democrats often do when they are under siege, Cuomo turned to help from labor groups – though nearly exclusively those from the private sector. The big state public workers unions, including New York State United Teachers and the Civil Service Employees Association, sat out the race, as did the state’s AFL-CIO, which had been a prominent past Cuomo backer. The Public Employees Federation, which represents white-collar state workers, helped Teachout.
The race also may have dented Cuomo’s White House ambitions, which will take a breather anyway if Hillary Clinton decides to seek the 2016 Democratic nomination. While Cuomo refused to debate Teachout, utter her name in public or even shake her hand as she stood in front of him trying to get his attention before New York City’s Labor Day parade last weekend, the national media increasingly took interest in the race.
The common story lines beyond New York centered on a theme of how could the popular Cuomo be given such a headache by an unknown liberal who only moved to the state five years ago and had no money to run a traditional statewide campaign. The Washington Post on Monday ran a story about the race with a headline that Cuomo was facing a “loud insurrection” from the left.
Without a major ad campaign or the kinds of heavy-hitting, get-out-the-vote efforts at Cuomo’s disposal, Teachout relied on social media, public appearances and other means to try to excite Democrats angry with Cuomo, such as environmentalists upset with his failure to decide the issue of fracking for natural gas. She, and the GOP’s Astorino, who did not have a primary challenger on Tuesday, also repeatedly raised concerns about a federal investigation under way into how the state’s anti-corruption Moreland Commission was disbanded by the governor.
At the end of May, Teachout lost the Working Families Party nomination to Cuomo but managed to capture 41 percent of the delegates’ votes. Teachout made it onto the Democratic primary ballot by collecting signatures from across the state.
Teachout won 32 counties, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Group, including a large area of the east and central parts of the state that is home to a diverse population of conservative, liberal and moderate Democrats.
Cuomo pulled out his victory with solid or near-solid showings in western New York, Monroe and Onondaga counties and overall in New York City and in Long Island.