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'What if?' scenarios complicate race for governor

ALBANY – Normally in New York, elections are held, winners get declared and losers go home.

But this year, an array of "what if" possibilities in the race for governor has party leaders preparing for domino scenarios following the Sept. 13 statewide primary. They include:

  • Could a minor party line become a spoiler?
  • Could the battle for left-leaning voters open the door for Republicans in blue state New York?
  • Could two different lieutenant governor candidates end up on the ballot with Gov. Andrew Cuomo?

Minor party ballot lines lie at the heart of the situation, giving unique (and legal) tools to New York candidates hoping to bolster votes gained on their major party lines.

“There are so many factors this year you can’t game it out. In the end, you present your case," said state Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox.

Here's a look at three scenarios that may – or may not – result from all the ballot jockeying.

Scenario 1: Minor party lines

Leaving options open for politicians is a long tradition in the complex and often incumbent-friendly world of New York election laws.

Enter 2018. Cuomo has the backing of the Democratic Party, but is facing Cynthia Nixon in a primary contest to see who will run on the Democratic line in the general election against Republican Marc Molinaro.

Cuomo is also running on two minor party ballot lines: the Women’s Equality Party, or WEP, which he founded, and the Independence Party.

Besides vying for the Democratic line, Nixon is already the candidate of the Working Families Party, the small but influential, liberal party that has had its ups and downs with Cuomo over the years.

While Cuomo's allies say he will emerge with a healthy Democratic primary victory, some party insiders say mid-September could be a fascinating and bumpy political period.

What do the minor party lines mean for the general election?

What if Nixon, in her long shot bid, excites the liberal base of the party in a low-turnout contest and beats Cuomo to become the Democratic Party candidate? Pressure would then be on Cuomo to either not campaign on the two other minor party lines or use a maneuver to get his name removed from those lines.

The Cuomo campaign, when asked if the governor would continue as a minor party candidate should he lose to Nixon, issued a statement that did not answer the question.

What if Cuomo's big lead holds and Nixon is left on the Working Families party line?

WFP already has a possible plan in the works — though Nixon is quick to say that she has not agreed to any post-primary maneuver.

“We are very confident that Cynthia will win the Democratic primary, but if she does not, as we have said many times before, she will decide at that time if she will continue on the WFP line or not," said Nixon campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.

How would Nixon exit the Working Families Party line?

If Nixon loses, the Working Families Party has a plan that, according to experts, is rarely used even in the Byzantine world of New York election laws. The party has said it does not want to be a spoiler in the general election. That could happen if Nixon stays in the race on the WFP line and she, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner on the Serve America Movement line, and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins take votes from the governor that end up helping to elect the GOP’s Molinaro.

Enter Manhattan’s 66th Assembly District as one solution. The WFP recently submitted paperwork to the state Board of Elections to have WFP activist Doug Seidman, a lawyer in Manhattan, run on its line against longtime incumbent Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Democrat who represents parts of lower Manhattan.

But Seidman, who did not respond to attempts to reach him, does not plan to actively run against Glick. Instead, he is a placeholder. For whom? Maybe Nixon.

It would take a multistep process that takes advantage of rules and laws created by election attorneys to get politicians out of such tricky spots.

What does an Assembly race in Manhattan mean for the governor's race?

First, the law. To get off the WFP gubernatorial line at this point, Nixon – or Cuomo in the case of the Democratic line – has three basic ways: death, disqualification or declination. In such cases, politicians prefer the declination choice.

One tried-and-true way to help a candidate abandon a party ballot line is to have that person (if a lawyer) run for a judicial post. Not coincidentally, the deadline for that to happen in New York takes place near the end of September – after Cuomo and Nixon square off the primary.

If he lost the primary, Cuomo could legally take such a route because he’s a lawyer. But Nixon is not a lawyer, so that route is closed.

Her exit could be taken through another, seldom used route. If Nixon loses and if she wants off the WFP line, here is how it could work: Seidman would accept a nomination to a Supreme Court ballot somewhere in the state. Siedman would then decline the WFP line in the Assembly 66th race, thereby creating a vacant line for the WFP.

The WFP leadership could then tap Nixon – a resident in the Assembly’s 66th District – for Seidman’s vacant line in that Assembly race. Nixon, barred from running for two offices at once, could then abandon her gubernatorial campaign and run on the WFP line against Glick.

What's the incumbent Assembly member think of all this?

It’s quite a dilemma because the WFP has backed Glick in the past. Add to that claims by Nixon’s campaign that Nixon is a fan of Glick.

“Cynthia has no intention whatsoever of running against Glick and will, in fact, campaign for her," said Hitt, the Nixon spokeswoman.

Glick is not comforted, however, considering Nixon’s name recognition as an actress and longtime resident of the Manhattan district.

“Admittedly, they characterized it as a maneuver as opposed to a real challenge,” Glick said. But Glick worries that voters in her district “are not part of the inside baseball crowd who understand what the maneuver is."

“I understand that they feel they have a potential problem and that they don’t want to be spoilers in the general (for governor). I am not happy about being potential collateral damage," Glick said in an interview.

Glick, who said she appreciates Nixon’s campaign saying Nixon won’t actively challenge Glick, could suddenly face a famous person on the ballot.

“That’s why I can’t take anything for granted. Even if she says she’s supportive of me that’s going to require me to be active in a general (contest) in a way I had not anticipated," Glick said.

In a statement, WFP Director Bill Lipton said his party “is going all in” for Nixon.

“If by some chance we lose the primary, it will be up to Cynthia to determine what to do next. But as more Democrats learn about how the Cuomo administration has used government to enrich his wealthy donors instead of for the benefit of all New Yorkers, the real question becomes how will Cuomo vacate the Independence and fake Women’s Equality Party lines after he loses the (Democratic) primary,” Lipton said.

Scenario Two: All-out frenzy

Republicans like this possibility the most. It envisions sustained challenges by multiple candidates all with left-of-center leanings except the GOP’s Molinaro. This is the scenario where Molinaro swoops into office as Cuomo, Nixon, Miner and Hawkins battle it out for more left-leaning voters.

Cuomo backers dismiss the theory because they believe the anti-Cuomo vote all stems from the same pool.

But Nicholas Langworthy, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, said a scenario in which Cuomo faces multiple challengers in the general could help Molinaro. Nixon would have a base of support on the left and Hawkins would get his loyal Green Party supporters to turn out for another of his gubernatorial runs. Langworthy said it’s too soon to determine what kind of threat Miner might be, but he noted both Hawkins and Miner have strong name recognition in Central New York.

“With as many candidates as there are, it does give a stronger path to Molinaro. But, nevertheless, Molinaro still has run the race directly against Cuomo," Langworthy said.

Scenario Three: Lieutenant governor

On top of all the other scenarios, observers also point to the “Jumaane factor.” They refer to Jumaane Williams, the New York City councilman from Brooklyn mounting a Democratic primary challenge to incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. In a poll released Tuesday morning by Siena College, Hochul has an edge over Williams. But it's not a large lead and, more importantly, half of likely Democratic primary voters say they are still undecided between Hochul and Williams.

New York’s quirky election laws again enter the picture, since challengers for lieutenant governor can compete in party primaries. In the general election, the governor and lieutenant governor candidates run as a “ticket,” and that poses potential problems.

If Williams wins the primary – and state observers acknowledge the possibility – he would then appear on the Democratic line with the winner of the party primary. That means if Cuomo wins over Nixon, the Cuomo-Williams ticket would compete separately against Cuomo-Hochul on Independence or Women’s Equality.

If that scenario held, it could add up as another way to subtract votes – especially Democratic ones – that would normally end up in the Cuomo column.

Could a little known Brooklyn councilman beat Hochul?

“It’s a serious threat,” said former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine, who served as second-in-command to Cuomo’s father – the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. “It will be a factor. Though he is not well known, he has a reasonable chance and he will get substantial votes out of the city.”

He labels it a “fascinating situation.”

Lundine notes he is a strong Hochul supporter, is helping her effort, and points to a number of factors in her favor. And he echoes Hochul’s argument by underscoring the need for the state’s top two officials to work in together.

“It’s very important that they have a working relationship,” he said. “It has to be a true partnership.”

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