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Surge in voter turnout helps Cuomo beat back challenge from the left

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo turned back an attack from his political left Thursday, as the two-term Democrat comfortably defeated activist Cynthia Nixon in a campaign centered largely in the boroughs of New York City and punctuated by issues stretching from education spending to Albany’s corruption woes.

Far larger-than-expected turnout – well over double the 2014 showing – was reported throughout the state. With 99 percent of votes counted, Cuomo had gathered 64.4 percent of the statewide vote.

The governor came away with two other key victories Thursday. His loyal lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul of Erie County, withstood an intense challenge from New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams. And New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, a strong Cuomo ally who was backed by Democrats, won the state Attorney General nomination.

The way is now cleared for Cuomo to focus his attention on the looming challenge from Republican candidate and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and on trying to win re-election in a year that focused attention on a pair of corruption trials involving some of his closest confidants and top supporters.

But he will do so without having to fight off challenges from within his own party.

In Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, Cuomo faced the nightmare scenario of winning re-election in November only to have a second-in-command who has been as critical of the governor as he was of Hochul. In James, Cuomo avoided the state’s top lawyer post going to second-place finisher Zephyr Teachout, a Cuomo foe who promised to use the office to go after Albany’s ongoing corruption problems.

Far out-spent and out-organized, Nixon remained defiant and she did not reveal to her supporters whether she would stay in the governor’s race on the Working Families Party ballot line she has already secured for the general election. “We made our voices heard," she told supporters in Brooklyn.

Cuomo, who stayed away from a Democratic Party gathering in Manhattan and watched the returns from Albany, did not issue a victory statement Thursday night. “I believe that my administration has started a very important progressive, positive agenda. I want to continue doing it," he said after voting Thursday afternoon in Westchester County.

Randy Jones fills out his ballot at the Cleveland Hill United Methodist Church, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Insurgent Democrats did not have their night on the statewide level, but they did in the Senate, with results that made it clear the Senate Democratic conference – poised to possibly take control of the chamber after November – will come back to Albany in January moved far to the political left.

A former breakaway group of eight Senate Democrats, who a few months ago re-aligned themselves with a mainline group of Democrats after years of a Cuomo-supported alliance with Senate Republicans, was torn apart by insurgents Thursday who defeated all but a couple of them. Among the six losers: Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who had been a member of Albany’s exclusive four-men-in-a-room system of governance, along with the governor and the two majority party leaders of the Assembly and Senate.

For the governor, polling indicated that his win Thursday was never in serious doubt. But in an election year that has seen incumbents lose in New York and elsewhere, Cuomo told his supporters not to take his re-election for granted against Nixon, an actress and political neophyte.

“Vote! Vote!” he said to reporters after voting himself Thursday afternoon in Westchester County.

“I believe that my administration has started a very important progressive, positive agenda. I want to continue doing it," he added.

Minutes after Cuomo’s victory was clear, the Republican Governors Association dispatched a blistering attack on the Democratic governor and highlighted his recent assertopm that America was “never that great."

From early on, Cuomo showed that he paid far more attention to the threat from Nixon than he did from Zephyr Teachout, the then-little-known law professor who came from nowhere to challenge him when he was seeking a second term in 2014.

Teachout got 34 percent of the vote against Cuomo in that contest, sending a shock wave to Cuomo and his allies, who had dismissed her campaign presence as an annoyance. This time, when Nixon announced her run against Cuomo in March, Team Cuomo had a twofold mission: beat Nixon and keep her showing below the 2014 level by Teachout.

Cuomo this year campaigned hard; called in chits with union leaders, including those who did not endorse him four years ago; and fiercely employed state agencies to prop up his image using taxpayer money for everything from well-timed grant awards to cheery mailings about his accomplishments in office.

Besides his already well-documented march to the left to try to keep up with Nixon’s outreach to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Cuomo also spent campaign cash like he was in a political fight for his life.

In a recent six-week period through the end of August, Cuomo’s campaign spent an average of $372,000 each day – a remarkable sum for a primary contest and 16 times the daily amount of money Nixon had to spend against the governor. Nixon relied heavily on small donor contributions, most under $100, and barred corporate donations, while Cuomo has traditionally relied on most of his money from large contributions from wealthy individuals, limited liability companies and unions.

Nixon sought to tap into the two corruption trials in particular this year: the bribery trial involving former top Cuomo adviser and ex-campaign chairman Joseph Percoco, who was convicted of getting money in return for favors delivered in his top Cuomo government post, and the Buffalo Billion trial. That case produced guilty verdicts over bid rigging allegations involving big upstate taxpayer-financed projects, including the $750 million Buffalo Billion solar plant project at RiverBend, which now has Alain Kaloyeros, a top SUNY official hand-picked by Cuomo to run the deals, facing prison time when he is sentenced this fall.

“In the corruption Olympics that is Albany, I think Andrew Cuomo is winning himself some gold medals," Nixon told The Buffalo News in her first newspaper interview after announcing her bid in March.

Cuomo pushed back against the Nixon charges, noting that he had never been personally accused of any wrongdoing. Cuomo for months rolled out endorsements from groups representing women, minorities, union members, gun control advocates, health interests, environmentalists and Democratic office holders and the county party groups that traditionally back incumbent governors.

Uncertain for months has been what Nixon would do after the primary if she lost to Cuomo. She is already on the Working Families Party gubernatorial ballot line in November. Her presence, along with several other minor party candidates, would be seen as taking votes away from Cuomo that could benefit Molinaro.

Now, with the primary over, the general election campaign kicks off in earnest. Besides Molinaro, the challengers of the Democratic primary winner are Howie Hawkins of the Green Party; the new Serve America Movement’s Stephanie Miner, who is a former Syracuse mayor and one time co-chair of Cuomo’s state Democratic Party; and Larry Sharpe on the Libertarian Party line.

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