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Primary victory cements Kathy Hochul's status as political force in N.Y.

Buffalo’s Kathy Hochul won the Democratic nomination for a second term as lieutenant governor Thursday, turning back a serious challenge from New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams and cementing her status as a force in New York politics – though it wasn’t easy.

Hochul was leading Williams 53.1 percent to 46.9 percent with 92 percent of the statewide vote counted, brushing aside any uncertainty about the Democratic ticket as she joins Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo following his victory over challenger Cynthia Nixon. The pair now heads for a general election showdown in November with Republican gubernatorial candidate Marcus J. Molinaro (expected in Buffalo on Friday) and his running mate, Julie Killian.

Her victory looms as significant against a leading figure in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and it represents a rare triumph for an upstate Democrat in a party dominated by New York City.

But Hochul by no means steamrolled to victory, with totals see-sawing throughout the late-night counting. As expected, Williams, 42, racked up big votes and a 93,400 vote plurality in his Brooklyn home turf and in Manhattan, but Hochul countered by winning the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. Those totals, combined with blowout wins throughout virtually all of upstate and Long Island – especially in the big counties, allowed her to build a semi-comfortable cushion as the night wore on. In Erie and Monroe – two upstate counties that know her well – Hochul made up 80 percent of the New York City gap.

Williams had one upstate stronghold – Tompkins County. He won 62 percent of the vote, with a margin of 2,390 votes.

Hochul, 60, won Erie County 78 to 22 percent, with 93 percent of the vote counted. Her plurality of more than 35,000 votes in Erie County significantly cut into her opponent’s tallies in the five boroughs of New York City.

“Western New York was my firewall,” she told The Buffalo News. “They’re the ones who had faith in me, know my work ethic, and that I’ve been fighting for them for 25 years. Western New York came out strong for me and I will never forget that.”

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

While Cuomo celebrated in Manhattan, Hochul addressed supporters to thunderous applause at Erie County Democratic headquarters in Larkinville. She noted the tough fight posed by Williams and looked ahead to the spirited challenge expected from Molinaro and Killian.

“Western New York, upstate New York, the entirety of New York, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “Every day I say, 'I don’t want to let the people of my community, my hometown, down.' I fought for you, I fought alongside of our governor, and you made this victory happen.”

The mere fact that she did not join Cuomo at his Manhattan venue, however, seemed to underscore the uncertainty that surrounded the contest.

Early indications pointed to relatively heavy turnout across the state for a primary, including in Buffalo.

Hochul entered the fray with a host of advantages. She gained the Democratic endorsement, maintained a relentless campaign schedule, concentrated on downstate and was expected to spend more than $2 million. She also portrayed herself as Cuomo’s close partner.

Williams, on the other hand, had spent only about $38,000 in his last report to the state Board of Elections. He promised to turn the lieutenant governor’s office into a “bully pulpit” for liberal causes and challenge the governor if needed.

Signs of trouble in the Cuomo camp surfaced as far back as April, when The Buffalo News reported that the governor’s political gurus were attempting to ease Hochul off the ticket and into a congressional rematch against Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. Sources at the time said the Cuomo camp feared that Williams might win on the strength of the New York City vote and emerge as a free agent lieutenant governor.

But Hochul resisted calls for her to leave the ticket and remained.

While the latest Siena College poll showed Hochul leading Williams 43 to 21 percent, the race was deemed competitive right from the start. That’s because Williams hails from Brooklyn, with its almost 1 million registered Democrats. New York City, meanwhile, boasts more than 3 million Democrats, presenting a mammoth obstacle for Hochul to overcome – despite her traditional upstate support.

Throughout her campaign, Hochul emphasized her close working relationship with Cuomo, from representing him across the state to coordinating his regional economic development councils. And like Cuomo and all of the Democratic candidates for state attorney general, she targeted President Trump throughout her campaign as a threat to New York.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul greets voter Samantha Bordanaro, right, and her children Vivian, 5, Paul, 3, and Nicholas, 4 months, on Sept. 13 at Unitarian Universalist Church in Buffalo. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

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