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New York's Democratic primaries roll right over insurgents like Nixon

ALBANY – Message to political insurgents in New York with dreams of taking over the state government: Move along.

Certainly, as seen in six state Senate Democratic primary contests Thursday in which incumbent power brokers were ousted by younger, more liberal challengers, insurgents – or mavericks, or whatever the preferred term – can rise to the top in local contests.

But when it comes to statewide primary battles in the Democratic Party, whether for governor or the other statewide posts, entrenched incumbents or major party endorsed candidates have little chance of losing to under-funded, come-from-nowhere candidates.

State campaign and election laws favor incumbents the likes of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo,  who comfortably defeated a primary challenge by activist Cynthia Nixon, and present insurgents with a simple, daunting obstacle: the state’s Democratic Party’s machine. It can be an extraordinarily potent and often immovable force when it runs on all cylinders, with all its extra help, as it did Thursday.

Add to it the helper bees – from labor and women’s groups, as well as environmentalists – and Cuomo proved unbeatable almost from the start in the primary race.

Cuomo’s party had it all together, and then some.

It had a near-bottomless supply of cash, either raised directly by Cuomo or his state or local party organizations. That money was supplanted by millions of dollars – for ads, mailings, and sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts – from the state’s biggest unions, a number of which sat on the sidelines in the governor’s 2014 re-election bid.

Add to that the back-bench infrastructure of the state Democratic Party groups on the county level – all loyal to Cuomo – that worked feverishly on the logistics to help Cuomo beat Nixon.

With all that help, Cuomo did more than just defeat Nixon. He and his organizations helped to yank along two others below him on the ticket – Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and attorney general candidate Letitia James – to their own primary victories.

Both Hochul and James are keen Cuomo loyalists and therefore of benefit to the governor politically for the next four years, should he win a third term in November.

Money and more money

To Nixon supporters, money – Cuomo’s money – was key. Cuomo will have spent, when it’s all counted, in excess of $20 million running against the TV and movie actress.

“Cuomo spent $25 million. People’s homes were inundated with TV ads," said Billy Easton, a senior Nixon campaign adviser. "He was spending as much in a few days as she was spending in the whole campaign. That type of roll of money in a statewide race makes it extraordinarily difficult for an insurgent candidate to prevail.’’

“Right now, there’s so much corporate money that goes into our elections … it’s not a fair fight,’’ echoed Bill Lipton, the state director of the Working Families Party, Nixon’s leading support group. She is on the party’s ballot line in the general election contest.

Cuomo loyalists, however, dismiss the Nixon camp’s theory about why she lost so badly. The governor himself said his administration provided “real life solutions” to voters. His allies say Cuomo delivered to voters on fiscal and policy matters items he promised – whether tough gun control laws, legalizing marriage rights for gays or getting more timely adoption of state budgets with spending caps and a property tax cap intact.

“Cynthia Nixon has an appeal and a very strong appeal to a certain portion of the population, and her message is what attracts," said Steven Cohen, a Manhattan lawyer and a longtime friend of Cuomo whose past jobs including serving as the governor’s top staff advisor at the Capitol. "It’s not whether or not she is capable of delivering. It’s the message. But that is a limited, finite number of people, and once you hit that number, she is not going to get another vote.’’

Cohen said when voters put aside talk by Cuomo about some ideological issue or national concerns, even on ones in which they might not necessarily side with the governor, they are able to respect what Cuomo has done in his eight years in Albany. “He got done what he said he was going to do,’’ Cohen said.

Cuomo, who barely mentioned Nixon by name but made President Trump a central theme of his primary run, said that voters in New York – where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one – needed someone speaking out against Trump. “The fear of Trump is real,’’ Cuomo said Friday.

Insurgent organizers: Think local, not global

It was every political insurgent’s dream: the June Democratic congressional primary in New York City that saw unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeat longtime U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, who headed the Queens Democratic Party machine. The upset gave inspiration to others taking on powerful incumbents, including Nixon, who often cited the Crowley loss as giving her hope against Cuomo.

In September, Nixon backers cheered another upset win, this time by a progressive Democrat in Massachusetts who ousted another longtime member of the U.S. House.

On Friday, Cuomo called the Ocasio-Cortez congressional race result in June a “fluke.” People who work on the front lines of these insurgency-type campaigns said it was unrealistic to think results from such a hyper-local victory could transfer to a statewide race by political newcomer Nixon against Cuomo.

Recruiting candidates to go up against party-backed incumbents is nearly impossible in New York, liberal activists said.

“Because we have a governor who has made it so unbelievably clear he will destroy anyone in his way who goes against him, it makes it difficult to get Democrats to run. It leaves us in the position where we can only have an outsider candidate,’’ said Mia Pearlman, co-leader of True Blue NY.

In Nixon, who entered the race in March and never raised nearly enough money to take on Cuomo, liberal groups were appreciative of her willingness to step up. “Nobody expected she could win,’’ Pearlman said.

Other organizers said privately that they were disappointed to learn that Nixon came into the race without a major campaign effort backing her and that she relied too heavily on local progressive groups – spread out geographically and with different causes – to prop up her fledgling campaign. Several said Nixon made a mistake by waiting so long to get in and not devoting more time to upstate regions in the hunt for support.

As it became clear Nixon was not moving the poll numbers against Cuomo, many of these groups refocused on more local efforts. Direct in sight: removing as many of the eight renegade state senators who broke from the mainline group of Senate Democrats several years ago and, with Cuomo’s blessing, formed a power alliance with Republicans that helped keep the GOP in control of the State Senate.

On Thursday night, six of those eight senators were ousted by more left-leaning Democrats who won by tying their opponents to the GOP. The losers included Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who founded the breakaway group called the Independent Democratic Conference and who only five months ago was part of the five-member group, including Cuomo, negotiating the terms of the $170 billion 2018 state budget at the Capitol.

From the ground up

Efforts to oust the Independent Democratic Conference began in earnest two years ago. Grassroots groups first worked strategy, then began voter education efforts against the conference's deal with Republicans. Finally, candidates came to them.

“By the time the candidates came walking in, the bed had already been laid. The infrastructure was in place for them to run. … They would have never run if that infrastructure wasn’t already in place that we created,’’ said Harris Doran, an activist with Rise and Resist and No IDC NY.

In Nixon’s case, that infrastructure was not pre-deployed. In a state the size of New York, getting her name out proved an enormous challenge, particularly as Cuomo took over the TV airwaves with ads.

Insurgency works when candidates can make it personal for voters, groups say. Doran recalled telling Alessandra Biaggi, who beat Klein on Thursday in the Bronx, that she was dynamic and personable and that she could win if she met every voter in the district. “She knocked on doors every single day,’’ Doran said.

Thursday’s results proved, once again, that insurgency-type campaigns have their limits.

“I think the state is really big, and in New York City you need a massive amount of money to do advertising, and if you can’t do advertising you have no chance in New York City,’’ said Judith Enck, a former senior Obama administration environmental agency official who had some involvement with the Nixon campaign.

The lesson from Thursday for insurgents? “It tells me progressives need to focus on local races," Enck said.

Unions spend big 

Slightly under 27 percent of Democrats – or about 1.5 million people – voted Thursday in the gubernatorial primary, up more than twice from the 2014 primaries. That higher turnout, Nixon believes, helped drive Cuomo’s numbers up against her campaign.

Organized labor took credit for part of the increase.

“I may be biased, but I think we were an integral part of [Cuomo’s] victory," said Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, which represents 2.5 million New Yorkers in a state with the nation’s most concentration of unionized workforce.

Cuomo got the usual support from unions: mailers, phone banking and thousands of volunteers trying to get people to the polls. Millions were spent on his behalf in other ways. One union representing hotel workers spent $200,000 in two days near the end on pro-Cuomo radio ads and mailings.

It all came during a time of labor peace for Cuomo. This year, the state AFL-CIO could get directly involved because the open hostility Cuomo faced in 2014 – from the likes of the Civil Service Employees Association, New York State United Teachers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – had vanished.

Cilento, who estimated well over half of union members are enrolled as Democrats, said Cuomo was rewarded with union votes in part because of big ticket items including a boost in the minimum wage and a paid family leave law. He said Cuomo also put his energy into union-specific assistance, such as organizing drives for workers at JetBlue Airways, state pushback to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on membership in public employee unions, and in 2017 Cuomo sided with union workers at a major cable conglomerate.

“Members saw him in a way where he was walking the walk,’’ Cilento said of Cuomo.

But Nixon allies say Cuomo forces are downplaying the millions Cuomo spent in what could be a record, when final election reports are made public next month, for a statewide gubernatorial primary.

“I think labor has a lot of boots on the ground, but it’s not as a big a factor as the money,’’ said Easton, the Nixon adviser.

For his part, Cuomo dismissed commentators and critics who said Nixon pulled him to the political left and, on Friday, appeared to take delight in poking at theories that he might have lost.

“It was all age groups," Cuomo said of his ability to capture 65 percent of the votes in the primary race. "It was all demographics. So I think it was a very loud and clear and powerful statement.’’

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