Cynthia Nixon has little chance of winning, but she put New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the defensive

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a huge lead over his primary challenger Cynthia Nixon in major public polls and appears to be a massive favorite to defeat the activist and actress on Thursday in a statewide race that has garnered national attention.
  • Nixon has run a progressive platform that calls for higher taxes on the rich and a sharp, two-fold increase in spending, placing reformist pressure on the more centrist governor.
  • Whether or not the so-called "Cynthia Effect" is real, the actress has rallied the leftmost parts of the Democratic base, and it could have an impact on Cuomo's ambitions beyond this election cycle.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo greets spectators during Dominican Day parade 2018 on 6th Avenue. 
Lev Radin | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo greets spectators during Dominican Day parade 2018 on 6th Avenue. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a huge lead over his primary challenger Cynthia Nixon in major public polls and appears to be a massive favorite to defeat the activist and actress on Thursday in a statewide race that has garnered national attention.

But through a progressive platform that calls for higher taxes on the rich and a sharp, two-fold increase in spending, Nixon has managed to place reformist pressure on the more centrist governor, who has not satisfied the far-left minority rallying behind the "Sex and the City" star.

Nixon allies have boasted that the candidate's campaign has forced Cuomo to scramble to the left to protect his seat, which left-leaning news outlets have deemed the "Cynthia Effect." Cuomo allies disagree, pointing to the governor's past progressive reforms like the legalization of same-sex marriage and the passage of the $15 minimum wage.

Whether or not the so-called "Cynthia Effect" is real, the actress has rallied the leftmost parts of the Democratic base, echoing a familiar, nationwide rallying cry of underdog candidates who have run to the left of entrenched Democratic politicians this election cycle. And it could end up having an effect on the 2020 presidential race, as Cuomo is often discussed as a potential Democratic nominee.

Yet Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, himself a player in 2020 Democratic presidential politics after his surprising challenge of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, has not backed Nixon, despite endorsing other left-wing candidates this cycle. He supported Zephyr Teachout for New York attorney general and Jumaane Williams for lieutenant governor, both of whom he dubbed "progressive leaders."

Still, Cuomo's campaign has taken Nixon seriously, spending about $400,000 per day during a recent three-week stretch, according to public filings, which is slightly less than Nixon's total spending over the same period.

The Cuomo campaign denied Nixon has had an impact on its plans, and dismissed her as a "self-obsessed" actress in an interview with CNBC.

"While Cynthia Nixon was collecting paychecks on movie sets, Governor Cuomo was establishing himself as the most progressive governor in America," a Cuomo representative said. "The governor is allowed to do his job as governor and govern and the sun rising is not attributable to Cynthia Nixon."

But Cuomo has made policy announcements over the past few months specifically targeting issues and attacks from Nixon's platform. When Nixon spoke forcefully about criminal justice reform, Cuomo restored voting rights to prisoners on parole. When she condemned him for supporting the Independent Democratic Conference — whose collaboration with Republicans in the Albany State Senate allowed the GOP to control the chamber despite being outnumbered by Democrats — Cuomo dismantled it.

Nixon has also blamed Cuomo for the deterioration of the New York City Subway system, and has endorsed a rescue plan devised by Andy Byford, the president of the New York City Transit Authority hired by the governor himself. She has proposed a "polluters" tax on carbon to help fund the plan, which would cost roughly $3.7 billion annually. She has also consistently accused him of "governing like a Republican," referring to budget austerity early in his governance.

Nixon's accusations are lofty against a governor who has passed significant socially progressive policies in New York. An outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, Cuomo has passed tough gun control measures, legalized same-sex marriage, and enacted a $15 minimum wage in New York during his tenure. He also created a paid leave program, and in 2014, he banned hydraulic fracturing over health concerns and embraced clean energy programs. In April, he pushed a plan to shield New York residents from tax hikes under the president's tax law.

"Nixon is running the most progressive statewide campaign in recent memory in this country. It's pushed Cuomo to the left and has made him adjust his agenda. But Cuomo has had big wins on major issues for progressive Democrats," said Democratic political consultant Evan Thies.

Others disagree, citing Cuomo's history of embracing a more fiscally conservative agenda. For instance, in 2014, Cuomo boasted to reporters that he's managed New York "in a way that any Republican would be proud." The same year, protesters dubbed him "Governor 1 Percent," a prominent progressive activist suggested that he run for re-election as a Republican, and New York liberals criticized the governor's tax cuts and observed skepticism towards labor unions.

Cynthia Nixon campaigns for Governor of New York while marching in the West Indian Day Parade on September 3, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York.
Andrew Lichtenstein | Corbis News | Getty Images
Cynthia Nixon campaigns for Governor of New York while marching in the West Indian Day Parade on September 3, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York.

Cuomo, thought to be a potential 2020 White House candidate, has firmly denied any presidential ambitions, but has not strongly articulated during his campaign for re-election what he might do the next four years. Experts who are confident that Cuomo will win on Thursday are skeptical about his future in politics, citing his failure to capture a liberal Democratic population in New York.

"The story here isn't that Nixon has made a dent in Cuomo, but that he hasn't used her campaign as an opportunity to expand his. When this primary is over, he will have the same opposition and lack of enthusiasm from a huge swath of Democratic voters," said Bill Samuels, a Democratic fundraiser and activist. "It will make it impossible for him to launch a progressive campaign because he hasn't used this campaign to get enthusiasm from reformers. He's stuck in the middle, and not changing the structure of politics in New York."

Yet Cuomo had a huge 41 percentage point advantage over Nixon, according to a Siena College poll released Monday.

What's next for Cuomo

After a likely victory on Thursday, Cuomo would face off against the Republican Party establishment pick Marcus J. Molinaro, a moderate county executive who has avoided talk of Trump. Molinaro has said his priority will be for "the people," in contrast to Cuomo, who he said was "plotting to run for president." A GOP victory in November would be a challenge in New York, which hasn't seen a Republican in a statewide office since George E. Pataki's gubernatorial win in 2002.

Cuomo's performance could either kill or fuel his possible 2020 ambitions, and he's had a series of stumbles along the way that have put him on the defensive.

Recently, he drew immediate backlash when he told a crowd, in a riff on Trump's "Make America great again" slogan: "We're not going to make America great again; it was never that great." The president, in turn, used the gaffe to repeatedly hammer Cuomo.

On Saturday Cuomo's celebration of the full opening of the replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge was marred by an unexpected safety issue, and opponents quickly accused him of putting politics above public safety. He also faced backlash on Saturday when a flier paid for by the State Democratic Party showed a picture of Nixon and the word "anti-Semitism."

Cuomo said the bridge was not rushed before Thursday's primary and denied knowing about the mailer.

While problems with the political flier and bridge might not jeopardize his run for a third term, the governor could be further distancing himself from the activist group of Democrats who back Nixon. This could hurt a potential run for the 2020 presidency.

Cuomo has downplayed presidential speculation, forcefully declaring that he would finish a full third term as New York's governor unless God and death intervened. But rumors that he harbors presidential ambitions continue to follow him, and some experts say that his chance at a presidency would be hurt by his failure to capture more progressive voters.

"Cuomo will end this election without the support of at least 30 percent of the Democratic voters. That's a terrible missed opportunity for him. He cannot credibly be a candidate for president without support from this reformist group of people," Samuels said.