For a governor with a huge lead in the polls and an even bigger fundraising advantage over both his primary and general election opponents, New York’s Andrew Cuomo isn’t terribly popular. An ethics scandal and years of feuds and slights directed at various constituencies have resulted in Cuomo spending what should have been a triumphant reelection season scrambling to fend off challenges and absorbing slights from likely supporters. But right now the real question is not so much about Cuomo’s efforts as it is the reluctance of Republicans to take advantage of his weakness.
Cuomo’s biggest problem revolves around the U.S. attorney’s investigation of the governor’s attempts to quash the efforts of the Moreland Commission to probe the pay-to-play culture of Albany when it got too close to some of his supporters. His outrageous decision to shut the commission down was compounded by his arrogant dismissals of critics. But now that the Justice Department is involved, the public relations hit isn’t anywhere near as important as the potential legal peril facing the governor if more evidence is found corroborating charges of obstruction of justice.
That led to the startling decision of the New York Times to refuse to endorse Cuomo in the Democratic primary against Zephyr Teachout, a virtually unknown challenger. But the National Organization of Women and the left-wing Nation magazine coming down in favor of Teachout and her relentless attacks on the governor are taking a toll on him. As the Times reported yesterday, critics are now emerging throughout the political spectrum to either bash the governor or to exact demands to win their loyalty. Key constituent groups like unions are angry at the governor because of his initial move to the center after being elected in 2010 and are not appeased by his shift back to the left since 2012. Though none of this is enough to make anyone think Teachout or Republican nominee Rob Astorino can beat Cuomo, the picture emerging from the campaign is that of a weakened incumbent who is favored mainly because of his massive expenditures on television commercials and the moribund state of the state’s Republican Party.
Cuomo is right to take the New York GOP lightly. It’s been in a state of virtual collapse since 2002 when George Pataki won the last of his three terms in Albany. It’s been that long since it fielded a competitive candidate for either the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat and it has shown few signs of being able to pull itself together even in a midterm election year in which Republicans around the country are prepared to make gains because of President Obama’s unpopularity. It is true that the president is still popular in New York and the national GOP brand is despised in the liberal state, but unlike in past eras when centrist figures emerged to take advantage of Democratic weakness, the Republican bench in New York is empty as the state drifts toward a one-party dominance that essentially takes it off the board for national consideration in any election.
But, as I first wrote two weeks ago, the national Republican Party and the Republican Governors Association is making a big mistake in snubbing GOP nominee Rob Astorino. Unlike many of his recent predecessors on the New York ballot, the Westchester County executive is a plausible alternative to Cuomo. And unlike those GOP standard-bearers who were offered up as sacrificial lambs when they ran against Eliot Spitzer in 2006 and Cuomo in 2010, Astorino is facing an opponent who is in retreat on many issues and deeply vulnerable on ethics charges.
It may be that most New Yorkers don’t care about the charges against Cuomo. That’s understandable considering that the broadcast media has largely buried the story. That’s especially true when compared to Chris Christie’s Bridgegate woes. But despite his strong poll numbers, he remains vulnerable. It should also be remembered that the thin-skinned Cuomo has a long history of blowing up when put under pressure. Were Astorino given anywhere near the resources at Cuomo’s disposal, he might not win but he could help begin the process of rebuilding his party in a state Republicans should try to make competitive and help strengthen its influence in the state legislature.
Right now the assumption is that Cuomo’s obvious weakness is irrelevant to the national political equation and that any GOP money spent there would be wasted. But fate—in the form of a legal problem that could overshadow a potential second term for Cuomo—has given Republicans a golden chance that may not be repeated again. A governor who is under as much pressure and disliked as much as Cuomo has proven to be shouldn’t be given a free pass to reelection.