Andrew Cuomo won the Democratic primary last night in the New York gubernatorial race, a high-profile win over celebrity actress Cynthia Nixon that has some convinced all is right in the Democratic world again. Politico is already touting Cuomo as a presidential candidate, despite the fact that he just swore he would serve four years in Albany unless “God strikes me dead.”
Cuomo won by a fair margin, by about 65 percent to 35 percent, which wasn’t exactly a surprise. He spent over $16 million in a period of six weeks this summer, or about 25 times what Nixon was spending. At various times in the campaign, Cuomo has had 50 times as much cash as his opponent.
Cuomo has always been significantly backed by real estate developers and by the finance sector, and leaned heavily on big donors. Last year, The New York Times reported that 99 percent of Cuomo’s donations since 2015 had been over $1,000. He insisted this year that this donor base had changed (although the stats seem to have been affected by shady episodes like a single donor sending in $1 69 times).
Nixon, meanwhile, boasted that some 97 percent of her donations were less than $200. She received more of these small donations in the first 24 hours after announcing her campaign in March than Cuomo had since 2011.
The Cuomo-Nixon race went according to an increasingly common pattern. One candidate takes all the money and is not just substantially supported by the very industries he or she is charged with overseeing, but also may have a corresponding lack of grassroots financial support.
Call this candidate the pole-sitter. He or she will start the race with a massive war chest, but will face the not-insignificant challenge of converting a few big chunks of money into many votes.
Meanwhile, in the newly competitive world of blue-state politics, there is more and more often a noisy progressive challenger. This person likely hails from the Justice Democrats/Our Revolution family, runs on an anti-corporate platform, and may eschew corporate money.
This candidate’s task will be the opposite: attempting to convert a foundation of small donations into the kind of widespread media saturation that’s still usually needed to win.
Another common feature of these races is that the party apparatus, rather than staying neutral, may actively campaign against the progressive challenger.
Earlier this year, when a tape leaked of longtime Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer urging prototypical “noisy challenger” Levi Tillemann to drop out of a Colorado congressional race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement saying openly, “We reserve the right to get involved in primaries to ensure that there is a competitive Democrat on the ballot.”
Putting aside the question of whether or not this is fair – many people believe such intervention is justified, either on electability grounds or in cases where the challenger is “not a Democrat” – it’s clear by now that many Democrats take for granted that this dynamic exists. In the Nixon race the pattern held with a state-party release of a sleazy last-week flier accusing Nixon of anti-Semitism.
Lastly, big-media endorsements of the big-money candidates are also more or less automatic. That dynamic held to form in the Cuomo-Nixon race, where The New York Times of course came out in favor of the Gov.
The Times “endorsement” of Cuomo was hilarious, though. An obituary of Ted Kaczynski might have been more complimentary. “He has done little to combat the corruption in the Legislature and his own administration,” the paper said, adding that the “case for change” is “not hard to make.”
But Nixon’s “lack of experience” was enough to keep the Times from calling for the removal of the “formidable political animal” Cuomo, who, the paper said, might at last have “scented a change in the wind.”
This is the last part of the script. When the big-money, institutionally supported candidate wins in the primary, as is usually the case in a world where paid and unpaid media still matter a lot (it’s not an accident that many of the high-profile insurgent wins, like that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, took place in races big media outlets simply forgot to cover), we quickly hear reassuring bromides from the pundit class.
Post-primary, we’re told the system worked, and the longtime insider has been forced to “move to the left” by the insurgent. Usually the good news involves long-overdue shifts on social issues. The Times today noted, “Mr. Cuomo embraced a series of liberal ideas soon after her entry, including moving toward legalizing marijuana [and] extending voting rights to parolees,” among other things.
In fact, the insider’s policy changes are sometimes pointed to as the actual reason for the primary win. “Andrew M. Cuomo Defeats Cynthia Nixon After Move to the Left,” is the Washington Post headline today.
The defeated challenger often takes solace in having moved the needle this way. Nixon tweeted, “We moved issues of racial and economic justice to the forefront.”
The Nixon-Cuomo race was fascinating in many ways. Still, there’s a danger in becoming too accepting of a narrative that has already become formulaic in media coverage of these races.
The Clinton-Sanders race was in many ways a preview of how both the press and the party want voters to view these contests. Politico put it best when it told voters back in January 2016 that the Sanders-Clinton choice represented the difference between a “symbolic candidacy and a real one.”
The New Yorker’s John Cassidy went further back in 2015, mock-welcoming Sanders into the race on the grounds that the Vermont socialist would “occupy the space to the left of Clinton, thus denying it to more plausible candidates, such as Martin O’Malley.”
Moreover, as a supposedly can’t-win advocate for policies that are “eminently defensible, if not realistic,” Sanders would “provide a voice to those Democrats who agree with him that the U.S. political system has been bought, lock, stock, and barrel.”
In much the same way, the national party would love for the Cuomo race to become the template for how Democrats can “have a voice” without much having to actually change. Sure, by all means, let’s have a rabble-rousing challenger who swears off corporate cash and allows the base to blow off some steam.
The insider can even make a concession or two, so voters feel like they had an impact. The media can give that dynamic a snappy name, like the “Cynthia effect,” a way to place “reformist pressure” on the inevitable winner.
There will be an appeal to this kind of storyline for many. But it can also distract from the reality of these races. The issue that’s dividing Democrats is not marijuana legalization, or a $15 minimum wage, or body cameras for cops, or any of a dozen other things.
The issue is money. The “real” candidate is inevitably the one that lets donations from Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry and big tech and military contractors come pouring in. That candidate will always, 100 percent of the time, end up voting against an obvious reform or worsening an existing law.
Meanwhile, the arguments against the “electability” of insurgent candidates are usually based on the idea that their policy proposals are too fanciful. We can’t afford free college; single-payer health care would cost too much (Nixon was accused of wanting to “double New York’s budget” with her health plan); and too much reigning in of Wall Street is “demonizing the rich.”
No one ever just comes out and says it: We have no idea how to run a national race without Wall Street money. The national party has been dependent on corporate cash for so long that it derides as uncompetitive the idea of running without it. And the press has mostly gone along with this narrative.
In the short term, it may be reassuring to read about having an “effect” on a Cuomo or a Schumer or whatever other big-business vassal the party is choosing to celebrate this week. And campaigns like Nixon’s do go a long way toward institutionalizing the idea that such candidates will at least face a workout in the primary.
But the endgame to creating a true opposition – a permanent counterpart to the CEO class, which is already fully represented by the Republican Party – is finding a way to win, not place, without the money. That reality is getting closer. But as last night’s “easy” primary win showed, it may still be far off.