He’s acting like it, too. The Empire State’s political favorite son has positioned himself as a leading anti-Trump voice, the tip of the Democratic spear. The president this week even publicly dared Cuomo to run in 2020, bleating: “Please do it. Please.”
But if Cuomo is angling to be the next Democratic nominee, why is he appearing to help Republicans in their effort to keep control of the House?
Cuomo’s little-publicized decision last year to accept the nomination of the obscure Independence Party is now shaping up, potentially, to be a disaster of national dimensions.
“It could decide two or three races,” says Dan Cantor, chair of the Working Families Party national committee. “And that could decide who controls the House.”
The reason: In accepting the nomination of the Independence Party, an obscure group run by ideologically eccentric radio and TV host Frank MacKay, Cuomo is ticketing with a slew of infamous Republican congressional candidates.
His ticket-mates include upstate reactionaries like John Faso and John Katko, both of whom Cuomo has personally sparred with in the past. Faso even once said Cuomo wasn’t “a man of principle and honor” like his father, former governor Mario Cuomo.
Cuomo doesn’t need the votes. He has a substantial lead in recent polls and is a virtual lock to be re-elected.
But his Independence Party cohorts aren’t all so lucky. Many are Republicans like Faso, currently engaged in tight races against Democrats in key swing districts. And being ticketed with Cuomo might net them slight but difference-making bumps this fall.
Faso, an enthusiastic Trump supporter who has been denouncing his African-American opponent Antonio Delgado for having dabbled in rapping, picked up over 8,000 votes on the Independence Party line in 2016. To give a sense of the scale here, Delgado just won the Democratic primary with just over 8,000 votes total.
Katko is in another toss-up district, the 24th, which includes Syracuse. Cuomo dislikes Katko enough that he donated $2,700 to his opponent, progressive Dana Balter. But he’s ticketed with Katko on a minor party line that could be crucial: Katko scored over 10,000 votes with the Independence Party in 2016. Balter is said now to be leading Katko in polls by a slim margin, but the district has also been tabbed a “likely Republican” seat.
Because the Democrats need 24 seats to re-take the House, every one of these competitive races (which are rare to begin with) counts extra this time around, “when the fate of the Republic is arguably at stake,” as Cantor puts it.
In talking to Democrats and Democrat-aligned activists about this issue, I haven’t heard many arguments that Cuomo’s presence on the Independence line won’t result in additional votes for the likes of Faso. But there is an argument that Cuomo may, in an extreme case, need the votes himself, particularly if Working Families candidate Cynthia Nixon does not drop out in the general election. Losing both the Working Families line and the Independence line could cost him 200,000 votes or more, going by his numbers in the 2014 election, which he won by 532,403 votes.
Moreover, there’s an argument that the damage would be minimal. Cuomo only won eight upstate counties in 2014, so if his GOP challenger Marc Molinaro were instead on the Independent line, it might be a bigger boost to his down-ticket fellow party members than Cuomo would be a hindrance to his. In 2014 in the 19th district, for instance, Republican congressional incumbent Chris Gibson won over 9,000 votes on the Independence line, but Cuomo only got 4,000 or so. So one could make an argument that he only cost Democrats a handful of votes.
Still, it seems like counterintuitive politics. This bizarre situation is in play because the state of New York has an unusual electoral system, employing a thing called “fusion voting.” Used in only eight states, fusion voting is actually an interesting idea, America’s closest approximation to a proportional representation system.
The system allows one candidate to receive votes from multiple parties. New York’s is the most prominent and has some of the country’s highest-profile minor parties, with Nixon’s Working Families Party being the latest to break through.
The fusion system was originally designed to make it easier for certain types of voters to vote their conscience. An example would be immigrant workers in the 1930s who wanted to vote for Franklin Roosevelt but didn’t want to endorse capitalism.
The fusion system permitted such voters to pull a lever for FDR, but as the candidate of the American Labor Party. This allowed minor parties to have a voice even if they didn’t directly upset the balance of key elections.
Members of minor parties are often rewarded for support with patronage jobs or policy promises. This, again, is a wholly legitimate way for alternative political parties to have an impact on government.
The Independence Party riles some state politicos, however, because they believe it’s a bit of false salesmanship. Many voters think of themselves as political Independents, and vote the Independence line, not aware that its politics are decidedly conservative.
As a result, many politicians, even Democrats, have sought to be on the line in the past. As Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Collins points out: “All top Democrats have accepted the Independence line, including Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, Comptroller DiNapoli and Senator Stewart-Cousins, so the point is absurd.”
The difference is that Cuomo, as governor, exerts a unique influence over minor parties.
This is thanks to a quirk in New York’s system of ballot representation. Each of the minor parties — there are eight, including the Conservative Party (the former political home of Bill Buckley), Working Families, Independence and Reform — must accrue 50,000 votes in each gubernatorial election in order to stay on the ballot.
This gives governors enormous leverage in their interactions with the minor parties. A party that is close to being de-balloted can save its hide by linking up with a popular governor.
This is why the Independence Party, which otherwise tilts conservative, has endorsed many Democrats, and has repeatedly endorsed Cuomo. Party leader MacKay this year called Cuomo “one of the most accomplished and effective elected officials in the country.”
When contacted about the apparent contradiction in nominating politicians who have publicly attacked each other and appear on opposite ends of the political spectrum — like the anti-Trump Cuomo and the Trump-endorsing Faso — MacKay replied that other considerations came into play.
“Most of the endorsements made by the Independence Party are made locally,” he says. “Many independent people support — and cross political labels — for their local congressman, and also their governor.”
Cuomo’s decision to ticket up with the Independence Party isn’t just a quadrennial quirk, but seemingly part of a pattern. The governor has been criticized in the past for not always throwing his weight behind Democrats in state races. He reportedly told state Senate Republicans last year that he could have campaigned harder for Democrats, but did not, a report buttressed by the governor’s long history of less-than-enthusiastic fundraising for Democrats in state Senate races.
In a controversy that has long rankled progressives in New York, the governor was reportedly “deeply involved” in helping form the so-called Independent Democratic Caucus, which helped tilt power toward the GOP in New York state for years.
Formed in 2011, the IDC was a group of Democratic state senators who broke from their own party in 2012, and began caucusing with Republicans. This allowed Republicans to control the state Senate despite being in the minority.
Critics say it also protected Cuomo politically, by preventing him from, as The New York Times put it last year, “facing the politically precarious choice of vetoing or signing more liberal legislation.”
With the help of the IDC, the GOP-dominated legislature guaranteed that Cuomo could continue to play the role of an above-it-all centrist, helping position him for a national run.
There seems little question that Cuomo has national ambitions. The governor has made a habit of railing against Trump in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, often seeming more focused on Washington and Trump than on his own upcoming primary against challenger Cynthia Nixon.
Trump appears to enjoy the idea of running against Cuomo. The two New York scions have already begun an unseemly game of political flirting, exchanging headline-generating barbs when Trump visited New York this week to support congressional candidate Claudia Tinney (incidentally, the only New York Republican congressional candidate not on the Independence line).
Trump in his visit repeatedly sniped at Cuomo, saying among other things, “anybody that runs against Trump suffers.”
Cuomo responded with a bizarre counterattack:
“We’re not going to make America great again,” Cuomo said at a bill-signing ceremony Wednesday. In a dig at Trump that could easily double as the raw material for Trump’s first 100 anti-Cuomo ads in 2020, he added: “It was never that great.”
Within a few hours, Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever was walking that one back, saying, “The governor believes America is great.”
To be fair, the full revised statement was an attempt to explain the loaded subtext of Trump’s stolen “Make America Great Again” slogan, noting that MAGA signals “going back in time” to a period when we “suffered from slavery, discrimination, sexism, and marginalized women’s contributions.”
Hence the full revised Cuomo quote: “The governor believes America is great and that her full greatness will be realized when every man, woman, and child has full equality.” Which is definitely true. But “The governor slipped while trying to out bumper-sticker Donald Trump” feels like a more faithful explanation for what happened.
Whatever it was, Trump loved it, tweeting:
“WE’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, IT WAS NEVER THAT GREAT.” Can you believe this is the Governor of the Highest Taxed State in the U.S., Andrew Cuomo, having a total meltdown!
Cuomo is a highly skilled political street-fighter and dealmaker, and is often compared to a more urbane, more northern LBJ. But if he ends up seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, he may face questions of having made one deal too many. If ticketing with the likes of John Faso helps the Republicans keep the House, those questions will be very loud indeed.