ALBANY – Poll after poll has shown Andrew Cuomo nearly invincible over the past four years.
So imagine an unknown liberal law professor at a Jesuit college who has never run for office before capturing a quarter or perhaps close to a third of the votes in the Democratic primary next week.
That is not a scenario Cuomo’s opponents are pitching. That’s what insiders on the governor’s own campaign are looking at. The governor’s people say that would not be an unusual outcome, but independent analysts say it could dent Cuomo at home and damage his prospects of ever living in the White House.
That a political neophyte like Zephyr Teachout could so rattle the New York Democratic Party and Cuomo, its titular head, is a story in itself. But, as Teachout would say, there is more than Cuomo at play. She contends it is a contest for the liberal heart and soul of the state’s Democratic Party as she challenges a governor she accuses of being too tight with big corporations, millionaires and special interests.
Through most of the primary campaign, Cuomo responded by not uttering Teachout’s name, ignoring her demands for a debate and generally not engaging her daily barbs. Still, he was evidently concerned enough that he dispatched one of the state’s top election lawyers to try to bounce her from the primary ballot, an effort that courts rejected.
As Cuomo has limited his public appearances lately, Teachout appears to be on a roll, capturing growing media interest and traveling to big and small towns this past week in a rented bus.
Cuomo’s playbook has apparently been to try to run out the clock, but he will likely step up his campaigning this week and start blanketing the airwaves with ads that tout his record. In the past two weeks, Cuomo has spent $1 million on TV ads, according to campaign spending reports filed Friday. Teachout’s financial filings have not yet been posted on the state Election Board’s website
None of the colleges that poll New Yorkers has surveyed a Cuomo-Teachout matchup. The Cuomo campaign insists that it, too, has not directly polled the contest.
But one pollster, while saying Cuomo is all but guaranteed to win, won’t come out of this contest unscathed.
“She will get enough votes, I guarantee, to embarrass Andrew Cuomo,” said Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll.
“He’s a politician, and the fact that there will be an embarrassing vote against him is not good politics. Forget whether he runs for president. If Hillary Clinton runs, he’s not a candidate. But any politician who shows a certain vulnerability, it just doesn’t help,” Carroll said.
Teachout’s challenge, with so little money compared to Cuomo, is getting voters to the polls.
Besides having an army of consultants, advertising specialists, strategists and logistics planners, Cuomo has the money to hire people to drive voters to polling places and the means to tap several unions and proprietary companies that can speed-dial pre-identified Cuomo supporters to ensure they vote in the primary. He has county party groups with long-held skills in both pushing turnout as well as suppressing turnout in areas that might not be Cuomo-friendly.
But Teachout believes her campaign has something Cuomo’s doesn’t: a cause.
She sees New York as the place to make a stance for liberal causes – from immigration policies to challenging the powers of big corporations.
She and her allies also believe low voter turnout and a disgruntled electorate could help her pull an upset.
The conventional wisdom is that Teachout cannot win, but she can pose problems, both for Cuomo’s perception as an all-powerful and invulnerable politician and for the havoc her running mate, Columbia law professor Tim Wu, could cause if he defeats Cuomo’s handpicked running mate, Erie County’s Kathy Hochul.
A Wu victory resulting in a Cuomo-Wu ticket in November would block Cuomo from counting votes won in the general election on several other ballot lines where the incumbent and Hochul already are on the line, such as the Working Families Party.
Is the Cuomo campaign worried?
“I think we’re doing due diligence. Anytime you are on the ballot, you take things seriously,” said a Cuomo campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But the official dismissed Teachout as yet another in a long lineup of “protest” candidates in New York that other successful statewide candidates have endured. They point to Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose primary opponent in her first campaign for the U.S. Senate captured 18 percent of the vote.
As such, the official said, the Cuomo campaign is not expending major amounts of money on get-out-the-vote efforts against Teachout.
“It would be silly to invest those kinds of resources,” the source said, noting that Cuomo will face Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino in the general election.
The Cuomo official said of Teachout’s chances: “Any protest candidate is going to get in the low to mid-high 20s.”
That was the reaction of several party insiders when they heard Cuomo operatives were suggesting Teachout could get as much as 30 percent of the vote.
“If that’s the number, that’s a problem for them,” responded one veteran Democratic Party operative seasoned in statewide campaigns.
Here are some other numbers to consider in the Democratic primary: In the last Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2006, between Eliot Spitzer and Thomas Suozzi, the turnout was roughly 15 percent. Just over 762,000 Democrats voted. Sixty-seven percent of the votes came from New York City, Long Island and Westchester, with just 6.7 percent from Erie County.
And this year, Teachout backers point to a couple of legislative races in Queens – where 82,000 Democrats voted in 2006 compared to 51,000 in Erie County – that could help her and her running mate. Those Queens legislative races involve Asian-American candidates and could produce higher-than-usual numbers for Wu, whose father is from Taiwan.
Cuomo backers, though, counter that a couple of state legislative primaries in Buffalo will drive up turnout from Democrats friendly to Cuomo and Hochul.
Now consider endorsements, especially from unions.
Teachout and Wu have backing from the New York chapter of NOW, the Sierra Club of New York and the Public Employees Federation, the 54,000-member, white-collar state workers union.
The Public Employees Federation is running phone banks, with volunteers reaching out to Democratic members of the union – in 12 areas of the state, a spokeswoman said. Union members have turned out to support Teachout at public events and will have members marching with Teachout and Wu in upcoming Labor Day and other parades downstate and upstate.
“Communication from PEF leadership has gone out to every PEF member and retiree about the endorsement, ways to get involved and the importance of voting in this primary election,” said PEF spokeswoman Jane Briggs.
In Western New York, Teachout backers hope the political activities of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which has endorsed her, will help reduce some of the Western New York support that Hochul might attract.
“Teachers are furious with him,” BTF President Phil Rumore said of Cuomo. “I think a lot of people are going to stay home and the activists, the ones who have a mission, are the ones who will get out.”
Other unions are expected to sit out this primary, including the New York State United Teachers and the Civil Service Employees Association, the largest state workers union that was instrumental in blocking the state’s AFL-CIO from endorsing Cuomo in the primary, an embarrassing blow for the governor.
While Cuomo has had his problems with unions, which have some of the best political field operations in the state, he has his support, too, led by the Communications Workers of America and 1199 SEIU, the big health care workers union.
The health care union is focusing its efforts on Assembly and Senate contests it considers to be in play and, at the same time, promoting Cuomo in phone calls and literature drops in those districts around the state, said Dana Alas, 1199’s regional political director for upstate.
Out of 190,205 registered Democrats who are 1199 members statewide, the union is concentrating its efforts on 57,500 in various Assembly and Senate districts.
Asked if 1199’s campaign is heavily geared to Cuomo, Alas said: “It’s heavily geared for the races we’re active in. We’re also actively campaigning for the governor, as well.”
Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant in Manhattan whose firm, Prime New York, sells highly detailed data about voters to campaigns, said he expects turnout will be lower on Sept. 9 than the last couple of statewide Democratic primary contests.
And the lower the turnout, the more significant is get-out-the-vote help from groups such as 1199 or PEF.
“It seems like a consensus that the magic number for Teachout is like 25 percent,” Skurnik said. “If she gets 25 percent or more, it will be considered a good showing and somewhat embarrassing for the governor, but in reality, 25 percent is a blowout.”
A third candidate in the Democratic primary, Randy Credico, is a political satirist from New York.