ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s path to Tuesday’s Democratic primary was not expected to be so smooth.
Last fall, she faced the prospect of a major challenger in Attorney General Tish James and questions over whether becoming the unexpected governor when Andrew Cuomo resigned last August would translate into support among voters who hardly knew her.
Flash forward to now: The state’s first female governor appears set to cruise through her primary against Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, using the likely win as a springboard toward the general election in November.
She holds a commanding lead in polls, endorsements and fundraising. But she also hasn’t had to put in the work required in a competitive primary, leaving her to make a cold start against the ultimate Republican nominee.
If she wins the primary and wins again in November, she would become one of the most powerful female governors in the nation, with a sweeping platform to counteract a potential Republican takeover of Congress on key Democratic issues that include gun control, abortion rights and climate change.
So far, Hochul, 63, has withstood criticism about rising crime from the left and the right, outrage over a late budget deal that included $600 million in public subsidies to fund a new stadium for her hometown Buffalo Bills and corruption allegations that forced the resignation in April of her first lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin.
But legislative wins in Albany and the shifting focus of the electorate put her on back on track.
“She walked in the door trying to fill Andrew Cuomo’s shoes, which were large in many respects, and people didn’t really know what to expect from her,” said state Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island who has endorsed Hochul and is not running for reelection.
“I always say that she’s a tough chick from Buffalo — and don’t underestimate her.”
A change in fortunes
Hochul took office in August after Cuomo resigned following allegations of sexual harassment by multiple women. Hochul faced some daunting issues: the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, mounting public concern about crime and economic turmoil.
James, who appointed the authors of the report finding harassment allegations against Cuomo credible, looked poised to provide a tough challenge to Hochul.
James ultimately decided to withdraw from the race in early December and run for reelection, leaving Hochul to face off with challengers to either side of her politically: Suozzi, a moderate congressman and Williams, a progressive champion.
Hochul faced criticism for the deal to use taxpayer money for a new Bills stadium. Incremental changes to bail laws came through hard-fought negotiations with lawmakers and still drew criticism for not being strong enough.
But Hochul secured significant wins during the end of the legislative session this month, including a gun-control package linked to mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas and abortion-rights measures to address Friday’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade.
And she’s turned those into a flurry of ads that have blanketed the airwaves in a bid to curry favor with primary voters. As of last month, she spent $13 million on advertising, while Suozzi had invested less than half that amount.
“She may not have gotten as much as she could have out of us, but she definitely got what she needed,” Savino said of Hochul’s first year dealing with the Legislature.
In a memo shared Tuesday with reporters, Hochul’s campaign manager Brian Lenzmeier predicted “a dominant victory” Tuesday, detailing how the campaign was able to raise a record-breaking $34 million in 10 months, galvanized support from unions and grassroots organizations and ran a sweeping ad blitz on TV, radio and direct mail.
“Her imminent primary victory was no glidepath: it took hard work, overcoming doubters and proving to New Yorkers that she’s the right leader for this moment,” he wrote.
Neither of Hochul’s challengers has captured the momentum in the race, despite rocky periods of her tenure that some leaders thought might upend her run.
“The closing of the legislative session, other perks of incumbency, like in fundraising and issue shaping seem to have propped her back up again,” said Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University on Long Island.
“So she’s entering the primary stronger than she was a month ago, when she was showing signs of weakness.”
Suozzi has pressed attacks on public safety and local control of zoning, appealing topics for moderate voters. And he and Williams have tried to link her to the Cuomo scandals, but she has warded off the attacks, saying she has sought to clean up the mess that Cuomo left behind.
Suozzi insists he can pull off the upset.
“Tom will make New York safer, while lowering taxes and fixing schools to make it more livable, that old fashion thing called serving the public,” the narrator in his closing TV ad said. “So if you’re ready to vote, Tom’s ready to serve.”
Hochul will face more questions if she gets to the general election as Republicans expect a big year at the polls and are looking to win their first statewide race in New York since 2002.
“The primary is definitely preparing her for aggressive attacks from the right, for certain,” Levy said.
Williams’ criticism on a host of progressive issues including raising taxes on the wealthy have not resonated broadly, polls have shown.
“Progressives wanted to try to hold her as accountable as possible. I don’t think we were able to corner her even though I do believe that she struggled in the beginning,” said Camille Rivera, a Democratic strategist and partner at New Deal Strategies, a progressive consulting firm in New York City.
Williams also trailed in fundraising, even as Hochul accumulated massive amounts from big money donors who once flocked to Cuomo. It has limited Williams ability to run effectively to her left — even after he ran against her four years ago for lieutenant governor and forced a competitive primary.
“It drives everyone crazy that we didn’t have enough money to get those issues out there,” Rivera said. “Once there was no more mistakes, she was able to kind of coast — and as much as I love and adore Jumaane — we didn’t have a strong candidate that could challenge her and be in her face.”
That “coasting” has drawn some criticism and concern from Democrats about how Hochul will do in generating enthusiasm for down-ballot candidates, especially looking forward to November.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in New York, but most predict a tough election for Democrats up and down the ballot. If Hochul performs well in the primary, it will ease her path forward in November, Levy said.
“The more she can make the case that she’s able to bring together a lot of voters across the political spectrum … she’ll scare away Republican money from outside the state, as well as inside, that could go toward the general election,” he said. “She has to show real strength, she can’t just get by.”