ALBANY — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a firestorm of criticism that cuts to the core of his pandemic popularity: His image as a data-driven leader who kept politics out of the battle against Covid-19.
There have been calls for his impeachment, his resignation and a removal of his pandemic-driven emergency powers, all since last week’s revelations that aides hid data about nursing home deaths for fear of the political ramifications. The Democrat attempted something of an apology during a briefing on Monday.
While the criticism has been fierce, prompting speculation that he has been badly wounded, Cuomo has survived bad headlines before. And no serious opponents have committed to stopping him from securing a fourth term next year, something no New York governor has done since Nelson Rockefeller in a state that doesn’t impose term limits on its governors. He has $17 million in the bank, maintains strong support from New York’s Democratic power brokers and, so far, his popularity has hardly budged since November.
But that hasn’t stopped some critics from thinking about how best to challenge him.
“A lot of people in the progressive wing in the party definitely fantasize about a formidable challenge to Gov. Cuomo,” said state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Westchester) who used to work for the Cuomo administration and has been critical of him since she took office in 2019. “But no one has risen their hand or gotten attention as a serious candidate against him. It’s one thing to be like, ‘I really wish this person wasn’t the governor,’ and another thing to be like, ‘OK, great, how are we going to action that?’ That’s not at all where many people are, to be honest.”
Since the New York Post revealed last week that Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, told Democratic state lawmakers about the administration’s attempt to hide data on nursing homes, Cuomo has come under assault from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Whether that outrage can translate into an electoral challenge, however, remains to be seen.
“Cuomo primary talk is a favorite parlor game of frustrated progressives in New York, but the fact of the matter is that he’s virtually untouchable statewide,” said Neal Kwatra, a New York City-based Democratic strategist who has advised and criticized both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
A Democratic challenger would need to make significant inroads in New York City, its suburbs, and Western New York to match Cuomo’s statewide hold, Kwatra said.
“Show me a single Democrat anywhere in the state that can do that,” Kwatra said. “Additionally, it’s hard to overstate the durable strength Cuomo derived from being on TV for several months straight at the height of the pandemic. That kind of exposure is of incalculable value and will make it very hard for any challenger to erode.”
Despite the whirlwind of negative attention in recent weeks, Cuomo’s popularity remains high, sitting at a favorable 56-39 approval rating, according to a survey from the Siena College Research Institute released on Tuesday. The poll was conducted prior to the DeRosa revelation, but after after a report by state Attorney General Tish James accusing the administration of undercounting nursing home deaths by as much as half.
Steve Greenberg, spokesperson for the poll, noted that 65 percent of Democrats said they would reelect Cuomo if the election were tomorrow, compared to 26 percent who said they’d prefer someone else.
Cuomo has been in difficult positions before and prevailed. He overcame hard times before his smashing reelection victory in 2018, moving past scandals that enveloped a close aide, Joseph Percoco, and Alain Kaloyeros, a former president of the State University of New York’s Polytechnic Institute who was found guilty of bid-rigging charges involving state contracts.
Republicans are jumping on the scandal. State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy said he had one overarching goal when he took the leadership position in July 2019: Positioning the party for the 2022 gubernatorial race. The party is looking far and wide for its nominee and Langworthy said he has been interviewing “names that you’ve heard of and names that you’ve never heard of.”
Cuomo’s regular media appearances and significant unilateral decisions actually give Republicans more material than they’ve had in years to challenge him, Langworthy said.
“Going forward, this is less about the national focus and is going to be far more about the state,” Langworthy said. “Who does he [Cuomo] get to blame? His grand distraction for every one of these policies when it comes to the crisis of COVID has been [Donald] Trump. I mean, when you don’t have that anymore … who are you going to blame? You’re going to look in the mirror. Finally, accountability actually is going to land in the lap of Andrew Cuomo. And I think the voters, they know.”
At the national level, a group of nine Republican senators led by Ted Cruz (R-Texas) late Wednesday asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin to open an investigation into the “cover-up” and for a Justice Department probe.
Cuomo’s 2018 Republican challenger, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, was one of those who publicly applauded Cuomo’s leadership last year but is ready to rescind some of his praise.
“I gave great deference to the governor early on in his response, and I think he deserved it,” Molinaro said in an interview. “But I think that the nursing home decision is devastating. And a failure to acknowledge it as an error, not the direction of the CDC, but an error, and to be transparent in its impact, and remorseful in its destruction, I think is absolutely an issue that has to be litigated, if only through the political arena.”
He certainly would consider another run, he said, but can’t make that kind of decision while focused on his role in the pandemic response in Dutchess County.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who represents the 21st Congressional District in the state’s northeastern corner, has the means to launch a formidable fundraising campaign. Republican consultants in the region say she is being courted for a run by both big Beltway donors and local Republican groups. But while Stefanik’s brash Trumpian style of politics ignites her local base and fans of the former president across the country, even her supporters acknowledge it’s a harder sell for statewide office in big blue New York.
To stand a chance in a statewide general election in New York, a Republican would need to win some Democratic votes — something that’s much harder to do in an age of extreme partisanship.
Enter Rep. Tom Reed, who represents the 23rd district in the southwestern part of the state. He said he is considering a run, and while he hasn’t made any official announcement, several Republican operatives said they are all but planning on his candidacy.
Reed, who was first elected in 2010, has long played to the center and is co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which he credited for aligning bipartisan goals to pass the most recent $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill in December. The American people “appreciate that style,” he told POLITICO. “And I think that would fit well with a statewide race in New York.”
Earlier this month, Reed, addressing a question about the state attorney general’s report in a conference call with reporters, offered a stronger hint at his ambitions.
“Gov. Cuomo: Your days are numbered. There’s leadership coming to Albany very soon,” he said on Feb. 4.
Reed, who was elected to a sixth full term in November, had promised during his first campaign that he would serve just six terms in Congress. He said he hasn’t forgotten his “commitments,” but also added that he respects voters’ judgment “to decide my political fate.”
Reed said it’s critical that the GOP, which hasn’t won a statewide race in New York since 2002, remains united as it prepares for next year’s statewide elections. That’s part of his deliberations.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is when you’re divided, especially on the Republican side, you’re using up resources, you’re using up relationships or damaging relationships, that you need to be completely in sync with each other, and you need to be 100% in agreement when you take on a force like the Democratic Party in New York State,” Reed said.
For the moment, only Lewis County Sheriff Michael Carpinelli has formally begun a campaign from the right wing of the party.