An embarassing admission: I had never really heard Andrew Cuomo’s voice until earlier this week. I had seen some speeches, caught some campaign ads, but my knowledge of him is second-hand—it comes from press reports, transcripts, official interviews with other New York politicos. The picture drawn is familiar: the prince of darkness, a master political operator, gruff and ruthless if thin-skinned, willing to be as pragmatic as necessary and not prone to his father’s neurotic intellectualism or Eliot Spitzer’s Ivy smugness.
His low profile let people’s imagination filled in the blanks, and the tales of him badgering reporters that I heard confirmed my bias. Even his critics, who considered his crusades as Attorney General too blunt and populist, made him seem like what the former Governor Spitzer would call a “f**king steamroller.”
The rare interview he gave to the Times that was published on Sunday night fit the stereotype. His eyes in the picture looked heavy-lidded, his jaw drooped with craggly intent, and he seemed intent on driving home the theme that he would get tough on the unions (“Cuomo Vows Offensive Against Labor Unions.”) Then I heard his voice — the Times had put the audio of the wide-ranging interview online. Go to the article and listen to it. ”If you’re looking for an abberation over the past ten ye-ahs, it is the increasing power and influence of the special interests, which has increased exponentially. If you go to an old-timah like me…” His voice was nasal, it had a hint of neurotic annoyance, with the Shecky Greene precision of a old-school CUNY (Queens, maybe Baruch?) professor.
It made sense, of course — he’s not a classic politician of the wards, so much as he is a political staffer, an operator, who became an office-holder. A trivial confession: He may defeat Paladino with ease, but just listening for two minutes to his voice oscillate and riff like a friend of my grandfather’s sanded off his aura of invincibility for me. Andrew Cuomo can work the press, it seems, because he can speak like us.
It’s not good news for Andrew Cuomo that the most recent Quinnipiac poll had him leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino by only six points. (Yes, that Paladino is the same “Crazy Carl” who, until his surprising nomination victory, was mostly known for his history of forwarding insane, racially problematic emails. While Cuomo has found himself in a much closer race than he’d like, an examination of the dynamics driving the poll results reveals why Paladino is probably peaking — and, more interestingly, sheds light on why Congressional Democrats might not be as doomed as previously thought.
The conventional wisdom right now is that, while the Cuomo juggernaut is insulated, upstate Congressional Democrats will have a tough time fighting the Republican, anti-incumbent wave. When someone like Paladino, who built his insurgent primary campaign on the backs of Tea Party sympathizers, becomes the nominee and creeps to within striking distance of the Governor’s mansion, it seems like further confirmation that moderates like Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-24) or Rep. Scott Murphy (D-20) should start packing their bags. But a new Siena poll shows Arcuri, whose district includes Utica, up by eight against Richard Hanna, the businessman who he barely defeated two years ago. Another Siena poll shows Murphy, who was 700 votes away from losing the special election that catapulted him into office in 2009, leading his rural distract by 17 points.
What do two overachieving moderate Congressman and one underachieving would-be Governor have in common? Undefined opponents. In each of the polls, the Democrat is a much better known commodity than the Republican. According to Quinnipiac, only 15 percent of likely voters don’t have an opinion of Cuomo, while 31 percent don’t know enough to have a view of Paladino. Arcuri has a similar name advantage: 21 percent don’t have an opinion of him, compared to 44 percent for Hanna. And with Murphy, the advantage is even more striking: only 17 percent have no solid views, while nearly four times as many respondents have no opinion of Colin Gibson, his opponent.
For Cuomo, the advantage is obvious: He has about $30 million dollars, along with endorsements from the likes of Mayor Bloomberg, to sway those who don’t know about every bad thing Paladino has ever done or bcc’d. The other Democrats, tarred and feathered and identified with an unpopular party, are known quantities that still are holding onto a lead. A combination of decent fundraising and some hardball politicking — be prepared for every Republican candidate in the state to be forced to parry questions about whether they support something outrageous that Paladino said — might be enough to hold off the wave.
In 2004, George W. Bush, faced with flagging approval ratings and an electorate angry about a war, kept his grip on the White House by making the election more than just a referendum on his performance; he made it a choice between himself and the shifty Massachusetts senator whose views were consistently called into question. Democrats can’t deny the sluggish economy, or hope for affirmation of their performance — they can only lay out that the other guy is terrifying, or unknown, or will make things worse. (MoveOn now warns, “Stop the Takeover.”) Andrew Cuomo’s courting of former county chairs and old pols like Ed Koch might seem like a weird sop to the establishment in a year when everyone wants to storm the barracks, but it’s also the groundwork for the kind of political dynamic that Karl Rove mastered six years ago. The implicit slogan is simple: more of the same versus terrifying change.