Only a year ago, the New York Gubernatorial Democratic primary was set to be one of the most anti-climatic contests of 2022, with Andrew Cuomo on track to cruise to re-nomination. Just a week ago, that same primary was set to be one of the most competitive races of 2022, as Kathy Hochul and Letita James were preparing for a marquee head-to-head fight.
As I noted last week, “in today’s politics, the only certainty is uncertainty.”
On December 9, New York Attorney General Letitia James shocked the political world by dropping out of the 2022 New York Gubernatorial race just six weeks after getting in. This news broke just two hours after the Washington Post reported that James was seeking to depose former President Donald Trump as part of her office’s civil fraud investigation of Trump. This sequence of events left the impression that James felt she couldn’t both take on Trump and run for Governor at the same time.
James, of course, was shaking up this race even before she jumped in. While Andrew Cuomo spent most of 2021 perilously clinging to power as dual scandals engulfed him, it was the bombshell report from AG James’ office that finally forced Cuomo’s hand and caused him to resign. As a result, James was considered a major contender to eventually win the Governor’s Mansion herself, but her brief campaign effort failed to impress.
Now, with James choosing to run for re-election as AG instead, new Governor Kathy Hochul is suddenly the clear front-runner to win a term of her own. Her peculiar circumstances are effectively providing us with a fascinating test case of the incumbency advantage. Will simply being in the office turn her from an afterthought into the establishment choice?
Apparently it will. Consider that, even before James’ unexpected exit, Hochul was already doing an impressive job of winning endorsements from her party’s establishment. Among those that were already backing her included the Chair of the New York Democrats, the President of the New York NAACP and EMILY’s List. With James now out, we can expect even more Dems to hop aboard her bandwagon.
Despite all these advantages, however, Hochul’s nomination still isn’t a sure thing. After all, the Buffalo native doesn’t have much of a profile in New York City, where the majority of primary votes will be cast. So if a candidate from the city can emerge and win the support of their fellow citizens, they’d pose a major threat to Hochul.
There are a number of public officials currently eyeing just such a trajectory, chief among them New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. As a former City Councilman and early supporter of Occupy Wall Street, Williams is uniquely primed to fill that role and run against Hochul from the left. Luckily for us, we don’t have to imagine what a statewide race between Hochul and Williams would look like, because it’s already happened.
In 2018, Williams ran against incumbent Lt. Governor Hochul in the Democratic primary. While Williams was able to win Brooklyn and Manhattan, Hochul held her own in the city’s suburbs and dominated upstate. She ultimately finished with 53.3% against Williams’ 46.7%.
That was only a two-candidate race, though, and this time they’ll be dealing with Congressman Thomas Suozzi. A Nassau County native with a centrist platform, Suozzi is specifically positioned to eat into Hochul’s margins on vote-rich Long Island.
Finally, there’s the prospect of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio getting into the race. The outgoing Mayor needs a new occupation and may seek to win the position of his former tormentor Cuomo. Although if his pitiful 2020 presidential campaign is any indication, de Blasio may not be the contender he thinks he is. A recent Siena College poll, for instance, found that Bill de Blasio’s favorable/unfavorable split in the Empire State is 28/55, worse than even Donald Trump’s 36/58.
Speaking of that Siena survey, it provides a great snapshot of the race as it stood before James dropped out. Hochul led the way with 36%, while James was in second with 18%. 10% of New York Dems chose Williams, 6% each selected de Blasio and Suozzi, while 23% remained undecided.
So by all indications, Kathy Hochul is the heavy favorite to be the Democratic nominee in November. Of course, if this race has taught us anything, it’s that absolutely nothing is guaranteed.