A trio of Democratic incumbents in New York—Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli—are widely expected to win re-election next week, but there is more to consider about the three marquee statewide races than just their ultimate outcome.
As Election Day nears, by all indications Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino is significantly trailing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with a poll released in early October showing the incumbent leading by a commanding 21 points. According to several experts, one reason that Astorino has failed to gain traction throughout the campaign is the lack of a targeted message focused on only a few key issues.
“What you have to do is pick your issues carefully and stay on them so that you gain traction and they resonate with voters, and I would argue one of the things I think Astorino fell into is he played into ‘How do I get into the blogs, how do I get mentioned here?’ every day,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant.
John McArdle, a consultant and former spokesman for the state Senate Republican Conference, agreed, saying that Astorino’s lack of money has forced him to try to get free coverage by chasing the latest news developments. Cuomo, who has a hulking campaign chest, has been airing a barrage of TV ads against Astorino.
McArdle said a clear, concise message resonates with voters better than following the daily political developments. He cited George Pataki’s successful campaign against Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994 as an example. Pataki ran on two issues: cutting taxes and reinstating the death penalty.
“Unfortunately, the fact is that [Astorino] does not have money, and he hasn’t been able to do that,” McArdle said. “So he has to resort to the daily effort to get some news coverage.”
John Cahill, the Republican candidate for attorney general, took an early gamble. Cahill, who like Astorino is at a substantial fundraising disadvantage, spent a sizable sum early on in the race, an unorthodox move given that voters typically do not start paying attention to non-presidential races until a few weeks before Election Day.
In the latest campaign filing, which covers mid-July through September, Cahill reported spending $1.4 million— an amount exceeded by Schneiderman’s $3.16 million in campaign expenditures but still a relatively hefty sum. During the equivalent filing period four years ago, Schneiderman had spent just $53,000 while his 2010 Republican rival, Dan Donovan, had laid out a little under half a million dollars. (Donovan ultimately lost to Schneiderman by more than 10 points.)
A Quinnipiac poll released in early October found Cahill trailed state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman by 12 points, the smallest of the three statewide races, although another, more recent poll, conducted by Siena College and released on Oct. 22, found a larger gap of 20 points.
“I think it’s a very interesting gamble that Cahill took. If Cahill had waited until now, he would have been so far behind,” Gyory said. “So you get the sense that people—and I would argue myself—have to favor Schneiderman’s election, but people are intrigued that this is a race that could tighten, and the early spending is what did it.”
Cahill spokesman David Catalfamo called the move “important.” He said starting earlier than other campaigns was more cost-effective and that the ads run were not competing with other candidates’ ads, as most candidates had not yet started that phase of their campaigns when Cahill launched his buy.
“In our research Schneiderman was, for an almost four-year incumbent, very unknown among the population, and we had an opportunity to get out early and define [Cahill] and get him known,” Catalfamo said.
Of course, the Schneiderman campaign, which always had a considerable lead in cash, is in a strong position now that Cahill has already exhausted a large portion of his war chest. As of early October Cahill had just $288,595 on hand, while Schneiderman had $4.7 million.
Robert Antonacci, the Republican candidate for state comptroller, is the first candidate to sign up for the state’s new pilot program testing whether a system of publicly financed elections, modeled on New York City’s, will work statewide in New York—but his decision to do so is not having much of an impact of the race so far.
Antonacci, the Onondaga County comptroller, is down by more than 20 points in the polls in his race against Democratic incumbent Tom DiNapoli, who declined to participate in the pilot program and enjoys a huge fundraising advantage.
“I think most observers view the public financing in the [state] comptroller’s race as being very little, very late,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant. “So as a result, it shouldn’t have a long-term impact on future discussions of public campaign finance. It’s a very modest program that was done at the very last minute.”
Antonacci so far has been unable to reach the threshold—$200,000 in contributions and small dollar donations from at least 2,000 residents—to actually receive matching funds. DiNapoli is an ardent proponent of public financing, but blasted the scaledback pilot program as rushed in its formulation and inadequate in meeting the need for reform.
The public financing program was approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature in March, but only for the state comptroller’s race this year, as part of a compromise that left many Democrats and Republicans unhappy. A number of Democrats have charged that the pilot was set up from the beginning to fail, a result that would satisfy many Republican and Democratic incumbents in Albany, who never wanted a system that would, at least in theory, make it easier for would-be opponents to field challenges to them, but who had to agree to a compromise measure to keep the mounting pressure for campaign finance reform at bay.
Based upon how the pilot has played out so far, there is reason to believe that those who oppose publicly financed elections might get exactly the result for which they were hoping.
McArdle said that the comptroller’s race this year would show that public financing is “not workable.”
“This race will give [opponents] even more reasons why it shouldn’t happen, and people will not support public campaign financing,” he said. “It’ll be used as an example, as it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t achieve the objects that the advocates are seeking.”