Andrew Cuomo

Commentary: It’s too early to anoint Cuomo the next mayor

He’d struggle in ranked-choice voting. Campaign finance laws would prevent him from transferring his war chest into a mayoral campaign. And he doesn’t even live in New York City.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing on Aug. 2, 2021. Cuomo resigned eight days later but is now reportedly considering a run for mayor.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing on Aug. 2, 2021. Cuomo resigned eight days later but is now reportedly considering a run for mayor. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

For the second year in a row, Andrew Cuomo, the disgraced former governor of New York, has floated himself as a candidate for office.

Last year, it was for his old job. Cuomo seriously considered challenging Kathy Hochul as she ran for her first full term. He mulled running as a Democrat against her in a primary or as an independent. Neither scenario offered victory. No poll showed him ahead of Hochul, and an independent bid would only have handed the governor’s office to a Republican. Slowly burning his campaign cash on lawsuits related to the myriad sexual harassment and assault allegations lodged against him, Cuomo slunk away.

But now, there’s new buzz in the air. Mayor Eric Adams is the most unpopular New York City mayor in modern times. Federal prosecutors have seized his phones and sent FBI agents to raid his chief fundraiser’s house. There was a hot rumor floating around New York political circles that Adams was going to be indicted yesterday. He wasn’t, but the investigation churns on. And since Adams has no serious interest in racking up policy accomplishments and is failing to manage the various crises facing the city, he has no residual goodwill to fall back on. His swagger shtick is played out. The voters are tired. They plainly want someone else.

Enter Cuomo. The ex-governor, who resigned in 2021 and does not live in New York City, is reportedly considering running for mayor. Those close to him insist that he would not run against Adams. Adams would have to resign first. Many politicos think this is more inevitable than it is. As thick as the scandal cloud is around him, it would take a lot to trigger a special election; no sitting mayor in the history of the city has ever been indicted. Federal prosecutors need to clear an extraordinarily high bar. And even if Adams does face charges, he may not step away. The most Trump-like of any prominent Democrat in America, Adams is not the type to walk away quietly.

But at least one pollster has already tested a theoretical special election without Adams, which showed Cuomo coming out on top. In the ranked-choice poll, Slingshot Strategies found that Cuomo would best Jumaane Williams, the public advocate and acting mayor in such a scenario, 64-36%.

What to make of all of this? Will Cuomo complete the comeback from his 2021 resignation to Gracie Mansion? Cuomo is formidable. But there are several reasons to believe his campaign for mayor would face severe challenges.

First, there is ranked-choice voting itself. Credit to Slingshot Strategies for trying to poll the matchups, but it’s hard to believe someone with such high negatives as Cuomo could so easily make it through a ranked-choice election. In New York municipal races, voters can now choose up to five candidates, and politicians are rewarded for appearing on as many ballots as possible. RCV punishes the polarizers. Two years ago, Kathryn Garcia ran third among first-place votes but managed, through successive rounds, to come within 10,000 votes of beating Adams. Garcia was well-liked and relatively unknown, and many Democrats had reasons for keeping her on their ballot even if she wasn’t their first choice. She also forged a coalition with another contender, Andrew Yang. RCV rewards this kind of coalition-building.

In the Slingshot Strategies poll, Cuomo’s favorability rating was 46-42%, which is solid considering he resigned in disgrace. But this is his ceiling, not his floor. He is a well-known quantity. It’s been more than two years since his scandals – including his alleged cover-up of nursing home data during the pandemic – and many voters aren’t thinking much about them anymore.

But they will think about them if he campaigns again. Cuomo’s position calls to mind Eliot Spitzer’s; once a popular governor, Spitzer resigned in 2008 during a prostitution scandal. Spitzer waited five years and ran in the Democratic primary for city comptroller. Initially, he held double-digit polling leads against Scott Stringer, who was then the Manhattan borough president. Spitzer was a heavy favorite, until he wasn’t. The Stringer campaign hammered Spitzer repeatedly, reminding voters of his prostitution scandal and raising his negatives until election day, when he beat Spitzer by several points.

Cuomo, in many ways, is even more toxic than Spitzer. Nearly a dozen women accused him of some kind of sexual misconduct. He wrote a valedictory pandemic memoir and made millions of dollars as tens of thousands of New Yorkers died on his watch. He purposefully hid the Covid death toll in nursing homes. If Cuomo becomes a candidate again, every candidate will pile on, reminding voters of all the ways he failed New York.

It would all be rather straightforward. Cuomo would be the front-runner getting the most press attention. Every other rival would need to cut him down to rise in the polls. It is easy to imagine a “Stop Cuomo” or “Dump Cuomo” movement materializing. Cuomo does have durable support among outer-borough Black voters and some white liberals, but there are plenty of voters who’d be happy to leave him off their ballots once an actual campaign began.

Cuomo’s other problem is money. As of July, Cuomo was still sitting on $7.6 million in a state campaign account. This would be a large sum of money to spend on a special election for mayor – more than enough to drown out many rivals – but much of it would be unusable. Due to campaign finance rules, transferring cash from a state account to a city account is incredibly challenging. New York City has much stricter donations limits, so many of his larger donations would not be eligible. To actually move cash over, Cuomo would have to go contribution-by-contribution, up to the city limit for each contribution being transferred. He would need affirmative signed permission from each donor whose contribution is being transferred. It would be easier for him to get fresh contributions from these donors, at least so he could be eligible for the 8:1 public matching funds. Transferred contributions can’t be matched.

When Spitzer ran for comptroller, he largely self-financed his bid. But unlike Spitzer, Cuomo is not personally wealthy. He cannot easily drop $5 million into a mayoral campaign. He could raise some money, but he never chased small donors as governor and has no experience with grassroots fundraising. His usual donors – real estate developers, financiers and labor unions – would have little reason to pump him with cash when he remains such a wild card. Why risk it with Cuomo when there are many other potential frontrunners? Part of the reason Hochul kept Cuomo on the sidelines was because wealthy donors and labor leaders preferred dealing with her over him. They did not want him back. Even Cuomo, deep down, knew this.

Running for mayor is much easier said than done.