Since Cynthia Nixon announced her primary against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, there’s been an added a jolt of celebrity to state politics, and an undeniable surge in excitement in certain liberal circles around the city.
It remains to be seen whether Nixon’s campaign will seriously threaten Cuomo, but there’s also the possibility that by boosting turnout from more left-leaning voters her campaign helps the candidates running against Independent Democratic Conference members in the state Senate. Depending on who you ask, Nixon either won’t have much of an impact on races that depend on the dynamics of individual districts, or she’ll be a perfect way to introduce voters to state Senate politics and the chance to upend it.
Candidates challenging IDC-aligned incumbents in the Democratic primary are facing an uphill battle in each of their races, as they run without institutional support from the Democratic Party (provided a deal for the IDC and mainline Democrats to reunite holds up), with less money and name recognition than their opponents. They also need to educate voters on what can feel like a dizzying and obscure bit of backroom Albany dealmaking.
Nixon could shine a light on the issue, as she has previously aligned herself with a Working Families Party campaign to get the IDC to rejoin their nominal party. She has also used language – stressing the need for “bluer Democrats” at a Human Rights Campaign Gala and “real Democrats” in a speech she gave during her kickoff party at the Stonewall Inn – that would be familiar to anyone aware of the feud between the IDC and mainline Democrats. (She left the IDC and state Senate out of her explanation of the term in an interview with Glamour, however.)
Studies of the “coattail effect” have shown that a candidate at the top of a party’s ticket can affect its performance in down-ballot races in statewide general elections, but there’s less established literature on it for primary campaigns. Steven Greenberg, a communications consultant and pollster who has worked on statewide and local campaigns, told City & State that the IDC challengers would not necessarily pick up the votes of Nixon voters, due to every candidate being a member of the same party. “When you're talking about a general election, there's a large number of Democrats and Republicans who vote straight party line,” Greenberg said. “In a primary, you don’t have party lines, it’s only Democrats voting for Democrats.”
While Greenberg said that the average voter in a Democratic primary is more liberal than the average Democrat statewide, it’s not a given that those more liberal voters would be drawn to Nixon. “There’s this perception among talking heads and the media that Andrew Cuomo has a liberal problem. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t have a liberal problem. Right now among liberal voters he’s got a 69-23 favorability rating,” Greenberg said.
Of course, while there’s something to be learned from conventional wisdom and past political battles, we’re living in a somewhat new political universe. “After 2016, anything is possible and conventional wisdom doesn't tell you everything anymore, so it's hard to predict the way this dynamic will turn out in terms of voter choices,” said Susan Kang, a political science professor at John Jay College and an organizer with anti-IDC group No IDC NY. Kang told City & State that No IDC is excited for the Nixon candidacy to “energize people for a statewide election and hopefully drive progressive voters to the polls to vote for IDC challengers.”
And while Cuomo does enjoy a broad popularity among liberal voters, Kang sees the Nixon candidacy as a way to lay out the progressive case for how Cuomo’s state Senate maneuvering has stymied efforts for left-wing priorities like single-payer healthcare. “I think Democratic voters themselves don’t really understand to what extent Cuomo’s strategies in Albany have really hurt New Yorkers,” Kang said, adding that she thinks Nixon can articulate Cuomo and the IDC’s role in “maintaining a Republican Senate better than grassroots activists in New York City alone can do it.”
Nixon’s presence in the race has made it easier for Kang to make that argument in her own conversations with people in her district (which is represented by state Sen. Jose Peralta, a member of the IDC). “People don’t listen to me when I talk about the state Senate because it seems dull. But if I talk about the governor’s race and the state Senate it resonates a bit more, because Cuomo is such a polarizing figure.”
Progressive data analyst and policy writer Sean McElwee agrees with Kang about Nixon’s potential effect. “Most elected Democrats in the state have been reluctant to call out the IDC,” he said. “If a prominent candidate with a powerful platform like Cynthia Nixon does, it could raise voter awareness of the IDC among Democratic primary voters. If we imagine there being two effects from Nixon, a coattails effect and a ideological leadership effect, I would put far more weight on the latter.”
A spokeswoman for the IDC declined to comment.
How that ideological leadership effect will play out in September is very much up in the air, though, because of how early it is in the election process. “We’re in the first weeks of a process that’s going to carry on for 25 more weeks,” Greenberg said. “Six months is many lifetimes in the political world.”