New York City

Four takeaways from the Cuomo-Molinaro debate

The governor sought to assert control and attack Trump, while the challenger presented himself as a can-do moderate.


Cuomo-Molinaro-debate Mary Altaffer/AP, pool

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican challenger Marc Molinaro clashed on Oct. 23 in the first and likely only general election debate of the 2018 New York gubernatorial race. The hour-long debate, hosted by WCBS in midtown Manhattan, featured attacks and accusations – though few specific policy differences – as both candidates sought to define the race with just two weeks to go until the Nov. 6 election.

The stakes were particularly high for Molinaro, who has trailed in every poll in the campaign. He tried to present himself to voters during the debate as a can-do moderate Republican who could address some of the state’s most entrenched problems, whether they be corruption, upstate economic developmen or the New York City subway system. But he spent much of the debate fending off Cuomo’s attempts to tie him to the policies of the Trump administration.

While neither candidate had a major gaffe, the event did showcase each candidate’s particular brand of politics. Here are a few takeaways.

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Control is everything for the governor

As in his primary race debate with Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo only agreed to engage his opponent on his own terms. In this debate, the two candidates were both sitting down. No supporters were allowed in the same room. It was not apparent by press time what the temperature was in the room, but Cuomo’s desire to stay in control of everything was on full display. He interrupted Molinaro and moderators Marcia Kramer and Richard Lamb of WCBS repeatedly throughout the debate, even receiving an admonishment from Kramer: “Don’t make me punch you out,” she told him. The governor accused him of being “a fiscal fraud” and said that he wanted to put women in “shackles” because of a vote Molinaro made in the state legislature that would have restrained women in prisons who are giving birth. And, in a sarcastic tone, he referred to Molinaro as one of “my fiscal conservative friends.” When Molinaro brought up the conviction on bribery charges of Cuomo’s once close associate Joe Percoco, Cuomo responded by attacking Molinaro for supposedly taking kickbacks. “That’s a crime sir,” Cuomo said as Molinaro looked on with an incredulous expression.

For Cuomo, it’s all about Trump

Cuomo spent much of the debate trying to characterize Molinaro as a supporter of Trump administration policies. He called the Dutchess County executive an “acolyte” and a “mini me” of the president, who he said wanted to keep migrant children “in cages” and undermine the civil rights of women and LGBTQ people. “I’m surprised it took him so long to go there,” Molinaro said at one point when Cuomo accused him of wanting to take health insurance away from low-income people. The result was that Molinaro was stuck playing defense against Cuomo, including when the governor repeatedly shouted at him to say whether or not he supported Trump. “We need to get out of this conversation,” Molinaro said, yet Cuomo kept going at him. Molinaro finally said that he does support the president because “today, under this president, America has the most competitive economy” in the world.

But one of the few times when Cuomo sat quietly during the debate was when his opponent brought up some uncomfortable details about Cuomo’s relationship with the president, including tens of thousands of dollars of past campaign donations from Trump that Cuomo has refused to refund and statements in 2017 that showed a willingness to work with the president – and the video appearance that Trump made at Cuomo’s bachelor party in 1990.

Cuomo has tried to position himself as a national leader of the resistance against Trump for the past year. A question on education during the debate led Cuomo to state: “It’s disgusting to the values of this county to have a president to take babies out of the arms of mothers.” Expect Cuomo to keep the anti-Trump rhetoric up if he is re-elected, at least until the day he decides whether or not he will run for president.

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Molinaro the self-professed moderate

Molinaro repeatedly positioned himself as a moderate who resists the more divisive impulses of the Republican Party. He responded to one question about the possibility of implementing single payer health care in the state by decrying the costs of such an idea, rather than attacking it as socialist, as some Republicans have. While he attacked Cuomo as leading “the most corrupt state government in America,” he didn’t characterize it as a product of the Democratic Party per se. Though he did not say he supported safe injection sites as a way of reducing overdose-related death, Molinaro spoke of mobile intervention teams, mental health services and other Democrat-friendly approaches to addressing the opioid crisis. He expressed support for increasing access to medicinal marijuana. “There are so many people that can’t access it because of regulations.” He even said he views Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage and civil rights protections for LGBTQ people as settled law. If Molinaro loses the election, his youth and moderate presentation could play well with voters in a congressional race or other elections.

Positivity is out, negative is in

Asked whether anything could be done to lower the temperature of public discourse, the candidates took different paths. Molinaro started his response by noting the he won his first election at age 19 in a race in which candidates didn’t run with any party affiliation. He said he is into “collaborating, not dictating” and wants to tone down divisiveness in public discourse. Cuomo, however, immediately went on the attack once he had a chance to speak. He said that he is the “exact opposite of everything (Molinaro) represents and Trump represents” and that “there aren’t nice words to do this.” He then accused Molinaro of voting against LGBTQ rights during his time in the state Legislature. “This is a divisive cancer that these people have brought,” Cuomo said. Molinaro then waded into the rhetorical mud after Cuomo, saying: “When are you going to stop lying?”