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Democrats Are Getting Ever So Slowly Nudged to the Left

New York's big primary night shows how progressives are gaining ground even when they're not winning the big races.
Cynthia Nixon supporters listen to her speak on Thursday night. Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty

Going into Thursday’s Democratic primaries, New York’s political machine felt like it was on some sort of precipice.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, trying to win a third term, faced his most visible challenge from the left yet in the form of actress and activist Cynthia Nixon. Whoever won the powerful attorney general seat, vacated by Eric Schneiderman after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against him, was poised to slingshot into the upper echelon of state politics. The former members of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who had effectively handed control of Albany to the Republicans, were being threatened by a handful of insurgent candidates. And voter turnout—as 2018 has already seen elsewhere—was expected to surge.


And by the end of Thursday, the state was indeed rocked, if only slightly.

Less than a half hour after the polls closed, the race was easily called for Cuomo, who beat Nixon 65 to 34 percent. Nixon was apparently unable to suck up enough of the anti-Cuomo sentiment that rumbles among Democrats—both downstate and upstate—even by campaigning on Cuomo’s biggest flaws: New York’s shitty subway system, the cloud of corruption that Albany can’t seem to shake off, and comprehensive criminal justice reform.

“The race for the Democratic primary may be over tonight, but the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is only just beginning,” said Nixon at a raucous election night party in Brooklyn after calling Cuomo to congratulate him.

Since the campaign began, Cuomo stuck to his usual playbook: He maintained a healthy war chest of $25 million in corporate donations, scooped up endorsements from national Democrats and the New York Times, and managed to avoid controversy (at least until the last week). While Nixon often told reporters to not pay attention to the polls—using the unexpected congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as evidence—the numbers ended up being largely spot-on. More voters did come out for a race that is traditionally slept on, they just reinforced the power structures that were already in place.

But Nixon can still call some significant victories her own. The “Cynthia effect,” as it has been tagged, has effectively pushed the governor to the left on a number of issues, with him coming around to full marijuana legalization, promising more infrastructure investment, and signaling more serious support for a bill that would defend abortion rights should the Supreme Court threaten them. If Nixon has left any legacy, it’s that Cuomo will enter his third term slightly more progressive than he’s ever been, at least on paper. Which, for a politician like Cuomo, is saying something.


On Thursday night, Cuomo was noticeably absent from his own victory party, which was held at a swanky bar not too far from his Midtown offices. He didn’t make any rousing speech to supporters, or even release a statement to the public. Instead, his campaign released a photo of him and his running mates on Twitter, with the caption “Thank You New York.”

The other statewide races were also won by establishment figures: New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who will be the first African-American woman to become New York State attorney general, soundly beat out constitutional lawyer and longtime Cuomo foe Zephyr Teachout, while Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, defeated New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams.

“We will hold Democrats accountable,” said Williams on Thursday night at a party in his district. “And Andrew Cuomo, we see you. We’re going to hold you accountable, too.”

If the governor is going to be held to his left-wing campaign rhetoric, it will be because of progressive victories down the ballot. Six former members of the IDC, who have helped stall left-wing legislation in Albany thanks to their alliance with State Senate Republicans, were systematically thrown out of office by a diverse set of millennials. Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old democratic socialist who became the subject of intense national media attention because of her socialist positions and her complicated past, took out Martin Dilan in Brooklyn. Jessica Ramos, the first Dreamer to win a state seat, overtook Jose Peralta in Queens. And the founder of the IDC, Jeffrey Klein, lost in the Bronx to Alessandra Biaggi, who is nearly half his age. (Democrats will have to win additional seats in order to gain control of the State Senate.)

The former IDC members, who were called “Trump Democrats” by the Working Families Party, an influential progressive third party, had come under activists’ crosshairs and Cuomo dismantled the group in April, thereby ending a strategy that critics accused him of using to consolidate control of the state government. In the end, as Ocasio-Cortez did when she upended Representative Joe Crowley, a set of first-time politicos beat the establishment and turned the state leftward.

The Cuomo machine is far from defeated—he’ll remain atop Albany, and may even run for president in 2020. But the landscape around him has shifted, perhaps for good. Not that the change was immediately apparent: When I left Nixon's party on Thursday night, the subways were shut down, and I had no way to get home.

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