Traditionally, incumbent politicians don't have to try all that hard to stay in office in America. That may be especially true in New York State, where there's historically been a malaise among many Democrats when it comes to the cesspool of corruption that is the state capitol of Albany. In fact, incumbents are so expected to hold onto their gigs that when a law professor and popular lefty activist named Zephyr Teachout ran against Governor Andrew Cuomo and got crushed by a nearly 30-point margin in 2014, people still called it a win.
Now, as Cuomo tries to win a third term, he's facing another unlikely opponent from the left: Cynthia Nixon. Despite having the cards stacked against her, the multi-Tony-Award-winning Sex and the City actress turned education activist has received a staggering amount of attention, including a glowing cover story in New York and a weed-focused interview in the New York Times Magazine. What's more, a not-insignificant 27 percent of registered Democrats have already decided to vote for her, according to one recent poll, even though the race has barely begun.
Of course, Nixon still has a lot of ground to make up, so I called Hank "The Terminator" Sheinkopf to dig into whether she truly stands a chance. The veteran, freewheeling New York political consultant has worked for everyone from Bill Clinton to Cuomo himself and is known for sometimes startling candor about the city's tribal politics. He suggested ongoing corruption scandals shaking Albany, coupled with Nixon's name recognition, really did point to a viable path to victory.
VICE: Do you think Cuomo is already sweating these poll numbers and magazine covers?
Hank Sheinkopf: Nixon's a celebrity if you live on the East Side or the West Side of Manhattan and you can afford to pay the cost of premium cable on top of your normal bill every month. She's a celebrity to those who could afford to watch Sex and the City and to those that did. And they may see her as more of a Miranda than Cynthia Nixon, who by the way, was not a very likable character and mistreated her boyfriend, Steve, and was very nasty, arrogant, and difficult to live with.
Let's leave Steve out of this and talk about about what Cuomo's weak spots are right now—demographics where he hasn't traditionally been strong, as well as those where he's lost a lot of support since his first term.
As a Democrat for governor, he's doing reasonably well going into a third term. His strengths have been among Jewish voters. He's had some problems in portions of upstate New York, no question about it. That has to do with support of increased gun legislation, because guns are important in upstate New York. It can be very difficult to get a police officer to show up out there. It might be 45 minutes after you call in some communities. So people see guns as protective devices, and not unreasonably so. That's just the way it is. And there's a general sense that the upstate economy is not doing well, but that's been a problem for governors [in New York] for the past 40 years—since the Reagan era.
The population of NYC is almost half of that in the whole state. If it comes down to who's popular in the city versus who's popular upstate, how does that typically play out in terms of where the votes come from?
In a general election it's probably 50/50. In a Democratic primary, it's probably 70 in the city and 30 everywhere else. So how do you get the city to turn over for Cynthia Nixon and to get upstate to give her enough of a cushion? Her argument upstate is: "He's not paying attention to you. There have been scandals. I will pay attention. And there won't be any scandals." Ok. Not bad. But she's still stuck with 70 percent of the electorate in New York City.
I assume that the MTA going to shit will increase turnout and get her a lot of votes in the five boroughs, no?
Not likely that she will sweep the five boroughs. What are the biggest blocs that vote in a Democratic primary? Well, downstate, they're Jews. And that presents a serious problem for Cynthia Nixon. People are very much concerned about things in the Middle East, and Andrew Cuomo has been an opponent of businesses that boycott Israel.
Is the MTA the governor's problem? Yeah. But the governor has successfully made the argument that the city should contribute to the cost of fixing it as well.
I was gonna ask how Cuomo's beef with Mayor Bill de Blasio would play into the race, and what you just mentioned seems to be a repeat strategy of his. He also just went after the mayor for the horrible conditions in New York public housing right?
[The New York City Housing Authority] was the mayor's problem and the governor stepped in. In order for Nixon to sweep the five boroughs she would have to create a major turnout among African-American voters and women, and the NYCHA funding offsets that. The governor showed up with the dough and attacked the mayor over the poor conditions there and left him holding the bag. So how do you get black and Latino votes for the Cynthia Nixon campaign?
Well, what about weed legalization? She's made that, and the racial inequities of marijuana arrests, a central part of her campaign already.
Weed is helpful. It's probably helpful to people under 40. But here's the problem: The perfect voter in New York City is defined by someone who has the highest propensity to turn out, and that's a 55+ black woman. And last I looked, there weren't a lot of 55+ black women sitting around on the streets smoking weed. That's just the way it is. What's more important and probably has more impact is the fact that the governor passed marriage equality, raised the minimum wage, and took on NYCHA. Prison reform, bail reform, those are things people care about. But weed? We've had political parties that have supported legalization across the board, and they're not around much anymore. It's not necessarily the best argument for her.
A better one might be the general performance of government and corruption. Or the MTA. You can make really good ads about that. But her problem is turnout. How does she get women and African-Americans to turn out for her?
Moving out of the city for a second, where could Nixon focus her energies and actually see some payoff upstate? College towns?
Yes, college towns. But the problem in college towns is that people under 40 don't tend to vote. Might they be voting now? Sure. So she outta focus on college towns, African-American communities, and women in upstate New York. And she needs to be tougher. The reality is that in American politics, no incumbent is defeated without a comparative or negative campaign. The incumbent has not just money and name-ID, but relationships with reporters. They tend to feed reporters news while challengers do not. Those are longterm relationships.
Ok, so overall, does she have a shot in hell?
What Nixon needs is a star running mate who can say, "We need change." Having a running mate like [member of the New York City council] Jumaane Williams is OK, but it's not the pump you need. What you need is something so overwhelming that it effectively blocks out Andrew Cuomo temporarily and makes him insignificant. She has to somehow jump over his record, take out the bad parts and use them, and have a star of some kind help capitalize on his defects.
But we live in 2018. The impossible is happening more frequently. There is something going on that's hard to quantify. The general breakdown of parties and allegiances. Is that sufficient in this moment to get Cynthia Nixon elected? That's the question.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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