New York’s primary election yesterday yielded bifurcated results. At the top of the Democratic ticket, Governor Andrew Cuomo stomped his progressive challenger, Cynthia Nixon. His chosen candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general—former congresswoman and incumbent LG Kathy Hochul and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James—also won handily, turning back more left-wing opponents. But down ballot, a blue wave wiped out six prominent state senators, all of whom have faced progressive wrath for perceived treason to the party.
The state senators were part of the Independent Democratic Conference, founded and led by Jeffrey Klein, a traditional New York liberal representing the Bronx and Westchester. In tandem with three other moderate or liberal state senators, Klein formed the IDC in 2011, following a disagreement in the Democratic caucus over leadership and committee positions. Klein and his allies agreed to vote with state-senate Republicans in exchange for better chairmanships and other perks. The IDC bloc grew to eight members, denying Democrats rule over the chamber and infuriating party regulars.
The division between the IDC and mainstream Democrats was political, not ideological. By and large, the IDC members have been indistinguishable from their fellow Democrats on the issues. Their claim to effective bipartisanship and compromise was borne out by passage of key progressive legislation, such as the $15 per-hour minimum wage, extensive gun control, and free college tuition for qualified students. The IDC did impose a roadblock on far-left proposals, however—such as a New York version of the DREAM Act and statewide single-payer health insurance.
Defeating the IDC and establishing full Democratic control of the senate has been the top priority of the state party for the last seven years. In 2014, New York mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned fruitlessly statewide on behalf of challengers to IDC members, wildly overestimating his appeal to upstate voters. Progressives long suspected, with good reason, that Cuomo at least tacitly supported the IDC, preferring to rule over a divided legislature under his control.
Part of state Democrats’ problem in dislodging these disloyal partisans has been their local popularity. Despite claims that the IDC was betraying its voters by not caucusing with the state party, local residents were satisfied with their senators’ ability to follow a moderately liberal line while serving their constituencies. Another challenge: it’s hard to develop a strategy to vote against a caucus like the IDC, which is spread around the state. A strong candidate at the top of the ticket is the most effective way to increase turnout and drive out undesirable officials farther down the electoral food chain—and Nixon, though she lost her own race, helped progressives achieve that.
Nixon’s candidacy was never designed to put her in the governor’s mansion. Instead, it reflected a subtle strategy, developed by political operatives around de Blasio, working in conjunction with the state’s powerful labor unions, to generate excitement and increase primary-election turnout—usually about 15 percent of the electorate—to vote out the IDC and ensure Democratic senate dominance. Indeed, soon after Nixon announced her plan to challenge Cuomo, the governor presided over a cynical unification ceremony, wherein Jeff Klein dissolved the IDC and its members all rejoined the main party caucus. Rather than enhancing his image as peacemaker, however, the marriage highlighted Cuomo’s role as the enabler of the original split.
As I wrote in April: “One can make a strong case that Nixon’s gubernatorial candidacy is intended to drive turnout in the Democratic primary in order to defeat the renegade IDC senators. From this perspective, by pushing Cuomo to reunite the Democrats and move to the left on other issues, she has already won.” By staying in the race, hammering Cuomo for his moderation, and campaigning heavily on behalf of the anti-IDC candidates, Nixon helped push the narrative that the renegade senators were “Trump Democrats,” and turnout more than doubled over 2014. The campaign was aided, of course, by a hard-left surge in the local Democratic Party, exemplified in the defeat of Congressman Joe Crowley by socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Nixon.
Mayor de Blasio wisely stayed aloof from the governor’s race, preserving the appearance of neutrality. That will help him as he negotiates with Cuomo from a position of relative strength, assuming that the Democrats take control of the senate this November. The six new state senators are avowedly committed to a hard-left agenda of expanded rent control, single-payer health-care, and mayoral control of specialized high school admissions. The primary results, unremarkable at first glance except to political insiders, could have far-reaching policy implications for New York.
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