The strength of public polling, the appeal of celebrity and the power of incumbency will be on the line Thursday in New York where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo faces off against a Hollywood actress who has hammered away at the two-term Democratic governor’s liberal credentials.
Cynthia Nixon is running on a platform that includes raising taxes on the rich, increasing school spending, ending cash bail and legalizing marijuana hoping to harness the same left-wing energy that already has delivered upset wins to high-profile liberal candidates in other primaries this year.
Mr. Cuomo, meanwhile, is angling for a landslide victory that could bolster his ambitions of facing President Trump in a 2020 White House bid.
“I am the most aggressive in the United States of America in taking him on,” Mr. Cuomo said at a recent campaign stop, highlighting his opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration efforts. “Know me by my enemies.”
Mr. Cuomo held a massive 41-point lead over Ms. Nixon in a Siena College poll released this week.
But Ms. Nixon, who is gay, says polling doesn’t capture hundreds of thousands of people who have registered to vote over the last two years, and she points to a recent mailer from Cuomo allies casting her as anti-Semitic as evidence the race is close.
“He is going hard, but I think what that shows is that he is actually scared because he understands that we’ve got a real hunger for progressive change in New York state and he doesn’t have a record to run on,” Ms. Nixon said Wednesday on the “Breakfast Club” radio show.
Ms. Nixon gained fame in her role as Miranda Hobbes in HBO’s “Sex and the City” and on Broadway has won two Tony Awards, including one last year. Though she’s long been an activist for her favored causes of education and same-sex marriage, running for office is new to her.
Not so for Mr. Cuomo, who is a political legacy his father was three-term New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and who has been a Cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration, served as New York’s attorney general then won the governorship in 2010.
His tenure has been marked by a cloud of corruption in recent months. A former top aide was found guilty in March of felony corruption charges, including for soliciting more than $300,000 in bribes from a couple of companies doing state business.
And in July, Mr. Cuomo was dragged into ugly headlines after the architect of his six-year-old plan to revitalize upstate New York dubbed “Buffalo Billion” was convicted in a bid-rigging scheme involving state contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Still, Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said Mr. Cuomo was given a gift when Ms. Nixon ran too far to the left.
“If you hock the house on Cynthia Nixon you will be homeless on Friday,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.
“Cynthia Nixon did not have the money, didn’t have the organization and never really caught on. She was a fine actor, but not a great gubernatorial candidate,” he said.
The stakes are high for Mr. Cuomo even if he wins, according to Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New York.
Not only does he need to win big, but his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, is facing a tight race.
“If he wins tomorrow, and if the margin is not as big as he wants, and if he doesn’t get the lieutenant governor that he wants, he’s not going to be a happy camper,” Ms. Zaino said.
The race for attorney general also could leave Mr. Cuomo smarting.
One of the candidates in the Democratic primary, Zephyr Teachout, pledged this week to investigate Mr. Cuomo should she win.
Ms. Teachout, who is campaigning while eight months pregnant and ran against Mr. Cuomo in the 2014 governor’s primary, has scored endorsements from independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the editorial board of the New York Times, which said she is well prepared to serve as a firewall against the Trump administration and keep tabs on “a state government in which ethics can seem a mere inconvenience.”
The Siena poll, though, showed Mrs. Teachout running third behind Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the state’s first openly gay member of the state’s congressional delegation, and Letitia James, the New York City public advocate. Leecia Eve, a former Cuomo aide, was in fourth.
Mr. Maloney is seeking to become the state’s first gay attorney general, while Ms. James and Ms. Eve are running to become the first black woman elected to statewide office in New York.
“Do gay people turn out to elect the first gay attorney general, or do African Americans turn out to elect the first African American woman attorney general, or do they turnout for Zephyr Teachout?” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “It is too close to call.
“But no matter what happens, Donald Trump will have a headache,” he said.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Keith Wofford in the attorney general’s race in the heavily blue state.
Republicans already nominated Marcus Molinaro as their candidate for governor.