Will Cynthia Nixon still run as the Working Families Party candidate?

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Cynthia Nixon
Working Families Party candidate Cynthia Nixon. Image: Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York State (CC2.0)

Cynthia Nixon may have lost the Democratic primary for Governor of New York, but she remains on the ballot for the November general election for the Working Families Party. Whether she will remain on that ballot line is far from certain – and the fate of the Working Families Party may hang in the balance.

Cynthia Nixon is in the driver’s seat

According to a report in Newsday last April, the Working Families Party are committed to not acting as spoilers for Andrew Cuomo. Unfortunately for the WFP, they do not have the authority to prevent Nixon from running as a spoiler if she so chooses. As Joe Crowley has already demonstrated this election cycle, it is virtually impossible for any New York State party to remove a candidate from their ballot line without their express agreement.

This is because New York electoral law only allows a candidate to be removed from a ballot line by disqualification. In practice, candidates often remove themselves from a race by filing as a candidate for another, less consequential office. But to do this requires the candidate to file personally, and parties have no mechanism for forcing them to do this.

The other possible routes for disqualification are generally less popular (death or a criminal conviction) or cumbersome (moving out of state – a method often sited in the media – but it does not work for every office).

In practice, unless Cynthia Nixon agrees to run for a down-ballot office such as Assembly or county clerk, she will appear on the ballot against Andrew Cuomo this November. There has been speculation for months that the WFP has a pre-prepared Assembly race for Nixon to parachute into, but the decision ultimately is hers.

What does Cynthia Nixon want?

So far, it is not entirely clear what Nixon’s intentions for the rest of the election are.

Her public reactions to Thursday’s loss show that she still primarily identifies as a Democrat…

…but also, depending on how you read it, she is hinting that her fight will continue.

Whither the Working Families Party?

Whatever she decides, Nixon’s decision will have enormous implications for the Working Families Party.

As one of New York States many “fusion voting parties,” the WFP’s influence is largely a result of its ballot status. By being able to offer Democratic party candidates an additional slot on New York ballots (or threaten to run a progressive candidate against them) the WFP has successfully gained a position of power and influence in the state’s Democratic establishment.

Several variables beyond the party’s control now put continued ballot access, and the party’s resulting continued influence, at serious risk.

New York awards its ballot lines every four years based solely on a party’s performance in the gubernatorial race. To get automatic ballot access a party must get 50,000 votes. If they fail they then must face petitioning their candidates onto the ballot for each and every race (an expensive and resource-consuming process).

Without 50,000 votes in the governor’s race this November, the Working Families Party becomes just another interest group within the Democratic Party and the wider progressive movement.

The safe route fusion parties almost always take for gubernatorial races is therefore to nominate a major party candidate. Historically, these tend to get 50,000 votes on any line they appear on. None of the minor parties who cross-nominated a major party candidate in 2014, for example, failed to get 50,000 votes (including the Women’s Equality Party, which could probably hold its annual membership meeting inside a New York taxicab).

But now, having hitched their star to Nixon and rebuffed Cuomo, the WFP may no longer have the option of nominating a major party candidate.

Vote for the non-Cuomo, not Cuomo

Nominating the Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo will probably not be an option for the Working Families Party in 2018. And this is not just because relations between Cuomo and the WFP have been testy for years.

In 2014, many WFP activists wanted to run Zephyr Teachout against Cuomo. The incumbent governor cut a deal that got him the WFP endorsement in exchange for his promised support of progressive WFP candidates running for State Senate. Cuomo’s support turned out to be “underwhelming,” and progressives running for the State Senate flopped. The WFP rank and file were understandably furious.

In April 2018 the rift between Cuomo and the WFP was formalized when the party nominated Nixon for governor, breathing credibility into her campaign in the process. Two powerful union backers of the WFP with close ties to Cuomo, the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America, promptly withdrew their support from the party. Cuomo was delighted.

Nominating Cuomo as the WFP candidate for governor again in 2018 would be a very bitter pill for the party to swallow. The irony is, even if they could find the resolve to do so, it would not necessarily solve the problem. Candidates must agree to accept a party’s nomination. It seems unlikely Cuomo would be willing to throw a lifeline to an organisation he has been working so hard to undermine.

If Nixon withdraws and Cuomo is offered the WFP ballot line, Cuomo could easily reject it and the party would find itself without a big-name candidate less than two months before the general election.

Can the WFP get 50K votes without Nixon or Cuomo?

Running a non-Democrat would be a bold move for the WFP, who have traditionally avoided the standard third-party role as spoiler. As New York’s WFP director Joe Lipman said earlier this year, “The Working Families Party has a 20-year history of not spoiling.”

If they chose to run a non-Democrat, it would mean the party was not only splitting the vote on the left, but also asking their supporters to “throw away” their votes on a “no-hoper.” Are there 50,000 New Yorkers willing to do this? Maybe.

Born from the remnants of the 90s-era New Party, the Working Families Party is sustained by a well-established activist base, including 42,000 members in New York State alone.

But even still, the numbers are not totally reassuring for the WFP. With Andrew Cuomo on their ballot line in 2014 the WFP garnered 126,244 votes – well over the 50,000 threshold. But the largely inactive Independence Party also ran Cuomo as their candidate, and they received 77,762 votes (a difference of only 48,482 votes). While not conclusive, it appears likely that a large proportion of the WFP’s 2014 vote total were votes for Andrew Cuomo, not the Working Families Party.

Cynthia Nixon, now more than ever!

If Cynthia Nixon remains on the ballot (especially if she actively campaigns), securing the required 50,000 votes would certainly be much easier than with an unknown. This scenario would require the WFP to backtrack on its tradition of not splitting the progressive vote, but that would probably be easier for most WFP members to stomach than begging Cuomo to take their ballot line.

As a die-hard progressive, Nixon has good reasons for wanting the WFP to stick around. The existential jeopardy the party faces in the gubernatorial race belies their impressive gains (finally) in nominating progressive State Senate candidates in Thursday’s primary. If the WFP can keep its ballot line and remain a potent force in New York politics, it may be about to enter into a new golden era.

Whatever Nixon’s inclination, the Working Families Party does perhaps have a trump card. Nixon’s wife, Christine Marinoni, is one of the 42,000 New Yorkers on the membership rolls of the WFP. Perhaps the Working Families Party will be saved by family loyalty.

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