At a meeting of its New York State committee on Wednesday, the Working Families Party voted to offer its ballot line to incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo. The move produced a lot of head-scratching — the governor has been enemy-number-one for the WFP for years. In the recent Democratic primary, they had instead backed progressive candidate Cynthia Nixon. How could a party which had until recently been attacking him, suddenly have endorsed Cuomo?
There are two very strong reasons for the WFP decision, both ruthlessly pragmatic. Strangely, the New York media seem to be missing them.
Confusion in New York’s media
A prime example of the muddled reporting of the story is from The New York Times, who said the WFP “conceded to the inevitable.” Nothing in the article explains why endorsing Cuomo would be in any way inevitable, however.
The Albany Times-Union, New York Daily News, and the Times all explain the decision by saying that the WFP did not want to play the role of spoiler. The same papers also referenced the requirement for parties to get 50,000 votes in gubernatorial elections to maintain their ballot status.
Neither of these explanations stand up to scrutiny. According to Monday’s Siena poll (which included Nixon as a third party option), Cuomo has a commanding lead with 50% support. Marc Molinaro, a particularly weak Republican candidate, trails badly with just 28%.
The 50,000 votes requirement appears specious as well. The same Siena poll credited Nixon with 10% support – more than six times what the WFP will need on November 8th to maintain their ballot access.
Both the Working Families Party leadership and membership have a strong dislike for Andrew Cuomo. The party website even has an entire page dedicated to all of his “pro-Republican” statements. It strains credibility to think that the party would offer him their ballot line without a really compelling reason.
Why the WFP really endorsed Cuomo
There are two very straightforward reasons for the WFP decision that the media has failed to acknowledge.
Focusing on the State Senate
Perhaps the most logical explanation is the one put forward by the WFP itself.
The first line of a party press release issued Wednesday refers to “an all-out focus on defeating Republicans and winning Democratic majorities in the state Senate and in the U.S. Congress.” This is not just face-saving press release filler. The WFP has very compelling reasons to focus on State Senate races in particular this year.
Seven WFP-backed candidates are on the ballot for the State Senate this November, having knocked out more moderate candidates in the Democratic primary. These “moderates” were mostly members of the Republican-aligned “Independent Democratic Conference,” which had previously enabled Republicans to have effective control of the Senate without a majority. If the WFP can stay focused and get their candidates into the Senate, they have a chance to influence an enormous amount of legislation.
Cynthia Nixon may have failed to offer much of an electoral threat to Cuomo in September’s primary, but she was extremely good at getting media attention. If she stays in the race the media will continue to focus on her. Her star power has been extraordinarily helpful for the WFP up to this point, but now that the party wants to focus on State Senate races it could be more of a distraction than a help.
Replacing Nixon with Cuomo will still pretty much guarantee the party 50,000 votes. From a pure electoral point of view, there is no downside to having endorsed Cuomo.
Avoiding the appearance of being “spoilers”
There is practically zero chance that Nixon’s presence on the ballot will do much to help Republican Marc Molinaro, but the WFP still want to avoid the precedent of splitting the progressive vote. As a fusion voting party, they are committed to working within Democratic Party politics.
“The Working Families Party has a 20-year history of not spoiling,” state director Bill Lipton said in April.
The Cuomo endorsement provides the WFP with two immediate tactical advantages:
- Offering their line to Cuomo means no one can accuse the WFP of splitting the Democratic Party vote. It will be Cuomo who splits the vote if he declines the nomination.
- Whatever his decision, Cuomo can no longer justifiably complain about Nixon still being in the race. She will only be on the ballot this November if he decides she should stay there.
The most telling evidence that the WFP are being tactical is the deadline they have given Cuomo to accept the offer, which expires at 5pm today. WFP officials have confirmed to News Growl that Nixon will definitely remain on the ballot if Cuomo declines the nomination. If they really needed him, they would be less demanding.
While it was no doubt a painful moment for the Working Families Party when they endorsed Cuomo, they now find themselves in a relatively strong position as a party. Whatever Cuomo decides today, they have the political cover to concentrate fully on the races that matter most.
The decision is a prime example of the ruthless, results-oriented pragmatism that has made the Working Families Party the force it is today in New York politics. And while some of the party’s choices have previously provoked fierce criticism, there is no doubting that a New York State Senate reshaped by WFP candidates could transform Albany politics.
The Working Families Party began this election cycle hoping to have their candidate sitting at the governor’s desk. This attempt failed, but they may end up controlling the bills that land on the governor’s desk instead. Hardly a bad result.
If the New York media really think Wednesday’s announcement is a “climb down,” they need to think again.