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Why the Left Couldn’t Take the Top of the Ticket in New York

Category: Political News,Politics

Big City

Party challengers in statewide races seemed to have momentum. But in the end, it was the newcomers in local contests who prevailed.

Cynthia Nixon, watching Jumaane Williams concede the Democratic race for lieutenant governor. Ms. Nixon also lost her race, for governor, on Thursday.CreditCreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

In Thursday’s New York Democratic primary, the top of the ticket held for the establishment, giving Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, and his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, a near guarantee of another term. The governor’s anointed choice for attorney general, Letitia James, beat Zephyr Teachout, who seemed to have the most momentum in the last days of the campaign.

But in many down-ballot races, it was the anti-establishment candidates who won at a moment in which the left appears ascendant around the country. Still, the primary revealed that not every newfound assumption about blue-wave politics is bankable.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo outspent Ms. Nixon 10 to one. CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

There is such a thing as “progressive enough”

Mr. Cuomo won having already championed gay marriage, signed off on a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and proposed expansive criminal justice reforms.

Voters didn’t mind that his turn toward progressivism seemed to come only when he was forced into it and that he now championed things he’d previously opposed, like the legalization of marijuana. Neither did voters care that he was not going to decry the tyrannies of the financial industry and blame a rigged system for inequities.


Mr. Cuomo won the Bronx, where the poverty rate hovers just below 30 percent, by an 82 percent margin. And with his backing, Ms. James, New York City’s public advocate, beat Ms. Teachout, the law professor who has built her political identity on an enmity toward moneyed interests, in the race for attorney general. This summer, it appeared as if it would be problematic for Ms. James that she had said she would “not be known as the ‘Sheriff on Wall Street.’” In the end, it was not.

Money still matters. Small donors can only love you so much.

Several novice candidates won their primaries despite distinct fund-raising disadvantages, starting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the June congressional contest. In statewide primaries, it clearly helped to have money.

Mr. Cuomo outspent Ms. Nixon 10 to one, with lots of chunky donations coming from rich people. He had plenty of money to put toward ads that benefited his own campaign and Ms. James’s. Big races need big dollars.

Celebrity counts, but maybe not how you might think

This election season has shown that anonymity can generate excitement. Ms. Nixon was not unknown, and she lost.

But the fact that she was famous and campaigned with down-ballot candidates helped bring crucial attention to an issue that had escaped the interest of many voters for years: the power of the Independent Democratic Conference in Albany.

The I.D.C. had been around since 2011 until it disbanded last spring, but it was only recently that their positions were threatened. Suddenly voters realized that a group of Democrats in the State Senate had stood in the way of progressive legislation on reproductive rights and single-payer health care by voting with Republicans.

Of the eight I.D.C. members up for re-election on Thursday, six lost.

Alessandra Biaggi, right, embracing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez following Ms. Biaggi's primary election victory.CreditDave Sanders for The New York Times

The definition of an insurgent can be flexible

The most impressive of the anti-I.D.C. victories came from 32-year-old Alessandra Biaggi’s win over Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, the former leader of the I.D.C., in a district representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester.

Ms. Biaggi, a lawyer who is backed by the Working Families Party and activists on the left, had worked for the Cuomo administration, which had enabled the I.D.C. in the first place.

Beyond that, she is the scion of a Democratic machine family — the granddaughter of the former 10-term Bronx congressman Mario Biaggi, who went to prison in the late 1980s on federal bribery charges.

Julia Salazar’s candidacy energized young voters in swaths of gentrifying Brooklyn.CreditHolly Pickett for The New York Times

And the definition can be messy

Julia Salazar, the 27-year-old democratic socialist, ran into some trouble toward the end of her race against Martin Dilan, a 15-year senator. But she won in their Brooklyn district — which includes Bushwick and Williamsburg — where she is the demographic.

Young voters, frustrated by rising rents, didn’t seem to care that she was once a registered Republican, that she said she was born in Colombia when she was born in Florida, that her professed relationship to Judaism was murky, or that her brother said she miscast her family’s financial circumstance.

What mattered is that she wasn’t her opponent, who took money from the real-estate industry as the area aggressively gentrified.

Some districts will always resist the resistance

The only former I.D.C. senator in New York City to keep a seat was Diane Savino, whose district includes parts of Staten Island and southern Brooklyn.

Her challenger, Jasmine Robinson, a 37-year-old legal secretary and community activist, lost by more than 45 points.

It seemed that few in this relatively conservative area saw anything worth rebelling against.

Ginia Bellafante has served as a reporter, critic and, since 2011, as the Big City columnist. She began her career at The Times as a fashion critic, and has also been a television critic. She previously worked at Time magazine. @GiniaNYT

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Why the Left Couldn’t Take The Top of the Ticket. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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