In an election cycle where little has gone according to plan, New York was until recently thought to be the exception.
Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, was expected to have a sleepy race for the job once held by his father, three-term governor Mario Cuomo, the culmination of a longstanding plan that included a stint as state attorney general and as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
With Cuomo casting himself as an Albany reformer, political watchers braced for a clear glide-path to victory over former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio.
But instead of Lazio winning the nomination, it was brash, mad-as-hell, Buffalo developer Carl Paladino who emerged victorious by a wide margin in the Republican primary last month. He had support from some tea party groups, but more important, he harnessed a very raw anger among GOP primary voters, largely in economically-ravaged western New York.
Cuomo—who’s stuck largely to a Rose Garden approach for most of the year—was clearly caught flat-footed by the outcome. And suddenly, the cautious pol who is known for calling reporters personally about stories he doesn’t like finds himself in an unsettling predicament: how to run against an angry, unpredictable guy who is willing to say and do almost anything.
“I have never seen, at this level [of major-party candidacy], such an unorthodox kind of campaign,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political science expert. “It’s almost as if [Paladino is] running for a cable TV show rather than running for governor. There’s a difference between mad-angry and mad-crazy. “
Cuomo, who careened from one strategy to another for the two weeks after the Sept. 14 primary, appears to have hit pay dirt this week in the form of his rival’s own mouth.
Paladino’s candidacy has been widely viewed as melting down since Wednesday, first drawing horrendous headlines after he claimed to POLITICO that Cuomo had paramours when he was married and alleged that he could prove it. He walked back his claims, but then asserted that he had the information in a box. He was unable to keep a consistent message about the issue, including during a single Fox News interview, on Friday.
That flap followed an interview with an Asian-American Fox-5 television reporter where Paladino asked the reporter if he was born in the U.S.—in a clip in which he also promised the race was about to get nastier. Most significantly, he starred in a viral video, which played repeatedly on cable TV, in which he argued with a longtime New York Post reporter who tried to push him on details of his claims, and he exploded that he would take you out if the paper tried to approach his daughter again.
For many New Yorkers, it’s the only thing they know about him.
Cuomo remains the overwhelming favorite, with a 15-percentage point lead in the latest Marist College poll, and a nearly $20 million war chest left. But he is dealing with an angry and unsteady electorate, an unmotivated Democratic base and, now, a politician’s least-favorite additive—the element of surprise.
Paladino has shot himself "in the foot and in some vital organs," said Muzzio. At the same time, Cuomo has also dramatically stepped up his advertising, mostly with spots aimed at driving up Paladino’s negatives by painting him as an Albany insider instead of the rage-against-the-machine, non-politician he claims to be. And in the last week, Cuomo started invoking Paladino by name for the first time.
Jimmy Siegel, the ad-maker who produced the gauzy, black-and-white ads in Eliot Spitzer’s successful campaign for governor in 2006, said the task of defining Paladino as too-crazy-for-office is a delicate line to walk, especially in this volatile political climate.
“There’s always a question of, how far do you go in defining someone as loony or fringe or extremist? Where's the line? And how seriously do you take some of the things that he's done, and I think it's a tricky situation,” Siegel said. “I think you sort of ask yourself, ‘Do I attack him on character? Do I attack him on issues, or do I attack him on the fact that he's out of his mind?’”
Paladino campaign manager Michael Caputo insisted the characterization of the Upstate Republican as unhinged is way off the mark.
“The people of Buffalo realized long ago that those are just accusations from people that are opposed to him,” he said. “Carl Paladino's definitely not your average man... (Cuomo) sees a man that stands his ground and he thinks it's nuts. His whole winning gambit is to convince people that he’s never been to Albany.”
For a time, Cuomo tried defining Paladino through a parade of surrogates, focusing on his down-the-line anti-abortion stand and the earlier revelation that he’d forwarded to hundreds of associates vulgar and racist emails featuring a woman having sex with a horse, President Obama and his wife dressed as a pimp and a prostitute, and one featuring the N-word.
Cuomo then started tacking back left toward a Democratic base he’d done little to energize over the past year in the hopes of wooing independents and moderate Republicans. And he started using the "E" word - "extreme" - to define Paladino.
Yet the events of the past week have given Cuomo his surest footing—Paladino’s mouth is at risk of disqualifying him.
Paladino has seemed unable to stop talking about the claims he made about Cuomo in TV interviews. And the self-funder who has vowed to spend $10 million of his own money to win but has so far spent less than $4 million, isn’t on air with TV ads to repair the damage or define Cuomo. His campaign filing report filed Thursday afternoon show a limited amount raised—less than $200,000.
“Andrew Cuomo goes into this as a formidable candidate and solid frontrunner because he’s built up a really strong record as an independent over the last four years,” said Democratic pollster Joel Benenson, who has worked for Mario Cuomo. “Watch Carl Paladino day in and day out - as this unfolds, he's going to do more damage to himself with every day. The more outrageous he gets, the more people see the videotape, the more he damages himself.”
There’s evidence that Paladino’s bombast, combined with Cuomo's ads, has taken a toll—the Marist survey showed his negative ratings at 48 percent, an astonishingly high figure for a newcomer and one that’s 14 points above his favorable number.
Yet Cuomo’s own approval numbers are creeping down, too. And while the outcome of a Cuomo win is predicted by almost all insiders, he had hoped for a mandate to help him govern. Now, in the event he wins, the margin of victory is an issue.
One veteran Republican strategist in New York said that the negative spots are a start, but that Cuomo needs to take Paladino down in full, with policy contrasts on specific pocketbook issues.
Paladino has a natural-born constituency that's going to be with him no matter who he slugs, what he says, or what emails he sends, the strategist explained, noting that the comparisons of Paladino to another wealthy New York political gadfly, Pierre Rinfret—who ran on the GOP line in 1990 against Mario Cuomo in his final win—are inapt.
Rinfret was an elitist, said the strategist, adding that the Canadian native also didn’t have the Conservative Party ballot line, a crucial fusion line for Republican candidates in New York. Paladino is on that line now thanks to Lazio’s recent decision to drop out of the race entirely after losing the GOP primary.
Many Democrats have privately said Cuomo needs to step up not just his appearances on the trail, but also stop holding back so he can define himself. For much of the year, as one Democratic insider put it, “he’s run Spitzer’s 2006 strategy except Eliot went up on TV early and was everywhere.”
The GOP strategist argued, “It’s a little late for Cuomo to be defining himself now. It would have been nice if he’d put some meat on the bones earlier, but now it’s about Paladino.”
Caputo, meanwhile, insisted the Marist poll was wrong, and that the campaign’s internal numbers, done by Republican survey-taker Tony Fabrizio, are showing favorable movement.
“We’ve gotten through this,” he said of the viral video flap.
“Andrew Cuomo's running his daddy's campaign for governor - it's about trashing your opponent with surrogates,” Caputo insisted. “It's about hiding behind a campaign message that has nothing to do with his record. To reach our voters, we’re not going to be playing by the regular rulebook.”