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Daily News Op Ed: Kathy Hochul’s rough road ahead: The governor should be running scared for her first full term

By BRADLEY HONAN and ELISABETH ZECHE | September 18, 2021 | Original Article

Conventional wisdom says that lieutenant governor turned Gov. Hochul is in a strong position as she prepares to run for her first full term atop the ticket. Laudatory press, including a constructive meeting with Andrew Cuomo’s arch-enemy, Mayor de Blasio, suggests that state government is heading in a new direction — and Hochul will be the beneficiary of that sentiment. But a closer examination suggests that Hochul should be running scared. An impeding primary fight is likely.

This week in Boston, the acting mayor, Kim Janey, scored a fourth-place finish and conceded the race. Janey lost despite making history as the first woman and the first African-Americanto ever hold the office of mayor. That’s partially because she was appointed to the position of mayor, ascending automatically from her perch as City Council president after Joe Biden tapped then-Mayor Marty Walsh to join his cabinet as labor secretary earlier this year.

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While Janey was the subject of fawning local and even national press, she failed to stand out in the field. Hochul must understand that filling a vacancy is no guarantee of success in a subsequent election.

The race for any statewide office in New York, especially in a Democratic primary, is fundamentally a downstate race. Political data from PrimeNY suggests that one out of every two voters in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary will be cast from the five boroughs of New York City — the opposite end of the state from Hochul’s political base in Buffalo.

As a result, for Hochul to win against an opponent with stronger support downstate will require her to score almost imaginably high numbers upstate (23% of the primary vote), Long Island (11%) and the New York City suburbs and the Hudson Valley (14%) — and not get crushed in New York City.

That’s possible, but very difficult.

Meanwhile, the supposed lock that Hochul would hope to have in her backyard may not be robust. In Buffalo earlier this year, India Walton, a Democratic Socialist, scored an upset primary victory over the incumbent mayor, Byron Brown. With Jumaane Williams having hosted a fundraiser for Walton and planning a trip to Buffalo to campaign with her, this is perhaps an indication of his planning to test the waters for a statewide run, a rematch from 2018, when Williams challenged Hochul’s run for lieutenant governor. Attorney General Tish James is perhaps a likelier and still more formidable Democratic opponent.

The assumption that Hochul, a moderate, can count on the supposedly moderate upstate vote is a myth. The upstate primary vote is powered by voters living in urban centers such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany and in college towns like Ithaca, Binghamton and Poughkeepsie — areas that represent a lot of progressive votes.

Contrary to her recent bout of positive press, Hochul doesn’t start from a strong position in the eyes of the public. A recent Siena College Poll found that just 47% of Democrats would prefer to elect her were she to run for governor; 53% either would either prefer someone else or are not sure.

Throughout her career, Hochul hasn’t demonstrated she is a great campaigner. Her political career began when she was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the Hamburg Town Board, and she won her first race to Congress in a special election to replace Chris Lee, who was forced to resign after a sex scandal. In that race, Hochul won less than 50% of the vote, with a Tea Party candidate winning 9%, likely siphoning off voters exclusively from the Republican candidate and thus propelling Hochul to victory. Hochul then lost the seat the following year.

In 2014, Cuomo chose Hochul to be lieutenant governor and with his backing, she won, but four years later, she managed to get just 53% of the primary vote against Williams who was running an underfinanced and under-the-radar insurgent campaign.

Finally, even should Hochul prevail in a Democratic primary — no easy feat — she will need to quickly unite Democrats in what could prove to be a very difficult year politically. Historically, the president’s party loses big in mid-term elections, and Biden’s numbers right now are really in the tank.

While it’s been a while since a Republican won statewide office in New York, Biden’s recent missteps in Afghanistan and elsewhere could cost Democrats a number of seats. Indeed, the Siena College poll found the president’s job approval ratings among New Yorkers to be net negative — 46% positive and 52% negative.

And while that same poll shows that Hochul is viewed positively by New Yorkers, her job performance ratings are 44% positive to 37% negative, hardly suggesting a position of strength.

Kathy Hochul, a word to the wise: watch your back.

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As a result, for Hochul to win against an opponent with stronger support downstate will require her to score almost imaginably high numbers upstate (23% of the primary vote), Long Island (11%) and the New York City suburbs and the Hudson Valley (14%) — and not get crushed in New York City.

That’s possible, but very difficult.

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Meanwhile, the supposed lock that Hochul would hope to have in her backyard may not be robust. In Buffalo earlier this year, India Walton, a Democratic Socialist, scored an upset primary victory over the incumbent mayor, Byron Brown. With Jumaane Williams having hosted a fundraiser for Walton and planning a trip to Buffalo to campaign with her, this is perhaps an indication of his planning to test the waters for a statewide run, a rematch from 2018, when Williams challenged Hochul’s run for lieutenant governor. Attorney General Tish James is perhaps a likelier and still more formidable Democratic opponent.

The assumption that Hochul, a moderate, can count on the supposedly moderate upstate vote is a myth. The upstate primary vote is powered by voters living in urban centers such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany and in college towns like Ithaca, Binghamton and Poughkeepsie — areas that represent a lot of progressive votes.

Contrary to her recent bout of positive press, Hochul doesn’t start from a strong position in the eyes of the public. A recent Siena College Poll found that just 47% of Democrats would prefer to elect her were she to run for governor; 53% either would either prefer someone else or are not sure.

Throughout her career, Hochul hasn’t demonstrated she is a great campaigner. Her political career began when she was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the Hamburg Town Board, and she won her first race to Congress in a special election to replace Chris Lee, who was forced to resign after a sex scandal. In that race, Hochul won less than 50% of the vote, with a Tea Party candidate winning 9%, likely siphoning off voters exclusively from the Republican candidate and thus propelling Hochul to victory. Hochul then lost the seat the following year.

In 2014, Cuomo chose Hochul to be lieutenant governor and with his backing, she won, but four years later, she managed to get just 53% of the primary vote against Williams who was running an underfinanced and under-the-radar insurgent campaign.

Finally, even should Hochul prevail in a Democratic primary — no easy feat — she will need to quickly unite Democrats in what could prove to be a very difficult year politically. Historically, the president’s party loses big in mid-term elections, and Biden’s numbers right now are really in the tank.

While it’s been a while since a Republican won statewide office in New York, Biden’s recent missteps in Afghanistan and elsewhere could cost Democrats a number of seats. Indeed, the Siena College poll found the president’s job approval ratings among New Yorkers to be net negative — 46% positive and 52% negative.

And while that same poll shows that Hochul is viewed positively by New Yorkers, her job performance ratings are 44% positive to 37% negative, hardly suggesting a position of strength.

Kathy Hochul, a word to the wise: watch your back.

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