Hailed as “America’s governor” just one short year ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now fighting for his political life. In late January, the state attorney general reported that Cuomo’s administration purposefully failed to disclose thousands of nursing-home residents who died of complications related to COVID-19, reportedly in an effort to protect Cuomo from possible political retaliation. The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office are now reportedly investigating the Cuomo administration’s handling of COVID-19 at nursing homes.
Separately, between Feb. 24 and March 8, five women, including four former aides, have accused Cuomo of sexual harassment or uncomfortable romantic overtures, such as unwanted kissing or asking them about their sex lives. Although his office has denied some of the allegations, Cuomo apologized last week for making the women feel uncomfortable and said it was unintentional. He also agreed to let the attorney general lead an independent investigation of the claims.
The twin scandals have taken a toll on Cuomo’s once-high approval ratings and have even led to an increasing number of calls for his resignation. But so far, Cuomo is insisting he’ll stay put, and in many ways he still remains a formidable candidate for reelection in 2022, which leaves open a variety of different outcomes for Cuomo. Here are the four key ways Cuomo’s political future could unfold.
1. Cuomo resigns
Although Cuomo has insisted as recently as Sunday that he would not resign, politicians tend to deny they’re resigning right up until the moment they do. If either of these scandals worsen for Cuomo — say, more women come forward, or the FBI announces criminal charges — the pressure to step down could become too great to bear. The two latest sexual-harassment allegations have already inspired the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly to call for his resignation; if other leading New York politicians, such as Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, follow suit, he may not have much of a choice.
It’s possible, though, that Cuomo can ride these allegations out. In recent years, plenty of politicians have successfully resisted calls for their resignation: By my count, since 2017, 57 federal or statewide politicians (not including Cuomo) have faced scandal while in office, and only 12 resigned. An embattled leader need look no further than Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, whose popularity has rebounded after a 2019 blackface scandal, as proof that it’s possible to wait out calls for one’s resignation and emerge with one’s career intact.
That said, I did find that officeholders accused of unwanted sexual advances resigned at a higher rate: seven out of 14. However, “unwanted sexual advances” is a broad category, encompassing everything from inappropriate Facebook messages to allegations of rape, and there is no perfect comparison to Cuomo’s sex scandal — although the accusations so far are not as serious or graphic as many of the other scandals I’ve tracked in this category.
And as loud as the calls for Cuomo’s resignation have been in the media, they represent only a minority of New Yorkers. According to a Quinnipiac University poll from March 2-3, although 40 percent of New York registered voters think Cuomo should resign, 55 percent of registered voters do not. And while registered voters did tell Emerson College/WPIX-TV/NewsNation (in a poll conducted March 3-4), 43 percent to 34 percent, that Cuomo should resign over the sexual harassment allegations (numbers for the nursing-home scandal were similar), 23 percent weren’t sure — so the public pressure on him to resign is hardly overwhelming.
At this moment, a Cuomo resignation seems unlikely — but that could change quickly with another bombshell report or more high-profile calls for his resignation. In addition, there are already at least 10 legislators who want to impeach him, according to Fox News. Although Cuomo being removed from office is theoretically a fifth scenario, so far there appears to be less appetite for that among legislators than resignation (10 vs. 37), and he may prefer to resign rather than become the first New York governor to be removed from office since 1913.
2. Cuomo retires
A likelier outcome might be that Cuomo serves out the rest of his term but does not run for reelection in 2022. This would allow him to leave on his own terms (avoiding the embarrassment of potentially losing reelection) while also preserving his legacy by not resigning. First elected in 2010, Cuomo has already served longer than any other sitting governor, and although New York does not have gubernatorial term limits, only two New York governors have ever served more than 12 years in office — so it would hardly be unusual timing for him to step aside. Retirement is also the public’s preferred course of action: In that Quinnipiac poll, New York registered voters said 59 percent to 36 percent that Cuomo should not run for reelection.
On the other hand, politicians — even ones under fire — don’t give up power voluntarily very often. Of the 57 scandal-plagued officeholders since 2017, 34 sought reelection or higher office (and four more may yet do so in 2022). Cuomo hasn’t commented on his plans since these scandals broke, but back in 2019 he said that he planned to run for reelection. He has also amassed a $16.8 million campaign war chest that clearly signals an intent to run — and that may tempt him to think he can brute-force his way to a fourth term.
3. Cuomo runs for reelection and loses
If Cuomo does decide to seek reelection, he’ll likely face strengthened opposition in both the primary and general elections. He was probably already going to face a primary challenge even before these scandals; in both 2014 and 2018, he faced a serious primary challenge from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Although he still won more than 60 percent of the vote in both races, in large part thanks to his strength among nonwhite voters, that still leaves roughly one-third of New York Democrats who are solidly anti-Cuomo.
And Cuomo’s recent scandals may finally make that bloc big enough to defeat him, especially if a strong opponent like Attorney General Letitia James emerges. In the Emerson poll, only 44 percent of Democratic voters said they would reelect Cuomo if the election were held today, while 56 percent said it was time for someone new. And Quinnipiac found that James is the most popular politician in the state, with a whopping 82 percent to 3 percent approval/disapproval rating among Democrats. A Black opponent like James or New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams might be particularly well-situated to eat into Cuomo’s base, too; in the Quinnipiac poll, James was the only state politician tested who had a higher approval rating than Cuomo among nonwhite respondents.
Cuomo’s main vulnerability probably lies in the Democratic primary, though even if he survives it, the general election might not be a cakewalk either. According to Emerson, Cuomo has become downright unpopular in the Empire State, with an approval rating of 38 percent and a disapproval rating of 49 percent. (His situation is not quite as dire in the Quinnipiac poll: 45 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval.) And while New York’s strong Democratic lean would help Cuomo, partisanship is not as strong in state races as it is in federal ones, and sometimes the state’s dominant party nominates a candidate so controversial that the other side scores an upset. (Just ask Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas or Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana.) If the usual pattern of out-party strength in midterm elections holds true, 2022 will also be a Republican-leaning election year nationwide.
4. Cuomo runs for reelection and wins
Of course, it’s also possible that these scandals are merely a bump in the road and Cuomo goes on to win reelection in 2022 — as he was very likely to do before all this. He still has all the advantages of incumbency, plus that $16.7 million war chest. And voters won’t make their decision based on Cuomo’s scandals alone. Per Emerson, 62 percent of New York voters say a COVID-19 vaccination plan is more important than an investigation into either one of the scandals, and per Quinnipiac, they still approve of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic 56 percent to 41 percent. And by 2022, it’s very possible that other issues will have eclipsed these scandals in the news cycle as the measures by which Cuomo is judged.
Even today, Cuomo probably starts out with the advantage in both the primary and the general. Both Emerson (53 percent to 34 percent) and Quinnipiac (65 percent to 27 percent) found that he still has a positive approval rating among Democratic voters, and Quinnipiac found that Democrats still want him to run for reelection, 50 percent to 44 percent. That’s largely thanks to his durable strength with voters of color, who are frequently forgotten in conversations about Cuomo’s intraparty popularity yet make up about 40 percent of New York’s Democratic electorate. It will be difficult for any Democrat to beat him without breaking his grip on these voters — and while that could certainly happen, there’s another complication. Multiple primary challengers could split the anti-Cuomo vote and make it easier for him to win with just a plurality of loyal supporters. Cuomo would have the highest odds of losing if he faces a single, strong primary challenger — but given how vulnerable Cuomo looks (and how many ambitious Democrats there are in New York), that could prove difficult for his opponents to coordinate.
As for the general election, while everything in the previous section still stands, the cold hard truth is that New York is a very blue state: President Biden carried it by 23 percentage points, and no Republican has won a statewide election there, at any level, since 2002. While Cuomo wouldn’t be guaranteed victory if he makes it to November 2022, he would certainly be the favorite — scandals and all.
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