When New York's Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul ascended to the governor's mansion, it was something of a lucky break. As a moderately conservative Democrat from western New York, her profile doesn't obviously lend itself to being the standard-bearer in this increasingly left-wing state. And when Attorney General Letitia James announced she would challenge Hochul for the nomination, it looked like we might see a replay of the 2010 gubernatorial race, when Gov. David Paterson — who had claimed the office upon the resignation of the scandal-plagued Eliot Spitzer — was convinced not to run so as to clear the way for then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
But Hochul never planned to go quietly, and her lucky breaks have kept coming. Since James' announcement, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — who gave Hochul a run for her money in the race for lieutenant governor in 2018 — also threw his hat in the ring, and multiple other candidates, including outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are seriously considering joining the fray.
What these challengers have in common is that they are all New York City-based politicians eager to claim the mantle of the progressive left. And that fight is Hochul's best chance to retain her office.
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Most obviously, the group of progressive challengers has the potential to split the leftmost voters between them, leaving Hochul a path to winning with a more moderate plurality. Since challengers will necessarily be fighting each other as well as lobbing grenades at the incumbent, it would likewise enable Hochul to rise above the scrimmage while they drag each other down.
But there is an additional reason why left-wing voters should be concerned. We've seen this movie before, and not only does it not end well for the left's preferred candidates, it doesn't end well for their ideological orientation, either.
In last year's New York City mayoral primary, for example, candidates like Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales made a point of running to the left of the spectrum. They were joined by others like veteran Manhattan politico Scott Stringer, who, based on his record, could have presented himself in a more moderate light. The end result wasn't just that one of the more moderate candidates, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, won the nomination, but that he won explicitly as a moderate, opposing defunding the police and supporting easing the path of real estate development.
Something similar happened in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Before the voting began, multiple candidates vied for the approval of left-wing supporters. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came to dominate that side of the spectrum, but candidates with more moderate records like Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) were also eager to portray themselves as potential standard-bearers from the left. The leftward tilt of the party led former Republican Michael Bloomberg to make a late entry in the race as the voice of moderation, before a revival of Vice President Joe Biden's fortunes — originally the most moderate candidate in the race — swept him to the nomination. But the popular impression of a Democratic Party that was tilting leftward was set, and Biden, the avowed moderate, wound up running meaningfully ahead of his party in the general election.
That's the risk the left runs in encouraging candidates to seek their ideological imprimatur in this manner. It's not just that multiple candidates might split the vote or attack each other; it's that the audition process telegraphs to the larger electorate that the left thinks of themselves as the party's ideological gate-keepers. Even voters who aren't right-wing might wonder who elected them to that office, and even voters who are left-wing might be skeptical of candidates who seem eager to pander, as opposed to lead.
It's notable in that regard that the candidate with the deepest well of support from the left, Sanders, had his strongest outing in 2016 running as a man of principle. And those principles were his own: While his core issues were Medicare for All and opposition to free trade, he wasn't shy about criticizing open borders as a threat to organized labor, and he endured attacks from the left for his support for the gun rights of Vermont's hunters. His candidacy wasn't about passing litmus tests, but about changing the broad direction of the party.
Which, to a considerable degree, he has done. The Biden administration has been far more left-wing than Biden's own political history would have led most people to expect, reflecting the increasingly leftward tilt of the country on economic matters. And even as the administration's popularity has plummeted, his signature economic initiatives — the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill on climate change and social welfare — retain more than majority support. But the party itself is as unpopular as it has been in over forty years at this point in a presidential term.
It's hard to imagine a worse time for Democrats to play another round of "who's the most progressive?" Hochul's challengers, if they are determined to vie for the nomination, would do well to consider how they would make their case the way they would if they needed to win a general election contest and not just a primary — because that's precisely what they'll have to do.
Meanwhile, a party in their situation might consider someone like Hochul — who was once endorsed by the NRA and opposed giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, but has tacked to her party's center since winning statewide office — an asset to be developed, rather than sidelined.
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