Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
To Democrats in New York, former President Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. Trump’s enormous unpopularity in his home state — which he lost twice — has been an electoral millstone around the necks of New York Republican candidates, helping to turn an already-blue state even bluer.
We recently got a taste of the Trump effect when it comes to Andrew Cuomo, the beleaguered governor of New York who is battling multiple scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment and accusations of having deliberately undercounted deaths in nursing homes. Cuomo insists he “never touched anyone inappropriately,” although he apologized for acting “in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” calling his actions unintentional. He also offered a quasi-apology for not keeping the public and the state legislature up to date on the number of Covid-19 deaths among nursing home residents.
And he has yet to fully answer allegations that state employees — including junior staffers — were improperly ordered to work on his pandemic book, “American Crisis,” for which Cuomo reportedly received an advance of as much as $4 million. Richard Azzopardi, a senior aide to Cuomo, denied any ethical compromise and said two senior staffers had “volunteered.” As for junior staffers, “every effort was made to ensure that no state resources were used in connection with this project,” he said, according to the New York Times.
Additionally, Cuomo faces accusations of campaign finance violations, after a watchdog group made a state ethics complaint charging that the book was promoted by his campaign organization.
Cuomo is under investigation by the state attorney general and the state legislature, which is considering whether to initiate impeachment proceedings. Cuomo’s once-soaring favorability ratings have plummeted, with an astounding 66% of registered voters saying he should not run for re-election.
More than 135 state legislators and nearly the entire state congressional delegation — including US Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer — have called on Cuomo to resign.
His chances of winning re-election to an unprecedented fourth term have never been dimmer.
In short, this is a prominent Democrat who is on the ropes. You’d think he would make an easy target for a Republican challenger. But you’d be wrong.
Republicans, smelling blood, have begun to plot a campaign against Cuomo. “I plan to run,” Andrew Giuliani, son of the former mayor of New York City, told the Washington Examiner. “Outside of anybody named Trump, I think I have the best chance to win and take the state back, and I think there’s an opportunity in 2022 with a wounded Democratic candidate.”
A day later, congressman Lee Zeldin released a video announcing his own candidacy. “The bottom line is this; to save New York, Andrew Cuomo’s gotta go,” Zeldin said in a release. “I will bring the kind of relentless, fighting spirit towards helping to save our state that Andrew Cuomo only reserves for multi-million dollar self-congratulatory book deals, cover-ups, abuse, and self-dealing.”
Do Republicans have a shot? While they would relish a chance to unseat Cuomo, there’s a possibility he may resign before the 2022 election or simply decline to seek re-election. If that’s the case, New York has no shortage of ambitious Democrats who would be tough competitors, including Attorney General Letitia James and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
But the reality is that, with or without Cuomo on the ballot, GOP chances of winning the race for governor are slim at best.
Republicans have not won a statewide race in New York since 2002, when then-Governor George Pataki won a third and final term. Since then, the party has been crippled by declining registration numbers, public infighting and the burden of being associated with Trump.
In 2014, Republican candidate Rob Astorino mounted a spirited but unsuccessful effort to unseat Cuomo, finishing with a respectable 41% of the vote. But a few years later, Astorino lost his own seat as the county executive of Westchester (a suburb of New York City) in 2017. Astorino attributed the loss to Trump, then in his first year in office, enraging and energizing Democratic voters to come out in droves to vote against any Republican in sight.
The same script played out again in 2018, when another Republican challenger, suburban county executive Marc Molinaro, got blown out by a 22-point margin against Cuomo. The lopsided win was caused, in large part, by New York City’s activist Democrats, who were fully mobilized against Trump.
“I don’t think anybody could have effectively planned for the seismic turnout in [New York City],” Molinaro said after the race. “And that really, at the end of the day, made the difference.”
Democrats have continued to use Trump and Trumpism as a way to rile up voters against Republicans, and with good reason. In a state that is proud of its storied past as a home for immigrants, Trump’s anti-immigrant actions were anathema.
Trump’s push for a law limiting the deductibility of state and local taxes — an act of sheer economic vandalism aimed directly at New York, California and other heavily Democratic states — inflamed voters and made the Republican brand toxic to many.
Stirred up by the former President, in 2018, Dems took control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 10 years. In 2020, Democrats came out in record numbers to vote against Trump — and along the way, flipped even more seats, giving the Democrats supermajorities for the first time ever.
That leaves Republicans in a bind. Andrew Giuliani, who worked as an aide in the Trump White House, will be in for a tough learning experience if he tries to campaign as a supporter of the unpopular ex-President. Zeldin, a more experienced politician, never even mentioned Trump’s name in his campaign announcement video, although he is staunchly pro-Trump.
Earlier this year, unable to make any significant headway in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, some Republican leaders went so far as to urge party members to switch their registration to Democrat, the better to influence the outcome of the November race for mayor.
The GOP has its work cut out for it in trying to stage a comeback in New York. By all indications, their first move should be to disavow the former President and begin building a party that has nothing to do with its former leader, Donald Trump.