The New York state Democratic Party machine prevailed last night, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo handily defeated activist Cynthia Nixon and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul scraped out a victory over New York City councilman Jumaane Williams. And in the third and final statewide primary race, New York City public advocate Tish James, who was backed by Cuomo, defeated law professor Zephyr Teachout on her left and U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney on her right to win the state primary for attorney general.
But down the ballot from the statewide offices, centrist Democratic incumbents had a much rougher night. In Brooklyn, 27-year old Julia Salazar overcame a mountain of oppo dumps against her to unseat longtime incumbent Martin Dilan, a key ally of real estate developers.
And for the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, which broke away from the state Senate Democratic caucus to hand state Senate majorities to Republicans at various times during Cuomo’s first two terms as governor, it was a bloodbath.
Former IDC leader Jeffrey Klein was defeated by 32-year-old lawyer and former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Alessandra Biaggi, who supports a single-payer healthcare system for New York. He wasn’t alone: Before the end of the night, six of the IDC’s eight members when it dissolved earlier this year—after Nixon pressed Cuomo on the issue, I might add—had lost their primary challenges.
The IDC—along with the Republicans they caucused with and Cuomo for enabling the breakaway Democrats—were responsible for turning back progressive legislation. In addition to Dilan being replaced by Salazar, who (according to the New York City DSA) will become the first socialist elected in New York in nearly a century, some of the conservative Democrats formerly of the IDC will be replaced by young, forward-thinking progressives like Biaggi and Jessica Ramos.
During this long, long primary season—which began over six months ago—much of the attention has been heaped on the big wins, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley’s success in toppling powerful House incumbents, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar’s wins in Michigan and Minnesota, Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial primary upset in Florida, John Fetterman’s win in the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor primary, and with good reason. High-profile victories by left-wing social Democrats and even self-described socialists have shocked the media and provided inspiration to the growing, enthusiastic left.
But just as important as the more high-profile victories are these state legislative races, which is where and how sustained political power is built. These are the politicians—especially the younger candidates—who are going to lead the New York Democrats in the future, when there’s no longer a man named Cuomo living in the governor’s mansion. The governor’s institutionally conservative machine might have won the battle, but the war is far from over.
And while Nixon’s showing was admittedly disappointing—after running a much more well-organized and high profile challenge to Cuomo than Teachout did in 2014, she received a just barely bigger share of the Democratic electorate—her campaign did have some success. Not only did Cuomo move to the left on several issues to try to placate dissatisfied Democrats ahead of the primary, but Nixon’s repeatedly hammering Cuomo on the IDC might very well have been the push liberals needed to dump its members like Klein and Tony Avella, who both won primary challenges four years ago.
Will Cuomo’s gestures toward progressive policy turn out to be just lip service? Judging from past experience, probably. But the left is in a stronger position to hold Cuomo accountable at a closer range now. Progressive challengers—and the voters who backed them—resoundingly swept the worst turncoat Democrats out of office. So while the top of the ballot was disappointing for the progressive left, there’s good reason to be optimistic—this is only just the beginning.