Cuomo Wants to Unseat House Republicans, But Will It Work?

N.Y. governor targeting six GOP lawmakers who voted for health care bill

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, greets Rep. Joseph Crowley, a fellow New Yorker, at last year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, greets Rep. Joseph Crowley, a fellow New Yorker, at last year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted June 7, 2017 at 5:02am

House Democrats are looking to make gains in 2018 by winning competitive seats in New York — and the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, is stepping in to help. 

So far it’s not clear exactly how Cuomo plans to campaign against Republican incumbents and assist Democratic challengers. And some Republicans say that if Cuomo is publicly involved in these campaigns, his unpopularity in the Republican-leaning parts of the state could actually help GOP campaigns.

On Tuesday, Cuomo announced the “New York Fights Back” campaign, alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in New York City. The campaign is aimed at unseating six House Republicans who voted for the GOP’s recent health care bill.

“We say to these congresspeople: We promise you, if you violate your oath of office and you defraud the voters, you hurt the people of this state, we will remove you from office on Nov. 2, 2018,” Cuomo told a crowd gathered at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.

“Those are not just words,” he said. “You can bet your political life that New Yorkers can do just that.”

Democrats in the state generally welcomed any help from the governor as they look to win back House seats. But some Republicans scoffed at the idea that Cuomo and Pelosi would lead the Democrats to victory in some of the more conservative areas of the state.

“So, Andrew Cuomo’s grand strategy is to bring Nancy Pelosi to the state? Brilliant idea,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We’re happy to point out how every current New York House Democrat is a loyal follower of Pelosi’s liberal agenda and Democratic challengers would be more of the same.”

Empire state of mind 

Pelosi told the crowd Tuesday that New York is “one of the most important battlegrounds for Democrats to take back the House.”

Her party must net 24 seats to regain control of the chamber, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting eight seats in New York alone. New York is also home to three members of the NRCC’s Patriot Program, for GOP incumbents considered more vulnerable. 

Cuomo’s initiative targets six House Republicans, all of whom voted for the GOP health care bill, known as the American Health Care Act. Each Republican also represents a district that President Donald Trump won by margins ranging from 7 to 25 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections

These Republicans are mainly centered in upstate New York, except for Rep. Lee Zeldin, who represents a Long Island district. The other targets include Reps. Chris Collins, who was the first lawmaker to endorse Trump, John J. Faso, Elise Stefanik, Claudia Tenney, and Tom Reed.

‘Two-edged sword’

Some national and New York Republicans note that Cuomo’s effort could backfire if his name is tied to the Democratic challengers in those districts.

“Bringing the governor in will only make NY-27 more red,” said Chris Grant, referring to Collins’ district. Grant is the general consultant for the congressman’s re-election campaign.

Grant said the pro-Second Amendment and fiscally conservative voters in Collins’ western New York district are not supporters of the governor. In his 2014 re-election campaign, Cuomo lost the district by 27 points. 

While he is running for a third term in 2018, Cuomo has been viewed as a potential candidate for president in 2020. One GOP consultant who works in New York noted that the governor could be positioning himself for the national stage with this new initiative. 

“This is about the 2020 primary,” the consultant said. “I think he needs to be seen as a fighter.”

Some Democrats acknowledged that Cuomo’s unpopularity in these GOP areas could be an issue if he becomes involved in those House races. 

“Those concerns aren’t unfounded for sure, but I think Democrats are going to stick to the issues and hopefully that works,” one Democratic consultant in New York said.

“There’s a bit of a two-edged sword here,” said Karen Feldman, a Democratic activist and consultant who lives in Faso’s upstate district. She noted some voters in upstate New York are still upset with the governor’s gun control proposals. But she said the governor’s initiative could be helpful in providing resources to Democratic campaigns. 

“I think there’s also the other side of this, which is people who want to do everything they can to win back these House seats, so they’re grateful for any help the state committee or the governor can give,” Feldman said.

Cuomo announced a similar initiative for the 2014 elections, aimed at helping Democrats win control of the state Senate. But that effort was unsuccessful, with some liberal Democrats blaming Cuomo for the losses, according to The New York Times.

“Obviously, you’re going to have people who are skeptical and [are asking,] ‘What are his motives?’” Feldman said of Cuomo’s new initiative. “I think you have to look forward.”

Some Democrats also noted that Cuomo is politically adept, and would know where his direct involvement would be helpful, and where he should work behind the scenes.

‘New York fights back’ 

Cuomo’s campaign and the state’s Democratic Party did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the details of the “New York Fights Back” initiative, so it is not clear what the campaign will entail.

The New York Daily News reported that the effort involves new digital ads and will be aimed at boosting voter data files. A new website launched Tuesday morning focuses on the GOP lawmakers’ votes on the health care bill last month. 

A 40-second video on the site highlights Collins stating on CNN that he did not read the entire bill, as well as other lawmakers’ facing rowdy town hall meetings on health care. The new website also calls on those interested in getting involved to sign up, indicating that they may eventually join events or work to register people to vote.

For some local Democrats, any help from the governor would be a positive development.

“It’s certainly a welcome push on the governor’s part,” said Judith Hunter, the party chairwoman in Livingston County. “He understands how poorly served many of our districts are by these Republicans who just do whatever Donald Trump says and whatever they can do to get Trump’s agenda put forward.” 

Hunter also chairs the “Turn 27 Blue” Coalition, which is a team of county chairmen and leaders of grass-roots organizations aimed at unseating Collins. 

Hunter said the group is experiencing unprecedented interest in challenging Collins, who won re-election last year by 34 points. Democrats in other districts are also hearing from a number of interested candidates, even though the New York primary is a year away. 

The coalition has interviewed 10 interested candidates so far. New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who represented the seat for a partial term before narrowly losing to Collins in 2012 after it was redrawn, has passed on challenging the congressman, according to The Buffalo News. So has Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who was first elected to his current position in 2011 by defeating Collins.

Despite the two high-profile noes, Jeremy Zellner, the party chairman in Erie County, said Democrats are ready to take on Collins.

“We’re more organized than we’ve ever been for a congressional race here in western New York,” Zellner said. He said the candidates interviewed have also pledged not to challenge the eventual endorsed candidate in a primary.

Hunter said Cuomo’s involvement would be helpful, especially as Democrats at all levels are zeroing in on congressional races. 

“I don’t think that any efforts on [Cuomo’s] part will go unappreciated because obviously, in some of these districts, we would very much appreciate state and national support,” Hunter said. “When we’re all pulling in the same direction, we can all get a lot more done.”