Eliot Spitzer infamously dubbed himself “a f—— steamroller” in his early days in office – a description that didn’t exactly hold up as the legislature stared him down and his popularity waned in the ensuing months.
But as a candidate for governor in 2006, Mr. Spitzer absolutely was a steamroller, powered by untouchable, sky-high-popularity that forced his fellow Democrats to give him wide latitude.
And with each day, it’s more likely that there’ll be another steamroller in the 2010 gubernatorial race: Andrew Cuomo, who has used the attorney general’s office to collect even higher poll numbers than Mr. Spitzer managed – a 70 percent favorable rating in the newest Siena poll, tops among all New York politicians.
This could give Mr. Cuomo, who figures to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee whether acting Governor David Paterson runs or not, an opportunity to shape next year’s Democratic ticket that few previous candidates have enjoyed.
For instance, it’s customary for gubernatorial candidates to team-up with a candidate for lieutenant governor and for the pair to run as a team in the September primary (even though they appear on the ballot separately). But there’s no guarantee that party leaders or primary voters will sign off on these arrangements: just ask Peter Vallone and Mario Cuomo, whose preferred candidates for L.G. were defeated in the 1998 and 1982 Democratic primaries.
But Mr. Cuomo, like Mr. Spitzer before him, could be in position to force his party – happily or not – to accept his decision well before the primary.
Mr. Spitzer, you might recall, made waves in January ’06 – four months before the state convention at which running-mates are usually picked – by anointing Mr. Paterson as his No. 2, a move that infuriated some key Democratic players. Members of the old “Harlem Clubhouse,” for example, had struck a deal to support Leecia Eve of Buffalo for L.G. But because of Mr. Spitzer’s overwhelming popularity and inevitability, they had no choice but to swallow hard.
“When Eliot Spitzer, the world’s smartest man, is telling me that he has picked his candidate and knows that his candidate can win, who am I to question the world’s smartest man?” Charlie Rangel asked, very unseriously.
Ms. Eve – along with Jon Cohen and Tom DiNapoli, who were also vying for the L.G. nod at the time of Mr. Spitzer’s announcement – exited the race within in days, clearing the field for Mr. Paterson. And when Tom Suozzi launched his hopeless primary bid against Mr. Spitzer, he declined to field his own candidate for L.G., not wanting to take on a second futile mission.
Granted, Mr. Spitzer’s influence had its limits – he didn’t have much to say as Mr. Cuomo headed off a crowded pack and wrapped up the ’06 nomination for A.G. And Mr. Cuomo’s influence next year will have its limits, too. In the coming weeks and months, he’ll need to decide how exactly where, when and how to throw his weight around.
The biggest factor, obviously, is whether Mr. Paterson follows through on his oft-repeated threat to seek a full term. The latest Siena poll has him trailing Mr. Cuomo by 59 points in a Democratic primary – roughly where the race has stood for eight months now. Almost certainly, Mr. Paterson will bow out early next year.
Assuming that happens, Mr. Cuomo should have the same latitude to pick an L.G. candidate – and to stop any Democratic primary dead in its tracks – that Mr. Spitzer enjoyed. Then, he might have enough capital left over to look further down the ticket.
The pack for the A.G.’s race is (for now) more crowded than it was in ’06 – and it lacks anyone with Mr. Cuomo’s star power looming over it. Mr. Cuomo could weigh in here – he seems interested in having a female candidate on the ballot; maybe Kathleen Rice or Janet DiFiore – but his attention might better be directed at the comptroller’s race, where trouble could loom for Democrats.
There, Mr. DiNapoli, an unelected incumbent (he was installed by the legislature over Mr. Spitzer’s strident objections), could actually be vulnerable to a strong G.O.P. challenge – which could come if John Faso decides to enter the race. In the Siena Poll, 41 percent of voters rated Mr. DiNapoli’s performance as fair or poor; only 25 percent gave him favorable marks. In an anti-incumbent year, he could be the low-hanging fruit that Republicans go after.
Bill Thompson, who won sudden respect with his 4.6-point loss in this month’s mayoral election, has long been rumored to be interested in Mr. DiNapoli’s job. Mr. Cuomo might have three incentives to line up with him: (1) it would ensure that at least one African-American is on the Democratic ticket; (2) it would remove a potentially vulnerable incumbent whose ascension to the office is symbolic of all that voters loathe about Albany; and (3) he hasn’t enjoyed the best relationship with Mr. DiNapoli.
Mr. Cuomo’s poll numbers are so high that – barring the overhyped possibility of a run by Rudy Giuliani – next November’s election won’t be much fun. But the next few months may be.