ALBANY — Some say Gov. Andrew Cuomo is simply engaging in smart politics. Others contend he has become so politically frantic that he is looking for every opportunity to beat left-wing challenger Cynthia Nixon to the punch.
In any event, a series of moves by the second-term Cuomo, believed by many to have strong interest in mounting a White House candidacy in 2020, has led a number of New York political observers to conclude he is poised to pivot quickly to respond to Nixon, an actress. On Twitter, the phenomenon has already earned its own hashtag — #TheCynthiaEffect.
Last week, amid calls by Nixon for Albany to enact a package of voting reforms, Cuomo used his executive powers to allow eligible paroled felons to vote in New York elections.
This week, Cuomo, who had been neutral on a proposed ban on plastic bags, depicted himself as a leader in that effort, fully embracing the bid to rid New York of the bags.
Last year, Cuomo opposed allowing recreational marijuana in New York. Now, he says, he wants an expanded study on the ramifications of ending pot prohibition in the state. Nixon has called for legalizing marijuana and taxing it.
Cuomo's latest moves come against the backdrop of the state Working Families Party, usually allied with the New York Democratic Party that Cuomo now controls, endorsing Nixon's candidacy, though the television actress has never held any government elected office.
"The governor is taking away Cynthia Nixon's issues and is out-lefting her," observed George Arzt, a veteran political consultant who once served as the communications director for the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
Cuomo and Nixon are poised to face each other in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. Regardless of the outcome of that event, Nixon, because of the backing of the Working Families Party, is expected to also have a berth on the November ballot.
The Cuomo camp is quick to reject the notion that the governor has become a Nixon echo-chamber on issues important to liberals.
"The governor's long record of progressive accomplishment is irrefutable," said Abbey Fashouer, spokeswoman for the Cuomo campaign. "Any claims otherwise should be seen for what they are: baseless election-year rhetoric."
Nixon, for her part, has not shied away from making Cuomo's alleged efforts to knock her back a central issue in her campaign.
During a Buffalo appearance Wednesday, she accused an ally of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, a Cuomo backer, of getting two venues to cancel hosting her appearances.
"The governor is clearly scared of our campaign, and desperately wants me to go away,” Nixon said in a statement. “Well, we can’t be bullied out of the race. I’ll meet with voters on street corners if we have to."
The Cuomo campaign denied Nixon's allegations.
Some observers believe that Cuomo is taking minimal risk by tacking to the left, given the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by nearly 2 to 1. There are also significant questions as to whether the presumed GOP nominee for governor, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, can come up with the resources to be competitive with Cuomo, who entered 2018 with $30 million in his campaign account.
But Cuomo, because of his perceived presidential aspirations, could face fallout if he becomes overly aggressive in dealing with the challenge from Nixon, especially at a time when many female voters have become riveted on politics as a result of issues relating to gender equality and sexual harassment in the workplace, said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff.
"If he becomes combative in any way, he runs the risk of turning off some voters in the national Democratic base," he said. "With the current wave of issues favoring a mobilization by women candidates, you have to wonder where this is going to end up."
He said he expects Nixon will fare better in the primary than one of her chief supporters, law school professor Zephyr Teachout, did in 2014 when the latter took 34 percent of the vote and scored wins in 30 upstate counties against Cuomo.
The governor also faces the risk that some voters who may have supported him four years ago may be fatigued with him now that he is nearing the completion of two terms in Albany.
Cuomo's weak spot, based on the statewide results of his performance in the 2014 general election, appears to be among voters in upstate communities outside the urban centers of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany.
But while some North Country voters are willing to consider Nixon's requests for their vote, it does not appear that Cuomo will experience any significant slippage among those who do support him, despite the new challenge, said Clinton County Democratic Chairwoman Sara Rowden.
"In general he is still seen as the candidate of choice" for Democrats, Rowden said.
An April 17 poll released by Siena College reaffirmed Cuomo's status as the front-runner this year, even as the survey revealed the incumbent matched his lowest favorability rating in seven years as New York's chief executive.
The same poll showed the larger unknown Nixon gaining ground on Cuomo among Democrats since launching her campaign, but still trailing him, 58 to 27.
Cuomo also holds a large lead over GOP front-runner Molinaro, who campaigned Wednesday in the Plattsburgh region. Molinaro could soon be the last Republican candidate standing, after more of the party's county chairmen flocked to his corner this week and his only rival, Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, admitted Wednesday to the Daily News that his run is "basically over."
As for the Democrats, Cuomo's recent moves suggest his campaign is not going to disengage in this year's primary contest, as some observed the governor did in 2014 when Teachout accused him of dithering on the issue of natural gas hydrofracking and allowing "corruption" by dismantling a state ethics commission.
"It's smart on Cuomo's part to get rid of the issues" being talked up by Nixon, said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist. "When you take away the issues, then what has she got left to talk about?"
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org