Rob Astorino: Turning Heads in New York

On November 5, 2013, Rob Astorino was elected to a second term as county executive of Westchester, the wealthy county six miles north of Manhattan, New York City. His victory surprised many, giving Republicans a victory in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one.

Just three months later, Astorino announced his next goal: New York’s governorship. Now the Republican nominee, the Westchester county executive faces an uphill battle against Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo. A Republican in a decidedly blue state, Astorino has struggled to build the name recognition and campaign war chest that would give him a credible shot at beating Cuomo. But if Astorino can leverage the controversy surrounding Cuomo’s Moreland Commission and the governor’s positions on certain issues, the race may turn out to be closer than expected.

A Republican’s Rise in Democratic Territory

Astorino, 47, got involved in politics early. While a 21-year-old Communications major at Fordham University, Astorino was elected to his hometown Mount Pleasant’s Board of Education. After working in radio, notably co-hosting a show with the archbishop of New York and helping bring ESPN Radio to the state, he won election to the Westchester County Board of Legislators in 2003. Astorino was beginning in a region where he is “far right of the median voter,” as Noam Bramson, Astorino’s 2013 Democratic challenger for County Executive, told the HPR. His first run for Westchester county executive failed, but in 2009, he beat a decade-plus Democratic incumbent. “[Astorino] was down by 18 points with two weeks to go,” Michael Lawler, his current gubernatorial campaign manager, told the HPR. On Election Day, Astorino won by 14 percentage points.

Astorino is quite popular in Westchester. He cut spending by over five percent and oversaw the creation of 30,000 private sector jobs during his first term. “He’s able to project a very pleasant personal demeanor on television and even in superficial personal encounters,” said Bramson. According to an August Marist poll, 64 percent of voters believed Westchester was moving in the right direction, and Astorino coasted to reelection in November. But attention quickly shifted to the gubernatorial race, where Astorino now faces larger challenges–one being his formidable opponent.

Challenging the Cuomo Political Machine

Son of the famed New York governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo now runs a strong political machine in Albany. Cuomo is not only the incumbent governor, but also a national political figure often mentioned as a possible future candidate for national office. A skilled fundraiser, Cuomo had $32 million in his coffers by early-August, and a source close to the campaign told the HPR that he only attends his own fundraisers when they generate $200,000 or more. However, Cuomo now presides over an estimated $1.7 billion deficit and a state that is “dead-last fiftieth in the nation in terms of taxes,” as Lawler said, referencing the Tax Foundation’s annual report. Simultaneously, Cuomo has been criticized from the left by his Democratic primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout, on subjects like education and immigration.

Astorino must capitalize on his political differences with Cuomo. But with only $2.4 million fundraised since his campaign started and just 47 percent name recognition as of August, he lacks the necessary resources. “When you’re in a state with 20 million people, and when you have media that too often is more concerned with entertainment than with serious policy, sometimes it’s hard to get the public’s attention,” former New York Governor George Pataki said to the HPR. Polls and common expectations for the race have therefore favored Cuomo; in an August poll, 58 percent of voters said they would reelect him.

However, legal troubles that drew significant attention during Cuomo’s primary campaign might create a serious vulnerability on which Astorino could capitalize. In 2013, Cuomo established the Moreland Commission to investigate state government corruption. Halfway into its 18-month term, it subpoenaed a consulting firm affiliated with Cuomo’s campaign and was promptly disbanded by the administration. While Cuomo claims he did not compromise the commission’s work, corruption is widely suspected. United States Attorney Preet Bharara is now investigating the commission’s closure and pursuing its unfinished cases.  “If [Bharara] is doing his job, he would recognize that it’s so important to move this case faster because the people in the state of New York are entitled to know who they’re voting for,” Carl Paladino, the 2009 Republican nominee for governor, told the HPR. As the case develops, 23 percent of registered voters say the scandal will influence their choice on Election Day. Furthermore, Teachout attempted to label corruption as among the campaign’s central issues.

Cuomo is also being targeted on other fronts including hydraulic fracking and Common Core Education, issues on which his administration has stagnated. “When voters take a close look at Andrew Cuomo’s failure to combat corruption and meaningfully address our state’s business climate, they’ll move away from him in droves,” David Laska, Communications Director of the New York State Republican Committee, said he suspects in an interview with the HPR. According to a Marist poll, Cuomo’s favorability rating dropped by five points during the scandal’s first month.

Beating Expectations in Liberal New York

New York State can be politically divided into three regions. Two of the regions, Long Island and upstate New York, are predominantly conservative; however, they are often overshadowed by the Democratic base in New York City and surrounding counties. Astorino must first introduce himself to voters in each of these regions. “There are people here in the Buffalo area who don’t even know his name,” said Paladino.

Astorino’s fundraising, meanwhile, is set to pick up considerably. In mid-July, the campaign announced $1 million in fundraising over the past four weeks, and they expect more support as voters tune into the race. Moreover, governors including Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas plan to host fundraisers for Astorino. “The latest round of polling shows some movement in our direction, and as the race heats up we expect a lot more movement,” said Laska on August 15.

Once familiar to voters, Astorino could effectively challenge Cuomo on contentious issues. After the Sandy Hook Massacre, Cuomo passed the NY Safe Act, a strict gun control bill. Proving unpopular in the state’s rural areas, this issue could help Astorino stimulate his conservative base. Another issue is the gas and oil extraction method known as fracking, which is essentially banned in New York. The Cuomo administration has stalled on the issue even though fracking could provide New York with a large economic boost. “You’ve got two huge issues–fracking and the Safe Act,” said Paladino. “They can attract people if your mission is stated properly.”

While the Astorino campaign acknowledges that the race is an uphill battle, it looks to past comeback stories. “Whether it’s George Pataki winning in New York in 1994, or Scott Brown winning in Massachusetts in 2010, or Bob Turner winning in Brooklyn and Queens in 2011, there are always opportunities to win,” said Lawler. “Like Governor Pataki did in 1994, we are building together a coalition of broad support.” Pataki, the last Republican governor of New York, was just a state senator when he upset Mario Cuomo as part of The GOP Tidal Wave of 1994. Astorino can also look to his own record for inspiration; he first became county executive by defeating an opponent who fundraised four times the money, and he won reelection against a candidate backed by Cuomo and the Clintons.

A Candidate Victim to Circumstance

Unless Astorino shakes up this race, it will likely be dictated by circumstances–New York being a liberal state that elected Cuomo with 62.6 percent of the vote–and Cuomo will continue to use his large party base and incumbency to his advantage. “Throughout these few bad weeks of press with the Moreland scandal, [Cuomo’s] been issuing press releases citing job growth [and other political successes],” Michael Johnson, managing editor of City & State, which covers New York politics, told the HPR. Cuomo’s position, offering a visibility that is difficult for challengers to match, reflects the power of incumbency.

This race also testifies to the polarization of American government. According to the Pew Research Center, the overall share of Americans with consistently liberal or conservative opinions has risen from ten to 21 percent over the past two decades. Over the same span, the share of Democrats and Republicans viewing the other party “very unfavorably” has more than doubled. With voters increasingly compelled to choose and stick to party lines, there is less room for Republicans like Astorino to effectively compete in Democratic states. Governor Pataki said this trend is detrimental to American politics. “I hope [that voters] listen to different viewpoints to respect those viewpoints and not necessarily to agree with those viewpoints, but to weigh the strength of those arguments,” he said, while offering one lesson to voters: “be open-minded and respectful of those whose views aren’t consistent with yours.”

Astorino will ultimately have to change minds to have any shot at winning. But even if he does not win this November, his political career looks promising. Using the county executive office as a springboard, Astorino could run for Congress, seek statewide office again, or even tie himself to a White House administration. In the meantime, he will need a combination of luck and smart messaging to give Cuomo a closer race than expected.

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