Andrew Cuomo, meet Martha Coakley. Or at least, pay close attention.
Cuomo, New York’s attorney general and son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, was considered a shoo-in to win the governorship in November. Despite a slew of scandals involving the current and previous Democratic governors, Cuomo is still popular with voters and seemed destined to avoid the throw-the-bums-out mood dominating so many political contests. And New York is a reliably Democratic state.
Sound familiar? Coakley, Massachusetts’s Democratic attorney general, was overwhelmingly favored to take the Senate seat vacated by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The media did the obligatory profiles of GOP nominee Scott Brown, but did not hammer him with the force more competitive candidates endure. Hardly anyone thought he had a chance--until he handily beat Coakley in the special election and deprived Senate Democrats, in theory, at least, of the 60th vote they needed to overcome filibusters.
Now, a recent poll--by the very credible Quinnipiac operation--shows Cuomo just six points ahead of GOP nominee Carl Paladino, a controversial upstate New York businessman who hadn’t even been expected to beat favorite Rick Lazio for the Republican nod. Paladino is backed overwhelmingly by people who identify themselves as Tea Party movement supporters.
A more recent poll, released Wednesday by the Siena Research Institute, assigns Cuomo the overwhelming advantage he had enjoyed earlier in the race, putting Cuomo ahead of Paladino 57 percent to 24 percent. Lazio, running on the Conservative Party line, attracts 8 percent of voter support.
It would be easy to dismiss the Quinnipiac survey as a post-primary bump, an aberration. Paladino, after all, has problems Brown didn’t face, including forwarding smutty and racist E-mails (including one that depicted an African tribal ritual as an Obama inauguration rehearsal) and fathering a child with an employee with whom he was having an affair. Paladino also has made some ill-mannered remarks, including accusing Cuomo of lacking manhood for failing to commit to a debate schedule.
And Cuomo is not Coakley. As a former secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing advocate, and assistant to his then-first-term governor father, Cuomo has developed some political skills. Certainly, he would not take a vacation in the middle of a campaign.
But if there is any lesson to be learned from Coakley’s loss, it is that no candidate can take voters for granted--not even if his or her opponent seems unelectable. Polls don't always reflect the actual show-up-at-the-polls type of voter--just as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was way ahead in polls, lost her GOP primary to Joe Miller.
Cuomo is still a good bet to win, especially since Lazio’s Conservative Party bid will siphon off some GOP voters. But the attorney general can’t count on New York Democrats--already deeply angry with the performance of their leaders in Albany--to show up to keep Paladino out of office. Paladino’s adolescent letter to Cuomo (or “Andrew,” as Paladino inappropriately addressed him), demanded that the attorney general “be a man. Come out and debate like a man ... Frankly, I don’t think you have the cojones to face me and the other candidates in an open debate.”
Not the dignity or maturity one would expect from someone who wants to run the state. But Cuomo, unfortunately, must take him seriously.