New York Democrats have a big problem unless they wake up to the governor’s primary.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, who stepped into the post after Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned, has a job rating so low it makes President Joe Biden look good. So she may be leading in the primary but is a real vulnerability in the general election. She appears to be unelectable and will send the state right into Republican hands if she heads the ticket this fall.
Hochul’s job rating is 36% approve, 57% disapprove, about 5 points lower in New York state than Biden’s national rating of about 42%. She received a 69% negative rating on crime and a 63% negative rating on economic issues — the two most important concerns facing New York voters.
In 40 years of polling New York state elected officials, I can’t recall ratings this low for a governor. Even when Cuomo was in effect ousted he had better ratings than this.
These low ratings have been masked by the fact that when she inherited the job with Cuomo’s resignation, her name recognition soared. Democrats and the press welcomed her as the first woman governor, who could save the state from the Cuomo tailspin.
But she has had a fair chance to show her stuff as governor, and the results have turned New York voters off. During the pandemic she launched an all-out blitz not against COVID but for her own fundraising, going aggressively after those with an interest in state contracts, even using the state plane to hop around from one undisclosed meeting to another. She has yet to release her travel records despite her promise of transparency. This unseemly fundraising during the height of the pandemic fostered an image of a culture of corruption.
Then, when crime in the state escalated and story after story came out of criminals released under the state’s new bail laws, she stood by idly, eventually proposing only modest reforms. On crime, she has been a follower not a leader.
This was topped by the arrest in a bribery scandal of her handpicked Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who was charged with steering state funds to a real-estate developer who had him on the payroll. Every insider in New York knew he was under an ethical cloud, but Hochul promoted him to lieutenant governor anyway. She ignored all the warnings and just a day before his arrest defended him.
Then voters got to see questionable deals in the state budget, increasing the scrutiny of the interim governor. Hochul pushed through a subsidy of a billion dollars in taxpayer funding for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, the most expensive deal in NFL history and one that benefits the Florida-based Bills owner. Voters oppose this boondoggle by 63% to 24% in the Siena poll.
One area in which she has led is state spending, with a whopping $220 billion budget that contains program expansions that will likely lead to tax increases in future years if left unchecked. And none of this spending addresses the systemic challenge of high income taxes and high property taxes that are driving New Yorkers to Florida and other lower-tax states.
Republicans are locked in a primary, though Rep. Lee Zeldin is the front-runner. He would bring with him a strong suburban and upstate vote. He is generally a straight shooter who has worked his way up the ladder from military service through the state Senate to Congress. He is not as well-known as Hochul today so head-to-head polling won’t reflect the full weakness of the interim governor that would come out in a general election.
Rep. Tom Suozzi is largely unknown in New York but is Hochul’s only potentially competitive Democratic challenger. In a general election, he could run against the Albany corruption machine and has centrist positions on crime and taxes that would be hard for the Republican to beat, given the Democratic bent of the state. He is also strongly pro-choice.
Primary turnout could be light, given its June date and because wrangling over redistricting means other primaries will held separately. But it probably will be the most important primary for the state’s future. Debates and endorsements are fast approaching, and only now are Hochul’s problems coming to light.
Yet the hidden issue is that the Democratic primary for governor, unlike the one for New York City mayor, won’t be tantamount to election. If the winner emerges with only a 37% job approval, it may well be a handover of the governorship to Republicans.
Mark Penn is chairman of the Harris Poll and polled for Bill and Hillary Clinton for 13 years and for Ed Koch.