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Kathy Hochul Wins the Invisible Primary
Tish James dropping out clears the way for New York's first female governor
On Thursday afternoon, a surprise message came from the Letitia James for governor campaign. “I have come to the conclusion that I must continue my work as attorney general,” James said in a statement. “There are a number of important investigations and cases that are underway, and I intend to finish the job I am running for re-election to complete the work New Yorkers elected me to do.”
With that, Kathy Hochul’s greatest obstacle to remaining governor of New York vanished. James, who was elected attorney general in 2018, consistently polled second to Hochul and had the potential to build a coalition that could undercut the new governor. A former city elected official, James has a base in working-class Black Brooklyn and Queens that is crucial for any candidate running statewide. Her office’s investigations effectively ended Andrew Cuomo’s political career, verifying sexual harassment allegations against him and exposing how his administration covered up Covid deaths in nursing homes.
James will say she bowed out of the governor’s race because she enjoys her work as attorney general and wants to remain there. That can be true. While AG in New York is sometimes derided as standing for “aspiring governor”—Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer both used it as a launching pad to the governor’s mansion—the office itself is incredibly influential, with a huge national portfolio. James, like her predecessor Eric Schneiderman, has sued the Trump administration and won several high-profile cases. It is not a bad place to be and James can have the perch as long as she wants it.
But the reality here is that Hochul, who only became governor in August after Cuomo resigned, crushed James in the so-called invisible primary. Though the concept has lost resonance on the national level since Donald Trump bull-rushed the Republican establishment on his way to becoming president in 2016, the invisible primary matters greatly in most local contexts, particularly in Democratic Party politics. Before candidates face voters, they must jockey behind-the-scenes to lock up support from donors, elected officials, labor unions, party leaders, and other important functionaries. These top-down forces matter less and less in presidential contests where online fundraising and celebrity are essential ingredients for a successful primary campaign.
Locally, however, they are everything, especially when the campaigns are expensive and cover a great deal of terrain. Hochul led James comfortably in every publicly available poll and banked more than $11 million for her run next year. James, a historically poor fundraiser, would have to find a way to catch up. In politics, there is an expression that early money is like yeast—it makes the dough rise. Early money begets late money. Wealthy donors are usually transactional and want to back politicians they will need to do business with in the future. They can’t extract favors from losers and they don’t want to be alienated from winners. It is likely that the large labor unions of the state, as transactional as they come, told James that they were leaning toward Hochul because Hochul looked like a surer bet. As close as James is to a lot of unions, their leaders are not going to stick their necks out for a candidate who is struggling to rise in the polls. It’s possible too that incoming Mayor Eric Adams was more willing to back Hochul than James, hurting her in Brooklyn.
I know something about invisible primaries because I competed in one and lost. In late 2017 and most of 2018, I took a break from my writing career to run for State Senate in Brooklyn. It was an odd, exhilarating experience, one of those things I am glad I did but will never attempt again. I ran in a Democratic primary to face a Republican, Marty Golden, who would eventually lose to the candidate that beat me. Though I campaigned, in every way, as an anti-establishment progressive, I made aggressive attempts to win the backing of labor unions, elected officials, and political clubs. I spent many hours puzzling over how to assemble these kinds of inside-out coalitions. There were a few successes, but I lost big where it counted. All the large labor unions backed my opponent and sent mail to their members in the district. Most elected officials sided with him. This made sense because he had run before and I hadn’t. And what was this journalist doing, Norman Mailer-style, in a State Senate race? On primary day, he took 58 percent of the vote and I had 42 percent. That was that.
James had another problem though, beyond Hochul outflanking her with donors and various party insiders: the campaign lacked clear messaging. Despite being in the race for more than a month, James had never made a compelling pitch to voters. She had not argued, publicly enough, either in favor of herself or for dumping Hochul. So far, Hochul has been an energetic, genial presence in the state, and she won’t really be tested until the budget season next year. In the interim, she has done what any smart person in her position would do—make friends and duck controversy. For James to overcome Hochul, she would need show voters, very clearly, that she had an exciting, far-reaching vision for New York State. That was never apparent.
What now? Jumaane Williams, who recently announced his own bid for governor, has a clearer lane as the sole Black politician from Brooklyn. Previously, I argued Williams should run for lieutenant governor instead, a safer bet against a much weaker opponent. I still think that’s true. Williams, the public advocate, will have more room to fundraise and accumulate support with James gone, but it’s not clear how he can overcome Hochul’s massive fundraising advantage.
On one hand, he will be in a stronger place than Cynthia Nixon in 2018 because he can make inroads in neighborhoods like East Flatbush, East New York, and Southeast Queens where Cuomo ran up huge margins. On the other, these voters are not guaranteed to Williams because he is Black. Working-class and older voters in these neighborhoods tend to side with incumbents. Hochul, like Cuomo, has become a regular on the church circuit, and longtime homeowners in Laurelton or Jamaica may decide they’d rather choose stability than another leftist insurgent. Against Hochul in 2018—she was then a little-known Buffalo Democrat seeking re-election as lieutenant governor—Williams did quite well. But Hochul is a very different contender now. If the unions with huge membership rolls in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx all side with Hochul, it’s hard to see what kind of path to victory Williams really has.
Other candidates may stick it out or choose to enter the fray. Bill de Blasio will feel emboldened, though how he overcomes his deep unpopularity in the suburbs is unclear. Tom Suozzi, the Long Island congressman, may still decide to forge on. Other Democrats could try their luck. All of them will have the same challenge: raising millions of dollars to compete against an incumbent who is, for now, well-liked enough. It’s possible we will remember December 9th, 2021 as the day Kathy Hochul effectively locked up another four years in office.