What has Cuomo got planned for Rob Astorino?

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Rob Astorino. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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Blake Zeff

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If Andrew Cuomo could have chosen any opponent to face this November, it probably wouldn’t have been Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.

Astorino, a Republican, has broad backing from his party’s establishment and, despite a threatened run from Donald Trump (who always threatens and never runs), looks to be well positioned to get his party’s nomination.

Cuomo won’t actually be worried about losing—he's broadly popular, has got $33 million tucked away, and is a Democrat in a state that hasn't elected a statewide Republican since before the Iraq war.

But he wants to win big, to show a national audience his political prowess. And for a Republican Party that's recently run nominees like Joe DioGuardi, Jay Townsend, and Wendy Long for U.S. Senate—not to mention Carl Paladino for governor—Astorino is a different kind of candidate: He’s plausible.

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Unlike the aforementioned recent party nominees, he actually holds public office and has a base. He can appeal to the politically crucial suburbs that have often served as a battleground area in the state. His prominence in wealthy Westchester suggests he may have access to some campaign cash. And he's demographically suited to play to white ethnic voters and maybe to voters upstate.

For Cuomo the goal remains the same: to achieve a Schumeresque margin of victory, and win as many counties as possible to show that he can appeal to voters far from liberal New York City. To that end, there will be some factors within Cuomo’s control and some that aren’t.

Expect Cuomo, directly and through surrogates, to hammer Astorino for opposing abortion, which no successful statewide New York Republican has done in decades. This tactic, in this state, is a no-brainer. It’s why we’ve already seen Cuomo surrogates highlighting the position.

These criticisms will be accompanied by an old-fashioned oppo dump. It’s hard to predict what kinds of vulnerabilities Team Cuomo will excavate, but be sure that every picayune vote Astorino cast as an obscure county legislator will now be plumbed as if it were the sole determinant of world peace. Every contribution will be examined, as will every document he’s signed. The goal: see if a taste of unpleasant headlines is enough to drive him out of the race early (like Anthony Weiner, who exited the 2009 mayor’s race after Team Bloomberg assaulted him with bad headlines). 

Another way Cuomo can buttress his reelection is what you might call the Reverse Pataki. In 2002, the then-G.O.P. governor created an air of bipartisan inevitability by highlighting a few choice Democratic endorsements he called “Democrats for Pataki.” Mostly these were people no one had heard of, or who were well known but had been out of the game for a while (like Ed Koch and Hugh Carey). But the message was clear: Here was a leader everyone was rallying around. Similarly, Cuomo has wooed the business community and other fiscal moderates for his entire first term, resisting a millionaire’s tax while cutting public services. So don’t be surprised to see him trot out a few Republican endorsements.

And Cuomo can starve Astorino of resources. Here the governor might borrow a page from Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire mayor obviously never needed to raise money for his campaigns, but he did find something else to ask of wealthy donors: that they simply refrain from giving to his opponent.

Cuomo’s no billionaire, but he’s already raised enough money to spend himself silly; he really doesn’t need any more. What he desperately wants is to make sure Astorino cannot come close to approaching parity. So, if there are donors who don’t want to give to him, that's fine. They can be pals as long as they don't give to Astorino, either.

But whatever tactics Cuomo uses to run up the score, he’ll also be dependent to a significant extent on the actions of other players.

State Conservative Party chair Mike Long, for example. One of the myriad problems facing statewide Republicans in New York races is that if they don't also have the Conservative line, they'll end up splitting their vote totals with whoever does, handing the Democrat a huge win. Fred Dicker reported Monday that Long is ready to give Astorino the line. If that’s the case, it’s a setback for Cuomo, at least in terms of the opportunity cost.

Then there’s the rest of the anti-Cuomo vote, the bloc opposing him from the left, or threatening to. The Working Families Party was essentially forced to back the governor in 2010, when it faced legal troubles, and risked losing its ballot placement if its candidate failed to net 50,000 votes. But the party has since been strengthened, and could theoretically field a Cuomo alternative and easily survive. More likely the party will seek to use its strength to compel Cuomo to make concessions. But either way, it's a factor Cuomo didn't have to deal with in 2010. 

Another key element over which Cuomo has little control is the Republican primary, which as far as the governor is concerned ought to be as long and divisive as possible. While Astorino is in fact a decent candidate, and G.O.P. leader Ed Cox has contributed thousands to his campaign, he isn’t the nominee yet. As unlikely as Trump is to follow through on his attention-seeking threats to run, he does have the ability to delay Astorino’s challenge merely by hanging around, depriving the more likely Republican candidate of oxygen and free media coverage. And beyond Trump, there’s another loud businessman, 2010 G.O.P. nominee Carl Paladino, who’s suggested he might step in against Astorino if Trump bows out.

If Cuomo can end up with Republicans battling each other for months, while he sits on the sidelines—essentially a repeat of 2010, when Cuomo ran unopposed, while Rick Lazio and Paladino fought—he can shave months off of his actual campaigning, save his money for a final spending spree, and face a battered opponent in November. Plus he can potentially filibuster questions about the campaign by saying Cuomoesque things like, “The time for politics is later. We’re still waiting for the Republicans to sort their side out.”

If all goes according to plan, Cuomo will end the race having defined himself as a bipartisan problem-solver and his opponent a marginal extremist. But to achieve a victory on the scale he’s looking for, he’ll need some help from political schemers whose agendas are very different from his own.