Elections

The Republican Running against Andrew Cuomo

Marc Molinaro in Binghamton in July (Campaign image/Twitter)
Is Marc Molinaro an underdog? Or a sacrificial lamb?

Governor Andrew Cuomo has called him a “Trump mini-me” — “anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ.”

Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive and Republican candidate for governor of New York, takes this in stride. When I ask him about it, he shrugs and quotes Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”

Focusing on moral character and personal integrity seems important to Molinaro’s campaign, which is striving against considerable odds to win the governorship in a state that has not sent a Republican to the executive mansion since 2002. But if any Republican can achieve that goal, Molinaro says, he’s the man for the job. He was brought up on food stamps, he says, and had to grow up fast. When I suggest that such government support could have sent him in a Democratic direction, he replies that, on the contrary, it taught him the value of hard work and achievement, the refrains of the Republican playbook: that he needed to take the support he had been given and make something of it, and therefore of himself. Limited government, he says, can be helpful in overcoming poverty and societal hardship — but help is synergistic, and the individual then has to use what he was given to surmount the worst obstacles himself.

He considers himself a pragmatist, a middle-of-the-road Republican who can work with political rivals to, say, make sure the garbage gets picked up. He’s a social moderate: He supports gay marriage (“I’ve evolved” since voting against it in 2011, he says — “like Barack Obama, like Hillary Clinton, like Andrew Cuomo”) and considers abortion law a settled issue in New York (although “there are certain lines I just can’t cross,” such as late-term abortions). He adds that he can build the relationships necessary to work across the aisle, with Democrats including New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, and that he will listen to everyone who disagrees with him — from the left and from the right. He points to Cuomo’s June 2014 remarks that “extreme conservatives . . . have no place in New York” as proof that working across the aisle is something that the current governor simply cannot do.

When I suggest that Molinaro is proposing to govern in the mold of such popular New England Republican governors as Charlie Baker and Phil Scott, he agrees, but he balks when I suggest that previous New York Republican candidates, such as Carl Paladino (2010) and Rob Astorino (2014), had proposed much the same thing. “I’m my own person,” he insists; he doesn’t want to be compared with anyone else, and he believes that the voters will respond to his personal record and character, not the “R” after his name. But he does say that a major difference between Cuomo’s previous gubernatorial campaigns and this one is that voters know Cuomo — and, according to Molinaro, know Cuomo’s wrongdoings as well.

He is telling New Yorkers that that he is a practical Republican who wants to get things done, in contrast to an often bellicose governor whom many see as setting up for a 2020 presidential run.

He calls the governor a “magician” who performs showy theater, fails to deal with New York’s real problems, and instead creates new corruption scandals of his own: campaign cash, the Buffalo Billion, the Moreland Commission. When I offer that New Yorkers may not even know of all of these scandals, he replies that New Yorkers have come to see the “culture of corruption” that Cuomo has built up.

But have they? Molinaro is polling at only 23 percent to Cuomo’s 43 percent, according to the last Quinnipiac poll; two-thirds of voters say they don’t know anything about the Republican candidate. But he sees the low numbers as an opportunity rather than a challenge. After the Democratic primary between Cuomo and actress Cynthia Nixon (who won the Working Families Party nomination in April), voters will look around, he believes, for an “anyone-but-Cuomo” candidate.

Molinaro does not deny that he is the underdog in Democratic New York — but is he really the sacrificial lamb? He is telling New Yorkers that that he is a practical Republican who wants to get things done, in contrast to an often bellicose governor whom many see as setting up for a 2020 presidential run. When I ask him what message he most wants voters to hear, Molinaro says that while he knows it’s a cliché, it’s “I’ve been where you are. I care.” The question is whether such a message will resonate in New York in 2018.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended to clarify Molinaro’s stance on abortion.

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