Sex and the City actress and activist Cynthia Nixon is running for governor of New York, staging a high-profile Democratic primary challenge against two-term incumbent Andrew Cuomo.
Nixon’s announcement has been teased for months, but she made it official on Monday with the release of her first campaign ad.
“I love New York,” Nixon says in the ad. “I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. But something has to change. We want our government to work again, on health care, ending mass incarceration, fixing our broken subway. We are sick of politicians who care more about headlines and power than they do about us.”
Nixon, 51, hasn’t previously held public office, and while she’s probably still best known for playing lawyer Miranda Hobbes on the HBO series Sex and the City, she has been a longtime activist on progressive issues. She’s pushed for LGBT rights, and she’s also a vocal education advocate, calling for increased funding for public schools. She is also a prominent supporter of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — who just so happens to have a public feud with Cuomo — and Nixon’s wife worked for de Blasio’s administration in the Department of Education before recently stepping down.
So Nixon’s foray into politics isn’t totally shocking, but it’s sure to shake up the governor’s race. She’ll likely be challenging Cuomo from the left, where he’s perceived as being somewhat vulnerable. It doesn’t help that Cuomo’s former aide was just convicted on federal bribery charges. Nixon has also honed in — in her ad, and on her website — on the beleaguered New York subway system, a source of mounting frustration for downstate voters.
Cuomo might also not just be looking toward 2018 — he’s rumored to be thinking of a 2020 presidential run. A strong primary challenger could interrupt his plans. At the same time, he has a commanding lead in polls taken right before Nixon announced her candidacy, and a hefty campaign war chest.
Nixon is a potentially history-making candidate — if elected, she’d be New York’s first woman governor, and the second openly bisexual governor of any state (after Kate Brown of Oregon). And she’s already inspired quite a few memes.
Tfw you gotta move to Albany pic.twitter.com/xWqkMYw6SQ— nuanced opinion guy (@charles_kinbote) March 19, 2018
Does Nixon have a chance?
Nixon officially jumped into the governor’s race on Monday. Though she didn’t mention the governor by name in her first campaign ad, she called out the state’s “leaders for failing us,” saying New York was the most “unequal state” in the country.
Nixon’s candidacy rattles what would otherwise have been a pretty sleepy Democratic primary. Nixon is also going on the attack against Cuomo from the left, where he’s most vulnerable. In a statement, Nixon’s campaign called the governor a “centrist and Albany insider,” referring to New York’s capital.
At the same time, Cuomo is a two-term incumbent, and the son of a famous three-term New York governor. In 2014, then-little known professor and activist Zephyr Teachout staged a strong primary challenge against Cuomo and won about a third of the vote. Teachout has already endorsed Nixon, and is working for her campaign as treasurer:
I support Cynthia Nixon.— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) March 19, 2018
She's a long time education activist who rides the subway every day, opposes the IDC, is fearless and strong, supports single payer, speaks out against big money in politics. She will be a great Governor of our amazing state. https://t.co/Fc1CvKzgyr
Teachout did particularly well upstate, focusing on the economy there and on her opposition to fracking, which became a big issue in the race. (Cuomo banned fracking in New York shortly after he won reelection, so it’s no longer an issue.) Cuomo has also moved to the left since, endorsing progressive policies such as free college tuition.
Teachout was largely unknown before her campaign — unlike Nixon, though name recognition often comes with baggage. Yet it’s also worth noting primary turnout in 2014 was extremely low; whether that changes in 2018 with renewed Democratic enthusiasm is an open question months out.
Nixon also appears to be making New York City’s transit woes a big campaign issue, with the tab “#CuomosMTA” in a prominent spot on her campaign website. Cuomo’s gotten flak for focusing on flashy infrastructure projects (literally flashy) as the subway melts into disrepair. “Unlike Governor Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon rides the subway every day,” her website says. “She understands first-hand the toll that his disastrous mismanagement of the MTA is taking on everyday New Yorkers.”
Nixon’s candidacy also adds a little side drama to the ongoing dispute between Albany and City Hall. Cuomo and de Blasio are often at odds, which has played out in ways ridiculous (R.I.P. Harlem deer) and serious (subways, homelessness.) De Blasio helped Cuomo secure the backing of the Working Families Party in 2014 after a split with liberal activists, but because he’s a Nixon ally, things might be different this time around.
Even Cuomo, when asked by reporters whether de Blasio was pushing Nixon’s political aspirations, recently joked: “I think it was probably either the mayor of New York or Vladimir Putin,” he said. “I’m going to leave it to you great investigative reporters to follow the facts and ferret out the truth.”
The governor’s campaign was a little more sanguine in a statement Monday afternoon — and touted his progressive credentials. “It’s great that we live in a democracy where anyone can run for office,” the campaign statement read. “Governor Cuomo has delivered more real progressive wins than any other Democrat in the country, including passing marriage equality, the strongest gun safety law in the nation, a $15 minimum wage, free college tuition, paid family leave, record setting funding for public education, expanding and protecting healthcare for our most vulnerable, and banning fracking.”
Cuomo campaign's statement on Nixon's plans to run: pic.twitter.com/8OdejYNaH8— Laura Nahmias (@nahmias) March 19, 2018
While Nixon’s candidacy makes things interesting, Cuomo still has a very clear advantage. He’s the two-term incumbent and son of a famous three-term governor. He has a sizable war chest at $30 million, reports the New York Times. He’s a vocal Trump critic at a time New Yorkers might be wary of a celebrity president and governor.
Cuomo has a decent approval rating — he’s at 52 percent, even with the conviction of his former aide. And, in the very early stages, he has an outsized lead over Nixon. A Sienna College poll taken before Nixon’s campaign announcement found that Cuomo leads Nixon among Democratic voters by an overwhelming 66 to 19 percent. (Cuomo also maintains a substantial edge in general-election matchups versus the two Republican candidates.)
Nixon’s entrance into the New York governor’s race also has national implications. Cuomo, it’s long been rumored, has presidential aspirations in 2020. A defeat in a gubernatorial primary would probably quash those ambitions, but a substantial challenge could leave him vulnerable, too.
Nixon also isn’t Cuomo’s only Democratic primary challenger; former state Sen. Terry Gipson is mounting a bid. So is Randy Credico, a comedian who’s had a few failed political attempts in New York, and has been linked to the Russia probe.
The New York primary will be held September 13. Until then, get ready for a lot of Sex and the City jokes.
“...I couldn’t help but wonder...could Miranda fix the subway? Or was it me that needed fixing?” pic.twitter.com/xpE9EjSqqp— Dami Lee (@dami_lee) March 19, 2018
Correction: A previous version of this article said Nixon would be the first openly gay governor of New York (or any state), but Nixon, who is married to a woman, identifies as bisexual.