Populists Go Down in Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party
Though the result was closer than Andrew Cuomo would have liked, the New York governor survived a challenge from liberal Zephyr Teachout, while Rhode Island rejected labor favorites.
Candidates across the country, often insurgents with little support or money from major Democratic donors and office holders, have been fighting their better-funded establishment brethren in what the two sides see as nothing less than a battle over the soul of the Democratic Party. Will the party stand for economic populism, or will it welcome corporate and business allies? Will it strive for purity or aim for as big a tent as possible?
On Tuesday night, that battle at last came to an end, as the long 2014 primary season ended with contests up and down the ballot in four states. And although the dust has far from cleared, it appears to be an evenly fought match down to the end.
In Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, the state treasurer who rose to notoriety by slashing public pensions, will be the Democratic standard-bearer after easily defeating Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and attorney Clay Pell. Raimondo, who has drawn comparisons to Republicans Scott Walker and Chris Christie, was fiercely challenged by the state’s unions, but labor was mostly split between Pell, the scion of one of the most famous families in Rhode Island politics, and Taveras, who struggled with a lack of money.
The race laid bare a stark contrast that has been simmering in the Democratic Party for much of the year, with Raimondo’s opponents accusing her of overhauling the state’s pension funds to reward friends on Wall Street while hurting working people. But the treasurer’s relentless focus on jobs in a state that is still struggling to crawl out of the recession ended up winning the day.
Meanwhile, in a closely watched contest in New York, Andrew Cuomo easily defeated liberal law professor Zephyr Teachout. The race, however, was far closer than many observers expected, with Cuomo scoring less than 60 percent of the vote with 58 percent of precincts reporting. Teachout, with no money, no party support, and virtually no labor backing, managed to best Cuomo in much of the state, beating him in the Hudson Valley, in the Catskills, in the Albany region, and up through the North Country. Cuomo in turn was buoyed by big margins in New York City and its surrounding suburbs.
Cuomo had seemingly figured out a way to master the inner workings of Albany in his first term, delivering on-time budgets and passing liberal priorities like same-sex marriage and new restrictions on gun laws. But he had angered progressives by working to keep the state Senate in Republican control, by embracing charter schools and the Common Core education reforms, and by stalling on proposals to raise the minimum wage and tax upper-income earners.
Cuomo appeared to have a clear shot at the primary after the Working Families Party, a third party that has remade much of New York City’s government in a more progressive vein, endorsed his candidacy. But Teachout, who was lured into the race with the promise of WFP support, soldiered on, winning positive reviews from The New York Times and by left-leaning publications like The Nation.
Teachout’s candidacy was not strictly about reducing inequality, however; it also focused on corruption. That case was buoyed by a federal investigation into how Cuomo conducted a commission he created to root out Albany corruption. According to his critics, when that commission began looking into the governor’s own doings, he disbanded it.
Cuomo spent most of the summer avoiding any mention of his opponent, even at a parade over the weekend, when he appeared to pretend not to see Teachout as she tried to shake his hand. Cuomo had no victory party or speech, since he mostly insisted that he had no campaign, but he did release a statement late Tuesday night congratulating Teachout and her running mate, law professor and Internet theorist Tim Wu, for “running a spirited campaign, engaging in the democratic process and having the courage to make their voices heard.”