In New York, Zephyr Teachout's Loss to Cuomo Still Feels Like a Win

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In New York, Zephyr Teachout's Loss to Cuomo Still Feels Like a Win

'We weren't supposed to win 1 county, let alone over 20 counties,' said the insurgent Democratic Primary challenger. 'I hope this is the beginning of a new fearless force.'

Zephyr Teachout (left), primary candidate for the Democratic nomination for New York governor, and her running mate Tim Wu (right), who challenged for lieutenant governor. Though they both lost at the polls on Tuesday, that fact does not tell explain why many think their campaigns are actually a success story. (Photo: Gregg Vigliotti / New York Daily News)

The primary challenge of Zephyr Teachout against Gov. Andrew Cuomo ended in a rather sound defeat on Tuesday, her supporters and progressive observers are treating her run for New York governor as a victory for the growing populist surge that is taking place both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

According to the New York Times on Wednesday, results showed that with "85 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Cuomo had 60.7 percent of the vote, compared with 35.5 percent for Ms. Teachout."

Despite the quite clear victory for the incumbent Gov. Cuomo, the rise of Teachout—a law professor at Fordham University and political organizer who ran on an anti-corruption platform while railing against the power of Wall Street banks and a "rigged" political system—has many progressives arguing that her populist message is the key to future victories at the ballot box.

As the New York Daily News reports:

It was a decisive victory for Cuomo, but Teachout’s showing was far better than anyone expected when she jumped into the race, a law school professor with a bare-bones campaign who had never run for office.

She tried to capitalize on liberals' unhappiness with some of Cuomo’s centrist policies, including his business-friendly tax-cuts and refusal to rule out hydrofracking, a controversial natural gas drilling technique. She also criticized his dismantling of an anti-corruption commission.

By corralling more than one in three votes, Teachout did far better than little-known challengers running protest candidacies in previous statewide races - and likely put a dent in any dreams Cuomo might have of running for national office one day.

And The Nation's Sarah Jaffe writes:

No, Teachout didn't beat the incumbent governor with the $35 million war chest, but she took nearly 35 percent of the vote Tuesday night, enough to leave a sizable gash in his left flank and do some permanent damage to his hopes of running for national office one day. She won nearly the entire Hudson Valley, a swath of the middle of the state, and even got 54 percent of the vote in far north St. Lawrence County, according to The New York Times’s election results maps. She took over 10,000 votes in the state’s capital, Albany County, compared to just over 6,000 for the governor. The 62.1 percent of the vote Cuomo garnered is among the poorer performances by an incumbent governor running for re-election in primaries since 2002—a figure that hovers somewhere between the tenth and fifteenth percentile of victory margins, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's pretty bad—the median percentage by which a governor won re-nomination was over 90 percent.

We should all hope too that Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu, did significant damage to the narrative of inevitability that hovered around Cuomo and that clings to far too many elected officials and candidates for office.

During her concession speech in front of supporters late on Tuesday, Teachout said: "This campaign demonstrates the rise of a new force in New York politics and American politics."

Later, she tweeted:

Independent journalist Matt Stoller—who both covered the Teachout campaign and volunteered for it—argues that given the inequities in name recongition, powerful endorsements, and campaign money-spent, the results make clear that Teachout's message alone was enough to earn the challenger many more votes than expected while cutting deeply into Cuomo's base of support. Stoller argues:

Cuomo won for one reason — his opponent had no name ID, and he spent between $11M and $15M on this election. Money in politics is used to talk to voters through mail and TV. Without it, you are mute. Zephr Teachout didn’t do one piece of mail, or a single TV ad. There was a lot of evidence that primary voters, when given a light persuasion message, flipped to Teachout. She got a big chunk of the vote without spending very much at all. But there was no money to deliver such a message. Given a bit more money, or a bit more time, the outcome would have been different. To put it another way, Cuomo paid roughly $48 for every vote he got, where Zephyr paid roughly $2.70. That’s a very big differential, in terms of the power of the messaging. If Zephyr had had a bit more money, she could have easily won.

What's possibly more important about the Teachout-Wu challenge to the more centrist and elite-controlled Democratic leaderhsip that Cuomo exemplifies, writes Stoller, is that their insurgent campaign was the first this campaign season to show "that there’s real dissent within the party, over big stuff. "

As the New Yorker's John Cassidy describes, the final primary outcome was both an embarrassment to Cuomo, a darling of the liberal-elite establishment, but equally telling about the strength of the message put forth by Teachout and Wu:

The strong showing by Teachout and Wu was a victory for progressive voters who warmed to their message about tackling rising inequality, political corruption, and corporate abuses. It was also a rejection of Cuomo’s economic philosophy, which led him to introduce a series of tax cuts for the rich, at the same time that he cut the state budgets for education and social services. I’d be willing to wager that most Democrats who voted against Cuomo objected more to his policies than to his personality.

Teachout and Wu’s insurgent campaigns gave voice to this sentiment. Eschewing the etiquette of internal party discourse, Teachout accused Cuomo of governing as a Republican, acting as a shill for the big banks and other campaign contributors, and being part of a “corrupt old boys’ club” in Albany. Making full use of social media and appearances in more traditional media, she demonstrated that, even in this day and age, a candidate with a real message doesn’t necessarily need the support of the party apparatus, or the financial backing of big donors, to have an impact.

 Expressing his assessment that Teachout's bid for governor should be considered at least a symbolic victory for the message , Peter Rothberg of The Nation, who endorsed the campaign, tweeted:

As Jaffe concluded, the implications go far beyond New York politics:

... regardless of how the general election script plays out, progressives around the country should take inspiration from what Teachout and Wu achieved in little more than two months, with pennies to Cuomo’s dollars. Perhaps in places like Chicago, where Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis may be gearing up to challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel, local officials and unions will look at what happened here and realize that no one is unbeatable.

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