Just one week after he launched his bid for a full term in New York’s Governor’s Mansion, David Paterson is set to announce that he is withdrawing his candidacy at a press conference this afternoon. The New York Times’s Wednesday night bombshell would have been too much for most politicians to overcome, let alone one who has grown one of the most unpopular incumbents in the country.
The main question going forward is whether the increasingly isolated Paterson will also be forced to resign. Two days after the scandal broke, Rep. Nita Lowey is the only prominent Democrat I am aware of who suggested the governor might consider doing so. With Paterson no longer a threat to anyone’s agenda, it is possible he’ll be able to weather the storm all the way to the end of 2010; if anything, Republicans might be better off if he remains in the Governor’s Mansion than if Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch gets to start over with a clean slate. (At 76, Ravitch would be extremely unlikely to seek a full term in November.)
Paterson’s retirement means that there will be 22 open Governor’s races on the 2010 ballot - a stunningly large number.
Yet, what is most striking about today’s apparent development is how little it changes to New York’s political landscape. You would think that for the governor of the country’s third most populous state to announce he was dropping his re-election bid would have colossal repercussions, but I am hard-pressed to think of what substantial change Paterson’s decision might have on New York politics other than remove the faint possibility Andrew Cuomo might have still grown scared of running for Governor and the possibility that a racially charged confrontation weigh down the entire Democratic ticket in the fall.
Paterson’s withdrawal clears the way for Cuomo to not only run but to secure the Democratic nod in undramatic fashion: It’s hard to see who would even want to challenge the state’s uber-popular Attorney General, let alone threaten him. (There are after all seven months left until Election Day, and New York is a difficult state in which to mount a statewide campaign; while Cuomo had yet to declare a bid, he was transparently putting together the infrastructure he would need to do so. The latest reports suggest Cuomo will now accelerate his timetable, but only by advancing his announcement date from April to mid-March.)
It also removes some of the GOP’s only hopes that they might have a shot at recapturing the Governor’s Mansion: Not only will Paterson not be the Democratic nominee (the latest poll found him trailing Rick Lazio), but Cuomo will move to the general election unscathed. Republicans would already have faced an uphill climb had Cuomo beat Paterson after months of suffering brutal attacks from the governor’s allies; how can they beat him now that he will likely have no trouble unifying the state’s Democratic Party? As I noted yesterday, they can hardly hope for Cuomo to turn into the second coming of Martha Coakley, despite the fact the two hold the same position in their respective states; Cuomo is a very well-known politician, and whatever the red wave it’ll be harder for a low-profile opponent to mount a financially competitive campaign in a large state like New York.
It is not just the GOP’s gubernatorial dreams that could be damaged by Paterson’s withdrawal and Cuomo’s emergence as the clear front-runner: For the Attorney General to become the state’s most prominent Democrat over the next nine months and for him to win a landslide victory in November should impact down-ballot races. Republicans have won a string of electoral victories in the Empire State in recent months, making them confident that the electorate’s discontent towards Democrats is particularly strong in New York. Since all polls show Cuomo is the one Democrat who has been left unscathed by Albany’s mess, he should protect his party from some of the brewing backlash by arguing that his coming-to-power is in itself the type of change voters are looking for.
Whether this saves Democrats’ majority in the state Senate remains to be seen, but the party should have an easier time defending its positions in the state legislature and also in the U.S. House (the NRCC has had high hopes for New York, since it is targeting Reps. Hall, Murphy, Arcuri, Owens, Maffei and Massa. The special elections in NY-20 and NY-23 showed that state Democrats remain solid). Similarly, it is harder to envision Bruce Blakeman gaining traction in the Senate race if Kirsten Gillibrand shares the top of the ticket with Andrew Cuomo, though all bets are off if George Pataki jumps in.
(Note: I will be heading out for much of the day, so if Paterson proves all of the New York press wrong at his 3pm press conference, I will not be be able to update this post. And I would not rule this out as a possibility: How many times did the press get it wrong about New York in the past year? Where are Senator Caroline Kennedy and Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani? Update: He didn’t. Paterson is retiring.)