During the Democratic primary campaign for New York Governor, incumbent Andrew Cuomo barely mentioned challenger Zephyr Teachout’s name. He refused to debate her, even turned his back on her when she attempted to greet him at the Labor Day parade.
It is unlikely, though, that he’ll ever forget her name now.
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.
There is something fundamentally undemocratic about the idea that some people are simply unbeatable, that it is useless to try, that the best that we can hope for is to endorse them in the hope of getting a seat at the table. And yet over and over again we see people, even political activists and organizers whose very job is to attempt to make change, acceding to the notion that this or that elected is too powerful, has too many connections, has just too much money. We see the media narrative repeated and then echoed over and over again, because the mainstream press loves nothing so much as conventional wisdom. Never mind that not a single public poll on the governor’s race came out before Election Day.
“Why would you ever leave a primary unchallenged if you thought there were some deep failures in an incumbent?” Teachout told me when I profiled her for The Nation last month. She knew she was a long shot, but preferred to consider herself an underdog rather than a protest candidate; Teachout and Wu wanted to win and ran as if that was a possibility, even if their opponents preferred to think and act otherwise.