Just last week, Governor Kathy Hochul and her running mate steamrolled their opposition, easily winning the Democratic primaries for governor and lieutenant governor in New York. Hochul captured 68 percent of the vote and Antonio Delgado, her recent pick for lieutenant governor, won 61 percent, finishing far ahead of rivals on the left and right. While the most conservative Democrats ran the furthest behind, it was an anemic showing for the progressive ticket, which has failed once more to win a statewide election.
Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, entered the governor’s race last year to much fanfare, after passing up a chance to run for mayor. Williams is one of the rising stars of New York politics, a Black progressive who has built multiracial coalitions and forged close relationships with leftists and moderates alike. Formidable enough to have won the mayoral race if he had deigned to oppose Eric Adams, Williams instead opted to run statewide for a second time, hoping to build on a surprisingly strong showing in 2018, when he ran for lieutenant governor and came within 10 points of defeating Hochul, who was then Andrew Cuomo’s little-known running mate.
The Working Families Party quickly endorsed Williams, as they did four years ago, and waited a while before recruiting a running mate into the race, the prominent activist Ana María Archila. Archila began campaigning in March and briefly appeared to have a strong chance of winning after Brian Benjamin, Hochul’s lieutenant governor, was indicted on corruption charges. To dump Benjamin from the ballot, Hochul strong-armed the state legislature into changing the election law. Democrats in Albany acquiesced to Hochul and she got a much better replacement: Delgado, a battle-tested Hudson Valley congressman. Once Delgado joined Hochul’s ticket, Archila’s odds of winning plummeted. The Working Families Party, which oversaw the Williams and Archila campaigns, had no counterattack.
The greatest challenge for any statewide left-wing campaign in New York is money. Local campaign finance laws are shockingly lax, allowing wealthy donors, corporations, and large labor unions to dominate elections. Individual donors can donate tens of thousands of dollars to a single candidate. Cuomo won repeatedly this way, obliterating rivals by outspending them tenfold or more. Hochul did the same, raising more than $30 million from the real estate industry, Wall Street, gambling interests, and anyone else who had business before New York State. She was on television constantly. Williams and Archila were largely absent from the airwaves.
In the digital fundraising era, some progressives have become more proficient at bringing in cash. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who backed Archila but not Williams, is a prodigious fundraiser. Bernie Sanders outraised Joe Biden in 2020. Small-dollar fundraising, though, has yet to power the less glamorous, long-shot statewide campaigns. The Working Families Party never seemed to have a plan for making Willliams competitive with Hochul. No challenger can raise $20–30 million, but $5 million would have been enough to run television and digital ads consistently. Williams, who struggled with personal challenges during the campaign, was not an active presence on the trail and never seemed to prioritize raising money. With weeks to go in the campaign, he had less than $200,000 on hand, a paltry sum for any candidate in a high-profile contest. At that point, defeat was a foregone conclusion.
What’s so dispiriting for the left is how poorly Williams performed. He finished with only 19 percent of the vote—far less than the two prior progressive statewide campaigns managed to achieve against Cuomo. In 2014, attorney Zephyr Teachout captured more than 30 percent and won a large number of upstate counties, including Albany. In 2018, actress Cynthia Nixon failed to expand on Teachout’s coalition but managed, at least, to repeat her performance, surpassing 30 percent. Both women ran well in the liberal counties of the Hudson Valley and the Albany area.
Hochul, who is less polarizing than Cuomo, won all 62 counties against Williams. She defeated him everywhere: outer-borough public housing developments, wealthy suburbs, and rural farmlands were all Hochul territory. Delgado dominated Archila in a similar fashion. There was no corner of the state where the progressive ticket was viable. Only a few neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens offered Williams outright victories.
Hochul hardly acknowledged Williams during the campaign—and the results show her rose garden strategy was warranted. All she wanted was to train her fire on Lee Zeldin, the Trump Republican congressman who won the GOP primary. With Roe v. Wade now overturned, Hochul can hammer Zeldin for his opposition to abortion rights for the next four months. She is expected to win comfortably.
In the meantime, the left should be asking hard questions of the Williams and Archila campaigns. In 2014 and 2018, expectations were lower and enthusiasm was greater for a progressive ticket trying to raise the alarm over Cuomo. Hochul shares Cuomo’s politics—she has drawn close to real estate developers, landlords, and large corporations—but none of his sociopathy. She is not an easy foil. Knowing this, neither Williams nor Archila could figure out how to connect with the broader electorate—and the Working Families Party didn’t offer much help on that either. Looking at the results of the June primary Hochul might well decide she doesn’t have to heed the left at all.
And that is the danger in successive campaigns like these. The other major left organization in New York, the Democratic Socialists of America, sat out the governor’s race to focus on state legislative contests, where it, too, had mixed results. DSA only endorses in races it believes it has the capacity for. The Working Families Party has never taken this approach, instead endorsing widely and trying to influence as many races as possible. Time has proven that strategy ultimately unworkable; if a campaign is going to only win 19 percent of the statewide vote and lose every single county in New York, it may have been better if that campaign didn’t exist at all. Or if Williams, at the minimum, had sought the more winnable lieutenant governor position. Hochul now has, in her mind, a gauge of the impotency of the institutional left. Next year, when the Working Families Party attempts to pressure Hochul on a bill or an initiative, she can decide how much that pressure is worth. For now, it’s 19 percent and not a single county in New York.
In 2023, Hochul will almost certainly begin a new term. Democratic leaders in the legislature who deferred to her for much of 2022 will have to decide whether they will listen to the progressives in their body who want to move bold, far-reaching bills to toughen tenant protections, combat climate change, and overhaul the patronage-ridden Board of Elections. New pressure will have to be built from the inside and outside, especially against a governor who will feel she owes so little to people who tried and failed to defeat her. Results like last week only make that fight more difficult.