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Astorino, underdog in governor's race, relies on creativity

Ryan Delaney
GOP candidate for governor Rob Astorino. (file photo)

Republican candidate for governor Rob Astorino is far behind in the polls and in fundraising, compared to incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But Astorino is making the most of his campaign and is quick to improvise or bend a situation to his advantage. He also maintains that he expects to win.

Since last winter, Astorino, who currently serves as Westchester County executive, has been determinedly traveling the state and expounding on a core message that he lays out in an introductory video.

“As a state, are we winning or are we losing?” Astorino asks.

He contends it’s the latter. Speaking at annual Business Council of New York State meeting, he says the state still ranks 50th in many key economic indicators, including high taxes and business climate. He calls a program touted by Cuomo that offers tax-free breaks to some businesses a joke, and cites a recent report from the AARP that shows 60 percent of baby boomers want to leave New York when they retire.

“Four years later, we’re stuck in last place,” Astorino said “People are leaving.”

Astorino holds different views from the Democratic governor on a number of key items. He wants the state to begin hydrofracking, saying it will create thousands of new jobs, and he’s against the adoption of the federal Common Core learning standards.

“We’ve got little, mini lab mice, our kids, who are going into this huge untested experiment,” Astorino said during an interview with public radio and television in April. “It’s going to be the mother of all unfunded mandates, because we’re going to have to pay for it.”

Cuomo was a supporter of the early adoption of Common Core, but has agreed to delay the effects of related tests for another couple of years. The GOP candidate would try to repeal strict new gun control laws championed by Cuomo that, in part, require gun owners to register their firearms with the state.

But Astorino has struggled to get his message out to voters. He is underfunded and has less than $3 million, compared to Cuomo’s high point of $35 million earlier this year. Cuomo has been on television for months now, running numerous negative ads against Astorino, defining the challenger before he could introduce himself to voters.

The Republican candidate has been spending more heavily on TV ads in recent weeks taking shots at Cuomo, while Astorino introduces himself with pictures of him, his smiling wife and three children.

Astorino, a media-savvy former ESPN radio executive, has at times used humor and social media to get his point across, including a spoof of the onslaught of attack ads against him.

“Andrew Cuomo, unicorn killer,” a narrator declares, in a mock ad that also accuses Cuomo of stuffing Santa Claus down the chimney and throwing Humpty Dumpty off the wall.

Astorino is adept at taking advantage of any misfortunes or missteps by Cuomo. This summer, the Republican candidate criticized the governor after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara revealed he was probing the administration for possible obstruction of justice in an ethics probe. Cuomo’s top aides are accused of steering investigations away from the governor’s top donors. The Republican challenger is quick to remind people that Cuomo’s office is under federal investigation.   

And Astorino is now trying to use the advantage of Cuomo’s large campaign fund against the governor. He released a report that details $2.7 million in donations to Cuomo from companies that benefited from $7.2 billion in state contracts, something Astorino characterizes as an enormous amount of giveaways.

“It’s just a pay-to-play culture right now,” Astorino said. “I don’t think anybody disagrees with that.”

Astorino is not for public campaign financing, though. He would rather have greater and faster transparency of reporting donations, and would eliminate politicians’ perpetual need to raise money by imposing eight-year term limits.  

Cuomo’s campaign did not immediately respond to the charges.

The governor has mainly tried to ignore his opponent in public. He never mentions Astorino by name, but frequently brings up the high taxes in Astorino’s Westchester County, as he did during his speech to the Business Council.

“Highest property taxes in the United States of America, Westchester County,” Cuomo said. “Can you believe it?”   

Astorino says he cut county taxes, but can’t do anything about town, village and school taxes.

Despite his underdog status, Astorino remains upbeat and optimistic. He has, so far, never broken Cuomo’s double digit lead in polls, but he says he was behind in the polls when he ran for county executive in Westchester, a predominately Democratic county, and he won twice.

He also points out that recent surveys show the satisfaction with the incumbent governor, pointing to Cuomo’s job approval dropping below 50 percent.

“He’s moving downward and downward and downward,” Astorino said.