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Tuesday's primary gives Cuomo unexpected challenge

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Tuesday is primary day in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces a challenge from Democrat Zephyr Teachout, which he is expected to easily win, but the governor could face a headache when it comes to the race for his running mate for lieutenant governor.

Cuomo, known as a clever strategist who carefully maps out his political future, did not anticipate a primary challenge from obscure Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout.

Teachout was originally considered as a possible candidate for the left-leaning Working Families Party. Working Families endorsed Cuomo after he promised to work for progressive issues like a Democratic state Senate and public campaign financing.  

Teachout decided to run on the Democratic primary ballot anyway, and she even survived attempts by Cuomo's campaign to throw her off the ballot. Cuomo claimed, unsuccessfully, that Teachout was not really a state resident. Teachout has run on an anti-corruption platform.

She’s criticized Cuomo for disbanding a commission that was probing corruption in state government when commissioners tried to look too closely at Cuomo's donors. Now U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating.

“The biggest problem in New York is this old boy corrupt network,” Teachout said. “Where they circle the fences and protect their own.”

Teachout is not expected to win the primary, though no public polls have been conducted.

“I know I’m an underdog,” Teachout admits.

Mickey Carroll, pollster with Quinnipiac University, says Teachout does have the potential to damage Cuomo’s chances for a run for president - where presidential primary voters are more to the left than the general public -- if liberal Teachout wins a significant percentage of the vote.

“She could get enough numbers to embarrass him,” Carroll said.

Cuomo has publicly ignored Teachout, refusing to shake her hand at a parade or even mention her by name, and evading questions about potential debates.

But Cuomo faces a greater threat from a challenge to his chosen running mate in the race, Kathy Hochul.  

In May, when Cuomo selected the former one-term western New York congresswoman, it seemed like a wise choice.  

Hochul, also the former Erie County Clerk, is popular in the Buffalo area; a region that Cuomo lost in the 2010 elections. Her conservative stance on immigration and guns could help him gain support from independent voters in the general election in November.

But Hochul now also faces a primary challenge from Columbia University professor and tech expert Tim Wu, and her views may not be very palatable to the small number of progressive minded voters expected to turn out for Tuesday’s vote.

Wu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, says if he becomes lieutenant governor, he would not be a cheerleader for the governor’s policies, but would offer an independent counterpoint, and might even investigate Cuomo for possible corruption, if necessary.

“We have such a problem with concentrated power that is unchecked,” Wu said. “We need more independent statewide checks and balances. And we envision that the lieutenant governor position should also play that role.”

If Hochul loses the primary, Cuomo would be forced to appear on the November ballot with Wu instead. While governor and lieutenant governor candidates run separately in primaries under New York law, they are merged into one ticket in the general election.

In the days leading up to the primary, Hochul has campaigned frantically, making several public appearances a day. The Cuomo campaign has rolled out a string of endorsements in recent days from many members of the Democratic political establishment, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Hillary Clinton. Wu has been endorsed by the New York Times editorial board.

Perhaps more importantly, Cuomo and Hochul have the support of the powerful health care workers union SEIU 1199, which is known for its successful Get Out The Vote efforts. Teachout and Wu are backed by a public workers union, while other labor groups are remaining neutral in the race for now.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.