Can a “Sex in the City” Star Truly Challenge Cuomo?

Cynthia Nixon has name recognition. Now she needs endorsements

When Cynthia Nixon, former star of Sex in the City, declared her candidacy for governor of New York last week, she was a trending topic on Twitter within twenty minutes. But though her superstardom is enough to gain notice, is it enough to be considered a serious candidate?

Nixon posted a two-minute campaign video to her Twitter page that emphasizes her long ties to the city. It shows her riding the subway and walking the streets of New York.  “New York is my home,” she says in the video. “I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

“I’m a proud public school graduate and a proud public school candidate,” she continues. “I was given chances I just don’t see for New York kids today.” Nixon, a known champion for public schools and a mother of three, has frequently visited Albany in support of more funding for New York public schools, a selling point for her run.  She also plans on focusing on “healthcare, ending mass incarceration, and fixing our broken subways,” the video says.

Cynthia Nixon speaks at a women’s rights rally in Albany on June 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

She’s created quite a buzz in recent days, but with no previous political experience, will this former television star be considered as someone who has a shot? That kind of leap will not be easy, in part due to her competition—Governor Andrew Cuomo: a two-term incumbent who has more than $30 million  in funding for his campaign.

Very early in the competition—in fact even before she officially announced—Cuomo was leading Nixon by a wide margin in polling for a potential Cuomo-Nixon primary, a Siena College Poll released on Monday shows. Among registered Democrats, 66 percent said they supported Cuomo, while Nixon managed just 19 percent of registered Democrats. Fifty-nine percent said they didn’t know of Nixon and didn’t have an opinion of her.

“It’s great that we live in a democracy where anyone can run for office,” Cuomo’s campaign said in a statement released on Monday. The New York Times reports Cuomo as saying, “I’m not nervous about whoever runs. There will be people who run. That’s called elections and that’s fine.”

Still, though Cuomo seems to be confident, his approval ratings are lower than what they were when he entered office in 2014.  In a Quinnipiac poll released in February, Democrats approved of the job he is doing by 68 to 17 percent. This was the second poll in a row in which he was below 70 percent among Democrats—“A low level of same party approval for an elected official,” the poll says.

But could Cuomo’s numbers be enough to give Nixon a shot at office? “Governor Cuomo may not be well-loved, but he is well resourced in terms of campaign funding and important allies,” said Jeffrey Henig, a Political Expert and a Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. “Any challenger would be facing a steeply uphill climb.” Henig also notes that while Nixon’s celebrity status may be enough to turn a few heads in the beginning, Democrats may be slow to accept her celebrity status as a substitute for political or military experience.

“She’s likely to garner some enthusiastic support from progressive Democrats who find Cuomo too middle-of-the-road and too tied to big donors, or from traditional public school teachers and families that don’t like his pro-charter school positions,” Henig said. “But I’d be shocked if she mounted a genuine challenge.”

On the other hand, Patrick Egan, Associate Professor of Politics and Public Policy at NYU, said Nixon is “quite a viable candidate,” given New York’s liberal democratic base. Though he agreed that Nixon’s lack of political pedigree may be tough to overcome, despite her celebrity.

“It cuts both ways for her,” Egan said. “On the one hand, experience and politics is worth a lot, and lacking that experience hurts Nixon.”

Cynthia Nixon, right, listens to Winsome Pendergrass, left, at Nixon’s first campaign stop, at the Bethesda Healing Center church on March 20 in Brownsville. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

To win the election, Egan said he’s looking to see if Nixon can land big Democratic endorsements, similar to the way Cuomo landed them in 2014, and whether she’s able to expand her current supporters.  “She needs to expand her appeal beyond the Bernie Sanders wing of party to win,” he said. “Appealing only to mostly white progressive voters isn’t going to be enough to win the Democratic Primary. She has to start appealing to Black, Latino, Asian Americans, and all backgrounds in order to win this election.”

An endorsement from the progressive Working Families Party would also benefit Nixon, as leaders of the party have already expressed their willingness to back a candidate other than Cuomo, as many members don’t find the incumbent liberal enough. As Kenneth Lovett put it in the New York Daily News, “In essence, the party must decide whether to hold its nose and back Cuomo, who many of its members don’t find liberal enough, or declare war on a sitting governor who is currently the favorite to win a third term by supporting a different candidate.”

According to a spokesperson for the Working Families party, “Our endorsement comes by way of a democratic process. The 232-person state committee will have a very important decision to make in the coming months. Stay tuned.” 

But no matter how many endorsements Nixon receives, or the amount of financial support—like the 2,214 small-dollar contributions her campaign reports she’s gotten already, far exceeding Cuomo’s 1,369 small-dollar donations since 2011—some critics believe Nixon poses no threat to Cuomo.

That includes former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She made an unsuccessful bid to become New York City Mayor in 2013, and, if elected, Quinn would have been the first female and openly gay Mayor of New York City. Nixon, who is married to a woman, did not support Quinn’s bid for Mayor in 2013.

“Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City. Now she wants to be an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York,” Quinn said Tuesday in an interview with the New York Post. “Being an actress and a celebrity doesn’t make you qualified for public office,” Quinn added.

Nixon endorsed Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2013 over Quinn. Over the years, Nixon has been supportive of de Blasio, Nixon even spoke at his 2014 mayoral inauguration, after he beat out Quinn in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor. It remains unclear whether de Blasio will endorse Nixon for Governor, though it would be a huge win for Nixon if he did.

Meanwhile, some of Nixon’s fellow actresses and celebrities support her run.

“Cynthia Nixon for governor of New York! #myFullsupport,” Rosie O’Donnell said on Twitter alongside a picture of the two.

Nixon’s former co-star, Kristen Davis, who played Charlotte in Sex in the City, said, “No one cares more than she does about every person getting a fair change and a good education,” the actress said, “I know that she would be an excellent Governor.”

The primary election will be held September 13.

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