Hochul begins primary quest as Democratic frontrunner

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, seen here at the Columbus Day parade in Manhattan, has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner for governor in 2022, according to a newly released Marist poll of Democrats. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul has sprinted into frontrunner status while 77% of New Yorkers say they don't want former Gov. Andrew Cuomo to run for his old job next year, a new Marist poll shows.

In a blow to any hopes the scandal-scarred former governor may have of regaining his political footing, the percentage of Democrats who want Cuomo to remain on the sidelines was also overwhelming: 74%, according to the poll released Tuesday.

"I think the telling number is that nearly three-quarters of Democrats do not want him (Cuomo) to run, and that his favorable rating is upside down still," Barbara Carvalho, the poll director, told reporters in a Zoom discussion.

The snapshot of voter opinion found that if the Democratic primary election for governor were held now, Hochul would win against potential primary opponents, including state Attorney General Letitia James and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

The poll had Hochul's approval rating at 55%, with 49% of the respondents saying she has been doing a good job since taking office 50 days ago.

The poll did not measure Hochul against the Republican field. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-Long Island, is the favorite of GOP county chairs throughout the state, though rivals Andrew Giuliani and Rob Astorino are continuing their campaigns.

Cuomo has been vigorously disputing allegations by 11 women that he sexually harassed them. James has said the allegations are credible, with Cuomo responding that James is motivated by a desire to become governor.

Cuomo, meanwhile, is also the subject of an ongoing federal investigation into the alleged undercount of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes at a time the former governor secured a $5.1 million publishing deal for his memoir about his efforts to protect New Yorkers from the pandemic.

The Marist survey suggested Hochul's most formidable primary opponent would be James, who has made national headlines with lawsuits against the National Rifle Association, former President Donald Trump and big pharmaceutical companies linked to the epidemic of opioid deaths.

The poll showed the voters who gave Hochul the highest marks for her job performance so far were white, college-educated females with incomes greater than $50,000 annually.

James, among registered Democrats, scored a 58% favorability rating across New York, with only 13% ranking her unfavorable. Should she run, she would have to work on the fact that she remains unknown to 28% of those Democratic voters.

Cuomo, who resigned from office Aug. 24, scored a favorability rating of 42% among Democrats. Cuomo, who is white, was viewed unfavorably by 67% of white Democrats. Non-white Democrats have a much more positive view of him, with only 42% rating him unfavorably.

In a a three-way race without Cuomo, 44% of Democrats surveyed by Marist picked Hochul, while 28% went for James and 15% were for Williams. The other 13% indicated they are undecided.

When Cuomo was put into the mix, Hochul dropped by 8 points to 36%, while James was supported by 24%, Cuomo took 19% and Williams had 9%.

The results indicate that Hochul begins the race as the "front runner," while the other potential aspirants are "underdogs," noted Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which oversees the polling organization.

"She has clearly established herself with the Democrats as governor statewide," Miringoff said, adding that Hochul has generally made a positive impression on many Democrats and is "doing decently against the primary matchups."

Williams was defeated by Hochul in the 2018 primary for lieutenant governor.

The survey did not measure support for another potential candidate, Rep. Thomas Suozzi, D-Long Island.

Hochul last week drew the early endorsement of state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, who was installed in that job by Cuomo. A few upstate county Democratic leaders also came out for her last week, but the vast majority of party leaders have opted to remain neutral.

Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, said many Democratic officials are waiting to see how the field shapes up in the months ahead.

"She is really half an incumbent," Reeher said of Hochul. "She is the sitting governor, but it is kind of a quasi-open seat. So I think they are being prudent to see what the field is and to see who is the best person for them to get behind for their area."

At the same time, Hochul has managed to impress some Democrats so far with policies tackling the pandemic through vaccination mandates on health care workers.

Getting a lift in the polls could boost Hochul's quest to convince potential donors she can win the primary, Reeher added.

With longtime roots in the Buffalo area, Hochul has what the poll showed to be geographically balanced approval ratings, gaining as much support from the New York City area as she has in the upstate region.

The Marist poll had a margin of error of plus/minus 4.8 points, with a higher margin of error — 6.8% — on questions limited to Democrats.

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