Marc Molinaro did not want to run for governor. At least not at first.
“It’s just not the right time,” he wrote in an email to supporters in January announcing he would stay out of the race.
The 42-year-old moderate Republican cited his family and his current position as county executive in Dutchess County. He could have also listed a few other reasons not to run: Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his re-election war chest, and a Democratic base eager to punish Republicans for President Donald Trump.
In less than two weeks Molinaro will find out whether his initial reluctance was well-founded, or whether he can buck the odds, the polls and an overwhelming financial disadvantage to take down a popular two-term Democratic incumbent in what many presume will be a Democratic year.
“I’m running for governor of the state of New York because there are ordinary people who don’t have a voice,” Molinaro said during a campaign stop in Albany last week. “And the reason they don’t have a voice is because this state government — and I blame both parties for generations — has ignored them and allowed government to be about them.”
Molinaro was the youngest mayor in the country when he was elected mayor of his hometown of Tivoli at age 19. He talks about growing up in a working-class family that relied on food stamps to get by. In person he’s affable, with a telegenic young family.
For Republicans eager to win their first statewide office in New York in 16 years, Molinaro brings a lot of potential to the race. He’s a former state lawmaker who has twice been elected leader of a county with more Democrats than Republicans. It’s a recipe they hope he can replicate on a grander scale in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.
Enter Cuomo. The son of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, he’s also a former U.S. housing secretary and a former New York attorney general who doesn’t exactly have to worry about name recognition. He’s also a prodigious fundraiser who in September easily dispatched a spirited primary challenge from the left from former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon.
While Molinaro sought to make the race about taxes, crumbling infrastructure and rampant corruption in Albany, Cuomo touted accomplishments such as same-sex marriage, gun control, paid family leave, free state tuition at public colleges and major renovations at New York City airports and rail stations. And he immediately tried to frame the race around the commander-in-chief, mocking Molinaro as a “Trump Mini-me” and linking him to the president’s views on immigration, health care and women.
“He is an extreme conservative,” Cuomo said on New York City radio last week. “There is no substance from him. It’s all ad hominem attacks, it’s all nasty, and it’s all this ultra-conservative diatribe. Anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-diversity.”
Molinaro says he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and instead penciled in the name of Chris Gibson, a well-liked former congressman who many Republicans had hoped would challenge Cuomo this year.
During a particularly nasty debate Tuesday, Cuomo demanded that Molinaro say whether he supports the president; Molinaro credited the president’s handling of the economy but declined to answer Cuomo’s question. He noted that Cuomo and Trump have known each other for decades, and that Trump donated to Cuomo’s campaigns years ago.
Polls suggest it’s Cuomo’s race to lose. A head-to-head Quinnipiac University survey released last week found the incumbent is beating Molinaro by 23 percentage points. A Siena College poll this month gave Cuomo a similar lead even when Libertarian Larry Sharpe, independent Stephanie Miner and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins were included.
The polls find that Cuomo leads among women, minorities, independents and, critically, residents in both New York City and its suburbs. Molinaro outperforms Cuomo when it comes to upstate voters.
Molinaro’s biggest challenge may be name recognition. The Quinnipiac poll found that 48 percent of likely voters surveyed haven’t heard enough about him to form an opinion.
“You can’t win unless people know who you are,” said Luke Perry, a professor and political scientist at Utica College who noted that’s just one of the challenges facing Molinaro. “Cuomo has tried to nationalize the race and I think that’s been effective. … In another political climate his chances would be higher.”