Never mind the poll numbers, the small crowds, the general perception that he doesn’t have a chance. Republican Rob Astorino is campaigning energetically for governor, lambasting incumbent Andrew Cuomo as corrupt and cowardly, and predicting a major upset.
The articulate Westchester county executive says he’s buoyed by a recent uptick in donors, by Cuomo’s lackluster performance in the Democratic primary and by assurances from former Gov. George Pataki, who beat Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, in the same race 20 years ago.
“Andrew Cuomo is afraid,” Astorino told donors on Tuesday. “He can’t defend the indefensible. We’re winning.”
The feeling is not widely shared. Astorino’s attention-getting TV ads, featuring mushroom clouds and unicorns, apparently haven’t blunted Cuomo’s well-financed onslaught. His attempts to confront the governor in public haven’t worked. And the campaign’s single debate — a chance for a televised knockout — came and went without the major Cuomo misstep that Astorino may have needed.
Cuomo’s huge advantage in funding, name recognition and party enrollment have persisted. As Astorino walked along a Bronx sidewalk on Tuesday, he shook hands with Donna Herring, who works in bank security. They exchanged warm greetings but Herring said afterward, “He’s a nice young man, but I’m a Democrat and I’m going to vote Democratic.”
Astorino won’t talk about what might constitute a moral victory, but commentators say he might get one — and perhaps position himself for another race.
“Cuomo is way ahead and is going to win barring a major scandal or something,” said Columbia University political science professor Robert Shapiro. “But he would like to win not by 20 percent but by 40 percent. … If Astorino loses by 20 percent that would be a pretty good showing, in the context of this being a Democratic state.”
Lawrence Levy of the National Center for Suburban Studies said that if Astorino “closes to under 15 points he can fairly say that this was a positive for his career. Losing to someone who so outguns him in so many ways is not necessarily a dark mark against him. … He will have established himself as his party’s standard bearer in one of the largest states.”
Astorino said the perception that the race is lost “just makes me work harder. We know how this works. We know what happened in ’09 (when he defeated a favored Democratic county executive). Insiders said we had no chance.”
Astorino, 47, lives with his wife and three children in Mount Pleasant. A Fordham University graduate, he made his career in radio station management. He has helped launch both ESPN’s New York radio station and the Catholic Channel on satellite radio and still consults for a national media company.
Meanwhile, he was elected to Mount Pleasant’s school board and town board, then the county Legislature. He ran for county executive in 2005 and lost, but then pulled off his upset in 2009 and was easily re-elected last year. His near-fluent Spanish has helped him make inroads in the Hispanic community, usually a Democratic haven.
In the Bronx on Tuesday, in English and Spanish, he mocked Cuomo’s recent trip to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, saying the governor should instead be visiting Washington Heights and the Bronx. About 35 supporters were on hand.
Astorino vigorously insists New Yorkers need a change in Albany to avoid financial catastrophe. And he never stops hammering Cuomo about the anti-corruption Moreland Commission, which the governor dismantled, prompting a federal investigation.
Tuesday, during phone interviews with two news outlets as he was driven to the Bronx, Astorino called Cuomo “corrupt” at least 14 times.
“He lives in the political gutter,” he added. “Andrew Cuomo stands for nothing except advancing Andrew Cuomo.”
A month ago, when Astorino felt the Moreland matter was not getting enough attention, he put out a TV ad that used a nuclear mushroom cloud to tell voters that Cuomo was under a “cloud of corruption.”
“Some thought it was inappropriate,” Astorino said. “That didn’t bother me.”
In another ad, to protest what he said were Cuomo’s “lies” about him, Astorino accused Cuomo of being a “unicorn killer” and “the worst man in the world.”
“We were poking fun at Andrew Cuomo and his desperation,” Astorino said. “People got a kick out of it.”
Cuomo — in TV ads and at Wednesday’s debate — has tried to deflect the corruption accusation with references to Astorino’s own troubles with the federal government over a housing segregation settlement. And he pounds Astorino for being anti-abortion, opposed to same-sex marriage and less open to gun control. (While Astorino says abortion and gay marriage are settled law in New York, he would be open to rolling back some of the state’s gun-control measures.)
Polls continue to show a double-digit margin. A Siena College poll issued Wednesday gives Cuomo 54 percent, Astorino 33 percent.
“Pollsters have no idea what they’re doing,” Astorino said. “We know it’s a very different race. It may depend on who comes out to vote.”
Astorino may have high hopes for a victory, but he’s also looking forward to the end of the campaign, the third in five years for his family.
“Anyone with a family would be lying if they didn’t say they couldn’t wait for it to end.”