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Poll shows Hochul ahead in volatile race for NY governor

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul tours Plattsburgh DRI sites
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul tours Plattsburgh DRI sites

A new Siena College poll finds New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who’s been in her job for less than four months, holds a double-digit lead over her opponents in next year’s Democratic primary. But the data shows a volatile race in the aftermath of former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation over a sexual harassment scandal.

The poll finds that 36 percent of registered Democrats back Hochul, who is seeking election to the job she ascended to after Cuomo resigned in August.

That’s twice as many potential voters as those who support State Attorney General Letitia James, who has the backing of 18 percent of Democrats. 10 percent support New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio each have 6 percent. All but de Blasio have formally declared their candidacies.

Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg says with just over six months before primary election day, much about the race is uncertain. Nearly one-quarter of those surveyed say they don’t know who they would support for governor, and 30 percent say they don’t know enough to form an opinion of Hochul, who in her six years as the state’s lieutenant governor was not a household name.

“At this point, the candidates are still not well enough known to say that the voters’ minds are locked in,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg adds that even though Hochul has a 2-1 advantage over James in the early poll, both have a similar favorable rating among voters, with Hochul at 57 percent and James at 56 percent.

The top two issues that voters are most concerned about are fighting crime and creating more economic opportunities. Managing the COVID-19 pandemic was third on the list of top concerns, but the survey was conducted just as the spread of the omicron variant was becoming known. If there’s another wave of the virus that intensifies over the winter, that issue could come to dominate voters’ views of Hochul, as pandemic management did for her predecessor, Cuomo.

Greenberg says there are a number of issues that are keeping New Yorkers unsettled, and any of them could be a factor in the race.

“The economy, education and classes and schools staying open. Everything around omicron, and then the next thing regarding the pandemic that’s going to come out,” said Greenberg. “There’s so many different issues and so many different things that are going to happen over the course of these next 28 weeks, that the dynamic is likely to shift multiple times.”

Hochul’s opponents perceive her management of the pandemic as a potential weakness, and some have criticized her decision to allow local governments to make decisions about vaccine or mask mandates instead of implementing a statewide policy like Cuomo did. James has repeatedly called for a statewide mask mandate and greater involvement in vaccine-hesitant communities. Suozzi supports the return of color-coded zones with varying degrees of restrictions as a way to manage and contain the virus.

Hochul defends her approach, saying the spread of the virus varies greatly in different regions, so statewide restrictions might do more harm than good. She says vaccines and booster shots are so far working against all variants of the virus, so it makes more sense to encourage hold outs to get their shots instead.

“I will not overreact and send this economy spiraling out of control once again,” Hochul said on December 2.

But the governor says she’s not ruling out imposing statewide restrictions if the spread of the virus continues to worsen.

The next significant date for the candidates’ preparation for the primaries is January 15. By law, that’s when they have to report how much money their campaigns have raised. Hochul is far ahead; her campaign says she’s raised over $10 million.

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