ALBANY, N.Y. — As she meets with donors ahead of her 2024 reelection campaign, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been sounding a surprising warning, according to sources who have heard it.
Andrew Cuomo, she tells them, is preparing to run against her.
The long-serving Democratic senator is not alone in sweating a comeback from the former governor who was once the most feared—and may still be the most hated—figure in New York politics.
Publicly, Cuomo hasn’t said whether he would run against Gillibrand, or for any office, since announcing his plans to launch PAC—and a separately funded podcast—in September. At this moment, Cuomo may be primarily serving as a convenient fundraising boogeyman for Gillibrand, who is aiming to scare off potential primary challengers with an impressive early cash haul.
Yet for a governor whose skill set included many double-edged swords—the micromanaging, the domineering, the fixation on aesthetics, megaprojects, media coverage, and his family’s legacy—one of Cuomo’s calling cards continues to serve him, even after his undignified exit: his fundraising prowess.
Though Cuomo left the governor’s mansion in 2021 with seemingly nothing but his muscle cars, his dog Captain, and millions in COVID book deal cash, he also took with him some $18 million in a storied campaign war chest.
As of his 2022 reelection campaign’s latest January 2023 filing, that total is down to $9.2 million—a formidable enough sum of money that New York Democrats are anxiously wondering what Cuomo has planned for his final piece of leverage.
The PAC, yet to be officially formed, would have to operate without Cuomo involved, should he run for office, and the money couldn’t be transferred to a national campaign. It could, however, blanket the airwaives with pro-Cuomo ads.
Back when he was a global celebrity, a Senate run may have seemed beneath Cuomo. But now, the smart money in Albany—to their self-admitted terror—isn’t ruling it out.
“The worst thing that could possibly happen is Andrew Cuomo wakes up one morning and decides that his comeback story lies in, I don’t know, being elected to the United States Senate,” an Albany Democratic operative told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to speak candidly on what remains a touchy subject in Empire State politics.
In recent months, Cuomo has slowly re-emerged into some semblance of public life—he’s twice dined this year with New York City Mayor Eric Adams—as he bides his time with a diminished yet still formidable seven figure sum in the bank.
“After the last several months of everything falling apart in Albany, many people and insiders have been reaching out saying none of this would happen if Andrew Cuomo was there,” a Cuomo insider told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to discuss private conversations. “He has more people behind him than you would think.”
But at the state capitol on a brisk March afternoon, there was hardly a trace of the three-term governor and heir to one of the most powerful political dynasties in Empire State history.
Cuomo, who resigned in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct—which he still denies, and never faced any criminal charges over—remains one of only three New York governors without a portrait on display. The other two are the similarly disgraced former Gov. Elliot Spitzer and Nathanial Pitcher, who served for less than a year in 1828, and for whom sadly no confirmable portrait has been found.
Cuomo has to commission a portrait on his own, and while he may not legally be able to cover it with the remaining campaign or future PAC money, one doesn’t have to strain to find the metaphor at play.
“Winning an election would be a vindication of the voters that he was right and everyone else was wrong,” a former top administration official told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about their time working under Cuomo.
“Winning the governorship would be the ultimate brass ring,” they said, “but I think he would look at almost any seat where he has a real chance of winning as an opportunity to reestablish himself.”
That may be the last thing Albany wants. The rough-and-tumble capital is basking in a more freewheeling post-Cuomo era, with political types no longer living in fear of speaking out of school about the governor’s office. And though Cuomo may be a useful foil for Gillibrand’s campaign coffers, she probably would not relish a battle with the ex-governor. (A spokesman for the senator declined to comment for this story.)
Beyond Albany, a return of the divisive and scandal-plagued former governor—in any campaign capacity—is something national Democrats would love to avoid. The Empire State was the site of some of their most stinging defeats in the 2022 midterm campaign, and clawing back those losses is key to their hopes of recapturing the House in 2024.
Ultimately, Cuomo may simply enjoy making people sweat. His resume of executive roles, not to mention his personality, makes the prospect he’d seek a Senate job somewhat implausible, compared to a comeback for governor or attorney general. Neither position is contested until 2026.
Yet, there are still some who maintain that Cuomo could still be a formidable presence.
“He has a unique constituency,” the Albany Democratic strategist said, noting Cuomo’s sustained support among Black clergy leaders in New York City along with other influential Latino and labor coalitions that could drive major turnout for him.
“The reality is, there are still a lot of New Yorkers who are like, what he did was horrible, as far as sexual assault and sexual violence. Even people who are only intellectually aware of the nursing home scandal think that was also bad,” the strategist said. “Still, broadly speaking, most New Yorkers give him credit for COVID and for his COVID response.” (By February 2021, the state’s approval of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic was down to 61 percent from a high of 87 percent at the end of March 2020, according to Siena College.)
“Five different district attorneys looked at Tish James’ sham report and every single one determined there was nothing to move on,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi told The Daily Beast. “This was a political railroading, Albany style, and with each passing day more people understand that.”
As for his boss’ political future, Azzopardi remained coy.
Above all, “New Yorkers love a comeback story,” the Albany strategist added, citing the likes of Anthony Weiner and his ability to secure frontrunner status in the 2013 New York City Democratic mayoral primary—before a documentary crew captured his political career self-immolating in real time.
Some observers note that the sheer amount of money Cuomo has—far more than Gillibrand’s $5 million warchest at the beginning of 2023—will attract speculation no matter what.
“There are these lingering questions over, what is this guy doing with all of this money?” the Democratic strategist said. “It’s really hard to understate. Ten million dollars is a lot of money. It is significantly larger than the beginning of the coffers of most presidential campaigns, it’s bigger than a vast majority of senatorial races around the country.”
Shawn J. Donahue, a political scientist and campaign finance expert at the University of Buffalo, said that Cuomo’s situation is “more of an anomaly” in the modern era, and his options remain limited for what he can do with the money.
“One of the things the governor can’t do is, he can’t give it to himself,” Donahue said of the $9.2 million in campaign funds, which Cuomo has drawn down for some ads citing five district attorneys declining to prosecute him following the investigation from Attorney General Tish James.
Transferring it to a federal campaign directly also wouldn’t work. Cuomo would have to leave the PAC and let it run ads without coordinating with the campaign.
Cuomo could transfer the money to like-minded candidates or to the primary challengers of his rivals, though whether any New York progressive would accept his aid is far from guaranteed. Having demonstrated little interest in any of the conventional uses of a PAC so far beyond the anti-James ads, Donahue said the Cuomo situation is about something much bigger.
“I think his biggest thing that he wants is vindication,” Donahue said.
“I’ll say this,” the former Cuomo official said, “he recognizes that a lot of the former staff have little desire to be associated with him, so he and a very close team have worked hard to fix that.”
At the former governor’s birthday party in December last year, he gave a speech that left attendees disappointed in their boss on his attempted redemption arc. Cuomo apologized for the professional repercussions his resignation left among the staff, but laid the blame at “corruption” in Albany and the justice system, a not-so-subtle dig at James.
Held at his sister’s apartment in Manhattan’s ritzy Sutton Place neighborhood, the Cuomo birthday bash was the first time many staffers had seen each other since either the beginning of the pandemic or his August 2021 resignation.
Other than the tepidly received pump up speech, Cuomo was coy on his future ambitions at the party.
Another former Cuomo staffer disagreed with the reception to the speech.
“It was a complete love fest,” the former staffer and party attendee said. “More than 75 people showed up, his speech was well received and it was great to see each other after such a long and difficult time.”
While Gillibrand is considered by New York Democratic insiders to be particularly vulnerable to a primary challenge this cycle, Cuomo doesn’t fit the archetype on several fronts.
As Cuomo liked to remind viewers at home during his COVID briefings that brought him worldwide celebrity in 2020, he is not young. At 65 years old, with both gubernatorial and presidential cabinet-level experience going back to his time as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, those who’ve worked with Cuomo emphasize he would prefer to seek an “executive” style role.
In 2021, Gillibrand called for Cuomo’s resignation in a joint statement with Sen. Chuck Schumer more than a week before the governor announced his resignation, which didn’t actually happen until two weeks after that.
During that protracted period when Cuomo was alone in Albany and looking for his next place to live, staffers were heading for the exits and the Cuomo dynasty was about to end.
Much like his unfinished portrait in the Capitol, Cuomo has been biding his time to have one last say on his tainted political legacy.
Whether it be Gillibrand, James, or his former neglected apprentice in Gov. Kathy Hochul, as the Albany strategist put it, “someone is going to end up on the wrong end of that cash.”
“This man will never change,” the former Cuomo administration official said. “He is who he is. He is convinced that he was deeply wronged, and like nothing that happened in any way was a result of his own action.”