NPR logo New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Fends Off Democratic Primary Challenge

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Fends Off Democratic Primary Challenge

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs in to cast his vote during the primary election Tuesday at the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Craig Ruttle/AP hide caption

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Craig Ruttle/AP

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs in to cast his vote during the primary election Tuesday at the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco in Mount Kisco, N.Y.

Craig Ruttle/AP

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo won the Democratic primary for governor, but not without an unexpectedly strong challenge from law school professor Zephyr Teachout, who spent virtually no money and had a bare-bones campaign operation.

Cuomo barely cleared 60 percent of the vote Tuesday, and though he won his home county of Westchester, the governor lost nearly the entire Hudson Valley.

Even before returns were in, Cuomo downplayed expectations, saying that primaries were unpredictable and that he would be happy with anything "over 50 percent."

Speaking at a Hell's Kitchen restaurant, Teachout thanked activists from those working for immigrants to those fighting against fracking. She said, "I will not be your next governor, but the Democrats of this state have been heard — and every politician in the state knows about you and what you are about."

She added, "I hope what we've shown is that it's all right to speak up. Democrats don't need to be scared any more."

In a statement, Cuomo congratulated Teachout on her "courage" for running a "spirited campaign," and then turned directly to the general election in November:

"But this isn't just a choice between two candidates or two parties; this November is a choice between two very different paths for our state.

"We want to build on the success of the last four years; they want to tear New York down and bring back the hyper-partisan gridlock that has ground Washington to a halt. . . . We can and we will continue to create jobs, reduce taxes, invest in education, and make New York a center for opportunity, innovation and equality for all."

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Earlier in the day, Cuomo had made clear he was already looking ahead to the general election in November, where he will face Republican Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive.

"These elections nowadays, especially a primary election like this, who comes out to vote, who doesn't vote, the turnout can be very determinative," Cuomo told reporters. "And sometimes it's not representative. So this is about 51 percent and then we have a general election and that's what it's all about."

Voter turnout for primary elections is traditionally low. In 2010, Cuomo did not face an opponent in the primary election. But there was a Republican primary — in which 18 percent of eligible voters turned out.

Cuomo was expected to win in a landslide against Teachout, who remained unknown to most voters, according to public opinion polls. But Teachout ran a spirited campaign, presenting herself as an outsider running against business as usual, getting endorsements from groups like the Sierra Club and the New York state chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also had support from wealthy activist Larry Lessig.

Teachout had also capitalized on Cuomo's streak of bad press.

Cuomo's reputation took a hit this summer after he prematurely shut down his own anti-corruption panel and the U.S. Attorney opened an investigation into whether the administration tried to block investigators from looking into businesses with ties to the governor.

Teachout beat back two attempts by Cuomo's campaign to get her booted off the ballot — Cuomo's lawyers claimed she did not meet the state's residency requirements.

Teachout's strong showing could reflect a simmering dissatisfaction around the state among progressive Democrats who are frustrated with Cuomo's centrist policies.

As he left his polling place on Tuesday, Cuomo touted his record as governor. He said he lowered taxes, created jobs, and passed four on-time budgets in a row. But for progressives, he fell short in other areas. Perhaps most notably he worked with the Independent Democratic Conference, a small group of Democrats who broke away from the party and formed an alliance with Republicans to take control of the state Senate.

In line with his low-key campaign, Cuomo didn't campaign until the week prior to Tuesday's primary. Cuomo told voters he had no plans for election night, other than to work.

"My campaign is basically my performance in office. What I'm saying is look at what I've done," he told reporters. He said he would be in his office in Midtown Manhattan at 9 p.m. when the polls closed.