Gun Control: Cuomo's 2016 Presidential Play

Michael Catalini
National Journal

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's aggressive advocacy for some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation is already heightening speculation that he's already seriously thinking about a presidential campaign in 2016.

In his State of the State address Wednesday afternoon, Cuomo dropped numerous hints that he's thinking as much about his national prospects as his gubernatorial re-election in 2014. "This is New York, the progressive capital," Cuomo said in his address. "You show them how we lead. We can do it."  On gun control, he bellowed: "No one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer," he said. "End the madness now!"  He even made a nod to women's rights, proposing a New York version of President Obama's Lily Ledbetter Act, requiring women to be paid the same as men when performing equal work.

"From Andrew Cuomo's perspective all that matters is that if you do a good job in the spot you're elected to you might have the chance to move on to the next level," said Hank Sheinkopf, a long-time New York State Democratic operative.

This is a marked shift for the New York governor. Despite having the same last name as his famously liberal father, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hasn't exactly ingratiated himself with the Democratic base since being elected governor of the Empire State. He made quite a few liberals angry over his treatment ofunions and for his position in a New York State Senate political coup that resulted in Republicans sharing power in the state legislature even though Democrats elected more members.

But nationally, he's regularly touted as a contender for the Democratic presidential ticket in 2016. So when he called for sweeping gun-control reforms in his State of the State address on Wednesday, he wasn't just responding to the tragedy in Newtown. He was making a shrewd long-term political calculation.

"Everything with Cuomo is politics," added a national Democratic strategist with experience in New York campaigns. "He could have done anything he wanted on gun control in his first two years, but now it's in the headlines."

In a Quinnipiac University poll taken before the Newtown shooting but after shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, 61 percent of New Yorkers said they favored tougher gun laws, and seven in 10 Democrats said they think gun control is more important that gun rights, according to a separate Pew Research Center poll. The gun issue is effective for Cuomo because it scores him points among progressives but also does not upset Cuomo's well-heeled donor base, strategists say, since New York's gun laws are already among the nation's toughest. It's not clear yet exactly how much farther the new proposals would go. In his annual address, Cuomo called for the "toughest assault weapons ban in the nation."

Cuomo's political positioning is in many ways the reverse of neighboring Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Cuomo is courting his base after ticking them off in his first two years in office, while Christie is tacking to the center after playing to conservatives for most of his term.  Another similarity is the high approval rating both governors have after Sandy -- in the 70 percent range -- and both have amassed significant political capital to pursue ambitious initiatives.

"[The gun control issue] is just like Christie's Sandy hurricane response," said Democratic media Joseph Mercurio, who also teaches political communications at Fordham University. "He's proven to be a very effective governor in those terms. This is just one more in a series of things that will make him be an appreciated official at a higher rating."