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Andrew Cuomo is in trouble — but probably not for reelection

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012. (AP Photo/Tim Roske, File)

This post has been corrected.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has three things going for him as he faces a reelection campaign this year. First, he's a Cuomo, and the last name that helped him earn his current position, following in the footsteps of his popular father, former governor Mario Cuomo, likely still works some magic. Second, he's managed to keep potent liberal challengers off the ballot. And third, and most importantly, he's a Democrat in a heavily Democratic state.

Last week, the New York Times dropped what would in many places have been a deadly election-year story. It detailed how Cuomo first championed and then apparently scuttled an independent commission looking into corruption in the New York state government.

The story reports on how Cuomo set up the so-called Moreland Commission in response to a series of arrests in early 2013, holding a press conference to declare that it would "go a long way towards restoring that public trust." Cuomo used the commission to score political points, running an ad in 2013 touting its creation.

"The politicians in Albany won't like it, but I work for the people," Cuomo says.

Well, at least one politician in Albany didn't appreciate the investigations. And that politician was Andrew Cuomo.

The problem with creating a committee designed to investigate New York politics is that it will investigate New York politics, and that meant possibly investigating the governor. When the committee's lead investigator issued a subpoena to a media firm that did a lot of business with Cuomo (apparently not knowing about the connection), the governor's secretary quickly demanded that it be pulled back. While the governor appeared at times to be enthusiastic about the panel, telling it, "I will get what you need" and approvingly noting how frightened lawmakers were, ongoing tension between commission staffers loyal to Cuomo and those moving forward on the investigation resulted in other similar conflicts.

This spring, well shy of the originally stated duration of the commission, Cuomo announced that it would be folded, after some ethics measures -- what the Times calls "modest improvements" -- were included in the state's budget.

In a lengthy letter to the Times, Cuomo's attorneys argued that the panel was never independent of his office. And, therefore, that it "cannot investigate the executive. It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test." The governor also pointed to statements from members of the commission during an appearance in Buffalo earlier this week, including from one of the leaders of the commission, William Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, who the original Times report depicts as acquiescent to Cuomo's wishes throughout his tenure, released a statement absolving the governor of blame. "The governor in forming the commission announced that it would be an independent body. It was," he wrote -- with Cuomo echoing that sentiment anew. "I never said it couldn’t investigate me," he said in Buffalo.

Two weeks ago, Siena College Research Institute conducted a poll in New York that found that Cuomo was leading his Republican opponent by 37 points -- in part, that's thanks to a nifty bit of politics Cuomo pulled off earlier this year, cutting a deal on legislation with the politically influential Working Families Party to prevent it from fielding a candidate of its own. In New York's electoral system, candidates can run on multiple party lines, allowing Working Families to endorse Cuomo. It did.

If it hadn't endorsed him, this year's race could have been dramatically different. Cuomo only led by 15 in a three-way race including a Working Families candidate, according to an April Siena poll. There were calls for the progressive Working Families Party to nominate such a candidate before its convention, because of the perception among those on the left that Cuomo is only strategically loyal to their causes: celebrating gay marriage and gun control, but cozying up to wealth. (Andrew Prokop outlined this nicely at Vox.) The moment the Working Families Party decided to back Cuomo, his reelection became all-but-certain.

There are still two wild cards. The first is an unusual intraparty challenge from a professor of constitutional law with the more-California-than-New-York name Zephyr Teachout. Teachout's candidacy is a long-shot, but she has a few medals to brandish, such as a generous mention in The New Yorker. Cuomo isn't taking her challenge for granted. Earlier this month, his campaign copped to sending protesters to a Teachout event -- the sort of heavy-footed move normally reserved for actual threats to an incumbent's position.

The other wild card is the big one. Well before the Times' report on the Moreland Commission, U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara was tracking the extent to which Cuomo had intervened in its work, ordering the governor to keep copies of communications between his office and the commission. After the supportive statements from Fitzpatrick and other members, Bharara stepped in again. On Wednesday, the Times reports, he demanded in a letter that Cuomo and his staff not "influence or tamper with a witness’s recollection of events relevant to our investigation" -- which includes asking them to release letters of support for Cuomo's role. "[S]uch actions," the letter read, "constitute obstruction of justice or tampering with witnesses that violate federal law."

Could Cuomo lose this November? Sure. Anyone can lose at any time, provided certain things happen. There haven't been any reliable polls in the wake of the Moreland Commission news, so it's not yet clear how voters are responding -- or if they're even aware of it. In a head-to-head contest between a Democratic Cuomo and a Republican Anyone Else (the nominee is Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino), the former has advantages that very likely trump concerns over who controlled what commission and when.

Of course, 2016 -- in which some see/saw Cuomo as a potential presidential contender -- is another matter entirely.

Correction: This post originally identified Teachout as a third-party candidate. She is running as a Democrat. Astorino is the Republican nominee.