(CNN)Primaries in deep blue New York State don't typically tell us much about where the Democratic Party, as a national operation, is headed. But this year's gubernatorial contest, pitting incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo against Cynthia Nixon, the progressive activist and actress, is no typical campaign.
Cuomo vs. Nixon is a preview of the 2020 Democratic primary
The race got off to a flying start last week, with Nixon blitzing Cuomo from the left, assailing the state's handling of New York City's ailing subway system and pledging on her website to deliver government "for the many, not just the few" -- a nod to leftist political language gaining traction with American progressives.
Cuomo, meanwhile, has been mostly quiet as he works to hammer out an on-time budget in Albany, the state capital, and navigates the aftermath of a longtime ally's recent conviction on corruption charges. The latter hasn't done much to hurt his standing, at least in the city, where a Quinnipiac survey released on Wednesday showed him with a strong approval rating among Gotham Democrats.
History says the early polling, which also gives Cuomo a significant lead over Nixon, should tighten over the course of the campaign. But more interesting -- and consequential -- than the horse race is the animating clash over policy, governing style and more existential questions about the party's core purpose.
Parallels with that broader debate haven't gone unnoticed, at least in more locally focused media. The Cut, a popular blog on New York Magazine's website, asked readers last week to "Meet the 'Bernie Bros' Who Love Cynthia Nixon." One of the 20-somethings quoted in the post praised Nixon's early broadsides against Cuomo's Democratic credentials, saying, "This immediately shifts the frame of the conversation and attempts to take control of the party platform."
Whether it works is an open question. What's more settled is that the 2020 primary contest will feature attempts, both by the candidates and their supporters, to take advantage of the current leadership vacuum and define the future of Democratic politics on their preferred terms.
For the Warren and Sanders wing of the party, this means a dedicated effort to decommodify American life -- that is, to take the market and its profit motives out, as much as possible, of things like health care and infrastructure. When it comes to regulating private industry, worker and consumer rights take priority over the promise of economic growth. Across this increasingly blurry divide are moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden, who don't view the public interest and business as natural rivals -- and would point to a program like Obamacare, which until recently mandated Americans purchase private insurance, as a notable success.
To voters, these might seem like academic disputes. After all, Sanders and Warren, along with their progressive allies, fought tooth-and-nail to protect Obamacare from GOP repeal efforts. But rhetoric and ideology are important, especially for Democrats rebuilding -- and, in many cases, trying to reimagine -- the party after its 2016 wipeout.
Nixon, a native New Yorker whose activism stretches back nearly two decades, and Cuomo, son of three-term former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, are steeped in liberal politics. But they represent, in 2018, those largely opposing ideas about how Democrats should sort their agenda and, as importantly, go forward and pursue it.
In a February speech to the Human Rights Campaign, Nixon called for the election of "bluer" and "better Democrats." She has since questioned whether Cuomo himself is a "real Democrat" and laid the blame for statewide economic imbalance at his feet.
"This is not something that just happens by mistake," Nixon said at her campaign kick-off event. "It comes from a choice. It comes from a choice to slash taxes for corporations and the super-rich and slash services on everybody else. And it's a choice we're used (to seeing) being made by Republicans like Donald Trump. But for the past eight years, it is a choice that's been made by our governor, Andrew Cuomo."
Nixon's policy argument is actually pretty simple. She believes government would be more efficient, credible and progressive if it grew revenue by embracing higher taxes on the wealthy and big business and ditched credits and subsidies to private businesses -- like those in the film industry.
"I don't think there's any real truth that that enormous expenditure of money is making a significant enough different in production to justify it," Nixon told the Buffalo News. She has also made a point of touting her refusal to accept corporate donations and success early on in raising money from small donors, with whom Cuomo has struggled. All strike at the nerve Sanders exposed in 2016 -- the recognition that even liberal policy gains had failed to offset growing economic inequality.
Recently, a pair of 2020 prospects from the region, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (who has endorsed Cuomo) and Cory Booker of New Jersey, announced that they would forswear corporate cash, decisions widely viewed as yet another sign of their national ambitions.
Like any executive pursuing a third term in office, Cuomo's record, at least to left-leaning Democrats, is a mixed bag. He's scuffled with unions, pursued spending and tax cuts and positioned himself successfully as an economic moderate, all the while enjoying a buffer created by a convoluted coalition deal in Albany that gives Republicans control of the state Senate.
Cuomo's ability to negotiate -- or orchestrate, depending on your view of him -- that odd arrangement signals different things to different people. Some progressives view it as akin to political treachery. There is a campaign, its efforts amplified on Thursday by Nixon, to unseat the crossover Democrats. Cuomo allies, however, dismiss the process and point to the results.
"I defy anybody to cite a better progressive record as chief executive than he has," Ken Sunshine, the public relations guru and Cuomo friend, told the New Republic in July 2017. "From the toughest gun law in the country-- which was very difficult to do -- to gay marriage, to a host of social programs, what are they going to campaign for?"
Cuomo's also delivered paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage deal and tuition-free college -- none going as far some progressive proponents would have liked, especially given the political make-up of the state, but significant achievements all the same. Expect that dynamic to persist into 2020. Support for the policies signed by Cuomo will be among the lowest barriers of entry to the presidential primary field -- a sign, if nothing else, of Democrats' broad-based progressive shift.
The exchanges that expose the divisions among the 2020 candidates, and separate out the eventual winner, might sound a lot like what's coming from the Cuomo and Nixon camps. Velocity, or the pace of reforms (see: single-payer health care), and vision, the ability to articulate a coherent plan, will be the undercurrents that drive those debates.
For now, though, the smart hopefuls will be taking notes on what works -- and what doesn't -- in New York.