ALBANY As Zephyr Teachout says, there wasn't supposed to be a Democratic primary in Andrew Cuomo's New York, where the powerful governor with national ambitions was expected to sweep to a second term.
Instead, Cuomo is facing a politically awkward challenge from a woman whose name is as improbable as her campaign.
Teachout, a Fordham University law professor, is far behind in money and remains largely unknown to most New Yorkers. Yet her quixotic tilt at one of the nation's most powerful governors underscores Cuomo's uneasy relationship with liberals — and highlights his reputation as a controlling leader who leaves nothing to chance.
Turnout for primaries is often low, maximizing the impact of grassroots supporters and reducing the impact from campaign advertisements. Teachout could deliver a strong liberal rebuke to Cuomo even if she only wins up to 20 or 25 percent of the vote Sept. 9, according to Maurice Carroll, assistant director of polling at the Quinnipiac University Poll.
"He's going to win, but she's going to embarrass him," Carroll said.
That may explain why Cuomo's supporters waged a dogged fight to knock Teachout off the ballot, subpoenaing her tax and employment records to challenge her New York residency before dropping the effort after two courts ruled in Teachout's favor.
Cuomo has angered some liberals and union members with his centrist approach to government and politics. He's backed gay marriage and gun control but also business friendly tax policies and charter schools. He won the endorsement of the Working Families Party — a coalition of liberal groups — only after promising to double-down on his support for their priorities, including a higher minimum wage.
Teachout, 42, liberal activist who worked on Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential campaign and moved to New York in 2009, was the only other contender for the Working Families Party nod. She won 40 percent of the vote and days later announced she would run as a Democrat.
The legal challenge to her candidacy was filed by two college students who are listed online as Cuomo campaign interns. It may have backfired since it gave the little-known Teachout a new wave of statewide media attention.
"Once again the governor has been exposed as a petty bully," Mike Boland, Teachout's campaign manager, wrote in a letter to supporters. "This lawsuit underscores the fact that Gov. Cuomo is actually worried about Zephyr Teachout's campaign and is shining a light on his refusal to debate with her."
Cuomo has so far dodged the question of a debate, and his campaign says there are no plans to hold one before the primary. The governor seldom talks about his re-election bid.
"I take nothing for granted," Cuomo, 56, told a Fox News host this month when asked about his campaign. "I am working very hard, but I feel good about the job we've done here in the state of New York, and I'm eager to go through once again the record of accomplishment that we've had in this state."
Teachout's longshot bid picked up more momentum when she won the endorsement of the Public Employees Federation, the state's second-largest public-sector union, which had backed Cuomo in 2010. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO and the state's teacher's union declined to make an endorsement in the race, saying their members were too divided.
Primaries are typically low-turnout elections, and Teachout is betting that the Democrats most likely to vote are the ones most likely to be following her campaign.
"We're putting the politics back into politics," she told The Associated Press. "The challenge for any new candidate is just getting known. But we're in this to win it."
But with a $35 million campaign bank account and polls giving him a 2-to-1 lead over Republican Rob Astorino, Cuomo may be hoping to simply ignore Teachout. Public pollsters haven't bothered to survey the race; they say Teachout isn't well-known enough to bother.
Cuomo is widely believed to have presidential ambitions, and winning a second term by huge margins could help position him for a future run. Carroll, the Quinnipiac pollster, said a primary squabble with a little-known candidate isn't likely to upend that.
"This won't make a bit of difference," he said.