Analysis: Balter, Katko round 2 will go the distance

Democrat Dana Balter, above left, will try once again to knock off incumbent U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, above right. The two tangled in 2018 and decided to run it back in 2020.

The matchup is set and Oswego County residents should strap in for four months of Dana Balter and John Katko on your television, computer and radio.

Both parties have decided to run it back in 2020, and Balter vs. Katko round two is shaping up to be one of the hardest contested and most expensive races in the nation. Let’s take a look at some big picture aspects of this fall’s election before jumping deeper into local ramifications.

Democrats currently hold a 36-seat majority over Republicans in the House of Representatives, 233 to 197. Taking the majority power away from Republicans in 2018 allowed Democrats to pursue their impeachment of President Donald Trump, and bills in Congress are introduced in the House of Representatives. Republicans are naturally trying to reclaim sway over the chamber, with Democrats trying to prevent them from doing so.

In the United States Senate, Republicans hold a 53 to 45 majority. Two unaffiliated Senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, caucus with Democrats giving them 47 effective votes. Neither of New York’s senators, Kirsten Gillibrand or Minority Leader Charles Schumer, are up for re-election this year. Picking up enough seats to flip the majority will be tough for Dems nationwide, especially given mounting Republican campaigns to knock off vulnerable Democrats like Alabama’s Doug Jones and Michigan’s Gary Peters. On the flip side, Democrats will target Maine’s other senator, Susan Collins, and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Of the four races aforementioned, each features a candidate running in a state won by the opposing party’s 2016 presidential candidate.

These dynamics are important because they will significantly influence, and have already, strategy in the Balter/Katko dustup. Balter gave Katko his closest-run campaign of the three he’s faced so far; while Katko blew out his 2014 and 2016 Democrat opponents, Balter came within 5 percentage points. That may sound like a tight margin, and the Balter campaign is certainly playing up her puncher’s chance, but those 5 percentage points represent more than 13,000 votes.

The 24th Congressional District includes all of Cayuga, Wayne and Onondaga counties and the western half of Oswego County, including the cities of Fulton and Oswego. It’s a relatively compact district as upstate New York territory goes, with the Syracuse metro area the dominant population center. Onondaga County’s massive influence on the district makes the three other counties’ involvement seem almost perfunctory, election wise. In 2018, Balter received 85,592 votes out of Onondaga County. Cayuga, Wayne and Oswego counties, combined, produced roughly 30,000 votes for Balter.

Urban areas tend to vote reliably Democrat more than rural areas, and NY-24 is no different. Balter’s 85,000 votes in Onondaga County easily outpaced Katko’s 71,000, but take a look at the difference between those two numbers: it nearly matches Katko’s final margin of victory. In Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne counties, Katko was able to pick up enough votes to blunt Balter’s Onondaga County advantage. The race, at this point, was a functional tie. The knockout blow in 2018 came via New York’s fusion voting system.

In addition to the Republican Party, Katko appeared on the ballot lines of the Conservative, Independence and Reform parties. Balter appeared on the Working Families and Women’s Equality party lines. Add together and compare the votes received by each candidate on their minor party lines, and Katko emerges victorious by roughly 14,000 votes — again, right around the number of votes that gave Katko a third term in Congress and left Balter itching for another bout.

That’s the tale of the tape. What can fight fans expect in 2020? Early indications point to some familiar themes, with added timely elements.

Let’s first rewind to January 2020.

When Katko endorsed President Donald Trump for re-election in January, it was done as a quick press release emailed to media members to trade some short-term pain for long-term gain. The Democratic Party’s presidential primaries were dominating national political news, and Katko’s tepid support for Trump passed without much fanfare.

“As much as I am sometimes frustrated by the president's approach, I believe our country is in a better place today than it was four years ago,” Katko’s endorsement announcement said. “We cannot afford the extreme policies being championed by the left, which would result in higher taxes for every American and a guaranteed debt crisis for our country. Given this choice, I will support President Trump this November."

It was a shrewd move. For the rest of the campaign, Katko could deflect any question about Trump’s boorish behavior with a simple “asked and answered.” His years as a federal prosecutor are helpful here, and “refer to my previous statement, I’ve already talked about this” is frustrating for journalists but hardly newsmaking — and that’s the point. Katko doesn’t want to be forced into defending Trump’s indefensible behavior. With the convenient excuse of having made his position known months ago, he really hasn’t had to.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic. Such a simpler time, January 2020: before UV light inside the body, before John Bolton’s tell-all-on-my-own-timeline book, before the Tulsa goat rodeo, before the alleged bounties on American soldiers by Russian operatives. While national polling made fools of us all in 2016, the president’s stock is currently cratering. Trump himself admitted to Sean Hannity he could lose November’s election, a stunning admission from the world’s greatest self-promoter.

Balter’s gameplan will be to make the election a referendum not on John Katko, but Donald Trump. Katko’s record of legislative accomplishments is cautiously center-right, mainstream Republicanism. It’s largely unobjectionable, if sometimes uninspiring.

Balter’s primary night victory speech excoriated Trump and Katko in an attempt to set the tone for her campaign: voters can’t trust either of these guys.

“The people of the 24th district are ready to move past Donald Trump’s failed leadership and replace his enablers in Congress like John Katko,” Balter said.

Officials from Katko’s campaign declined to comment for this story.

Buoyed by strong fundraising and a decisive primary showing, Balter and nationwide Democrats clearly smell blood in the water. Hillary Clinton won NY-24 in 2016 over Donald Trump, one of only three districts to do so that is still represented by a Republican. While most campaigns would use that information as momentum to attack Katko, Democrat Francis Conole flipped it back on Balter: If she’s such a great candidate and this district is so winnable for a Democrat, why did she fail in 2018? It’s a question not without some merit but that messaging didn’t connect with primary voters, and Balter brushed aside Conole for the nod.

Balter’s 2018 campaign was proudly grassroots but this time around, she’s attracting more and more institutional support. She’s been elevated to the top tier of potential seat pickups by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a national Democratic Party organization designed to support viable candidates. The DCCC initially supported opponent Juanita Perez-Williams in the 2018 NY-24 Democratic Party primary and skepticism from both sides about the other caused a less-than-ideal coordination between the campaign and national flacks. No such schism this time. The DCCC almost immediately after the primary added Balter to their biannual “Red to Blue” program, a reliable prediction of its marquee races and to which candidates the most dollars will flow. The Oswego County Democratic Committee is also all in for Balter, with county party chair Gordon Prosser saying she’s the “candidate that will work for affordable health care, an economy that works for everyone and gets big money out of politics.”

Speaking of money and politics — Katko on Tuesday released his first television advertisement and the spot is airing now, according to his campaign. The ad hammers a message that Katko has spent four years honing, and the word “bipartisan” is spoken five times in the span of the 30-second commercial.

“Since being elected to represent central New York in Congress, Congressman Katko has consistently been named one of the most bipartisan and effective lawmakers by organizations such as the nonpartisan Lugar Center and Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy,” the Katko campaign said in the Tuesday press release. “His bipartisan approach to governing has yielded significant results, as Katko has become one of the most productive members in the House, with over 35 bills passed by the House with several signed into law by Presidents from both parties.”

It’s a strategy that’s worked in prior elections, and Katko will be bolstered by his six years spent accumulating name recognition and goodwill from the four counties he represents. He’s been a consistent and strong supporter of the push to add Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum to the National Park system, and has contributed congressional validation to the proposed Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. Those projects, however, are years away from appreciable action even if they are successful in receiving federal approval. An embarrassing 2016 incident where a Senate committee failed to act on Katko’s House of Representatives-approved Fort Ontario Study Act pushed the timeframe back even further. With the nation staring down a generational health crisis, a social movement packing city streets and a presidential election threatening to rend the country apart, National Parks and marine sanctuaries seem quaint. Voters will be looking for more from Katko.

Regardless of strategy, both sides have now spent years preparing for this fight. When the rockets really start to fly, all 700,000 central New Yorkers in NY-24 will be able to hear the detonation.

Election Day is Nov. 3.

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