It’s been a long time since Dana Balter began her campaign for Congress in 2017 as an insurgent upstart, and the Syracuse Democrat now finds herself carrying an unusual burden: the weight of expectation.
In writing this piece, The Palladium-Times spoke with a half-dozen upstate professionals in the fields of political and marketing campaigns, election strategy and governmental procedure. Most were granted anonymity to speak freely.
The race for New York’s 24th Congressional District is, as more than one operative described it, “Balter’s to lose.”
On its face, the race seems like an evenly matched if not uncommon trope: conservative incumbent man (U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus) vs. liberal grassroots woman. But it’s 2020 and we know better than to reduce individuals to conventionalized cliches, so let’s look a little closer at why some of the smart money is starting to hammer the challenger and fade the champ.
The very big picture
The race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will appear at the top of every ballot in the nation this November. Balter since jump street has been trying to link Katko and Trump in the minds of voters as the president’s performance and performance ratings continue to nosedive. Eternal disclaimer: polling data in the last presidential election led many (including this writer) to believe Hillary Clinton would roll to an easy victory. That, obviously, was not the case and we all looked very dumb on Nov. 9, 2016. Keeping that grain of salt in mind, even compared to this time in 2016, Biden is pulling away from Trump. An ABC poll released Sunday showed Biden with a nationwide 15-point lead; Clinton’s lead on Trump in July 2016 was 4 points.
“The polls will tighten and the race will tighten — nobody ever walks away with a presidency,” said John Balduzzi, a central New York native whose eponymous political strategy firm has represented clients coast to coast for more than two decades. “In presidential years, the outcome will determine some congressional races. You can put in a lot of work and raise a lot of money, but the race is sometimes decided by a national narrative.”
The Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare in a way not even congressional impeachment could that the president’s focus is on destroying his enemies and not healing a rent and sick nation. Thirty nine percent of Americans approve of how Trump is performing, according to a Washington Post poll charting responses from July 12-15; Fifty seven percent disapprove. As hard as Trump tries to attack the coronavirus and Biden, the less effective he is both at campaigning and governing. A Sunday Fox News poll has Biden up by 8 points, with Biden leading in a “mental soundness” question by 4 points. Historically bad numbers tend to lead to historically bad results.
“Joe Biden is the universal donor,” said one campaign professional who has worked more than a dozen elections in central New York over the past two decades. “(Biden) doesn’t turn anyone off, but Trump’s collapse strongly suggests we’re off the map here.”
A fresh, energetic candidate at the top of the ticket is often extremely useful in supporting down-ballot races, and Biden can be charitably called wanting in that regard. Maybe it won’t matter.
“Dems don’t need a top-of-the-ticket candidate,” said the same campaign pro. “Trump will pull voters out for them.”
Clearly, this is the worst-case scenario for Katko: an army of formerly apathetic voters coast to coast floods the polls to vote against Donald Trump and anyone associated with him. The only apt comparison in modern political history is the 1974 mid-term elections, the first held since the resignation of President Richard Nixon three months prior. It was a blowout; Anti-Nixonian sentiment at the polls led to a net gain of 49 seats for Democrats in Congress. Katko has himself acknowledged that the presidential race isn’t about Biden as much as about rebuking the current administration, but also told the Pall-Times it was very unlikely he would rescind his endorsement of Trump.
“Katko is 100 percent in a tough spot,” Balduzzi said. “All things being equal, this president is probably bogging down Katko’s re-election hopes. He’s trying to keep his distance far enough not to be tied to Trump, but no matter how coy about his support, Katko needs that Republican voter base.”
Balter said Katko’s support for Trump, which Katko told the Pall-Times last week he based largely on the United States’ economic strength and conservative direction over the last three years, is “legitimizing a real threat.”
“(Katko) diminishes and minimizes the real danger that Donald Trump poses to our country. We are less secure than we were since before (Trump) took office,” Balter said in a recent phone interview. “(Trump) refuses to do anything about Russia putting bounties on the heads of American troops. He’s fomenting hatred and bigotry and making marginalized communities less safe.”
Asked for a response to Balter’s above claims, Katko said “despite the president’s many warts,” he was unmoved by the criticism.
“(Dana Balter) has no interest in anything other than being part of the far left agenda,” Katko told the Pall-times. “She’s unabashed about it. Frankly, it scares the hell out of me to see where my opponent and her party are.”
New York Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy told The Palladium-Times on Monday that Balter's efforts will be no more successful than they were two years ago.
"If they weren't able to take out John Katko in that midterm election, they won't get him this year," Langworthy, a native of the Buffalo area, said. "John has done an incredible job representing the taxpayers and he doesn't view the world in a Democrat or Republican lens - he's fighting for the community. The people of central New York know better than to believe Dana Balter."
As noted in a previous iteration of this column, national Democrats are seeking to expand upon and protect their 36-seat majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans will do the same for their six-seat Senate majority. NY-24 is referred to as a “D+3” district, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, due to the strong performance of Hillary Clinton as the last presidential nominee. Katko won re-election in 2016, one of just three districts in the nation won by Clinton that also elected a Republican to Congress. An astonishing one in four NY-24 Republican ballots in 2016 were split tickets between Katko and Hillary Clinton. Onondaga County, dominated by the city of Syracuse, cast more than double the amount of votes for Balter in 2018 than Oswego, Cayuga and Wayne counties combined. The most votes are in Onondaga; Balter performs the best in Onondaga. That’s a simple solution for success.
“Biden is likely to carry NY-24 by even more than Hillary did,” said a top aide to a prominent CNY elected official. “There just seems to be more motivation on that side of the electorate. She should win (over Katko), but the primary election again made her turn left, and that could hurt her. We could see lots of Biden/Katko ballots in vote-rich places like Clay.”
Central New York and NY-24 in particular have a long, rich (as in affluent) tradition of sending white man after white man to Capitol Hill, with the notable local exception of Republican Ann Marie Buerkle from 2011 to 2013. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it speaks to a reality of this race: No Democrat woman has ever represented Oswego County in Congress, and it would be a remarkable change in style to take place over the decade since Rep. John McHugh left the seat in 2009 to take over as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Army.
Speaking of McHugh — when he represented Oswego County, it was as congressman for New York’s 23rd District. When districts were redrawn after the 2010 census, Oswego County was effectively swapped for Saratoga County to create the 21st District, currently represented by Republican Elise Stefanik. Oswego County then became part of NY-24, where it will remain for the next two years. This is important because in the interregnum since the last census, Democrats gained control of the majority in the New York State Senate. Guess who draws the lines every 10 years for redistricting? That’s right, the leadership of the State Senate. Should Balter win, her district will inevitably change due to mandated redistricting — and with Albany Democrats leading the effort, the party stands to create extremely favorable maps. Gerrymandering! As American as free elections. One individual who spoke with the Pall-Times called it a “golden ticket.” If a Democrat holds NY-24 during redistricting, they stand a good chance of holding it for a lot longer.
The big picture
One overriding caveat to every single word above: this year, no one really knows anything. It’s not our fault. It’s the COVID.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown just about every aspect of American life into disarray, and not the least of our ointment flies is election operations. The returns of vote-by-mail ballots and absentee ballots (which are the exact same thing) are this year much higher than any previous election. That makes perfect sense: people are staying home and don’t want to risk going to the polls and catching or spreading the virus. What’s been really shocking is the overall voting rate. In June’s NY-24 primary, more ballots were cast than in the previous two Democratic Party primaries combined. This could be due to the aforementioned Trump opposition galvanizing the electorate, but we don’t know.
Another unique situation arose in a western New York Congressional special election this year, held on the same date as the June primary. It appeared Republican State Sen. Chris Jacobs had convincingly defeated Democrat Nate McMurray to serve the remainder of the term of U.S. Rep. Chris Collins. Collins, a Republican leader in Washington, resigned due to federal insider trading charges last year, and the Niagara Falls-area district had been without a Congressman since. A strange thing started happening as absentee votes began to be opened and counted: McMurray, defying all conventional wisdom about mail ballots breaking like the in-person electorate, crushed Jacobs in the mailed ballot category. McMurray closed a 30-point election night lead to just 5 points, baffling observers.
“Absentee ballots are usually between 5 and 10 percent of the vote and comprised heavily of permanent absentee voters,” a western New York-based operative told the Pall-Times. “Now with COVID, it’s a huge percentage vis-à-vis the Election Day vote. It’s going to be fascinating to watch. I think there will be many surprises.”
Could the makeup of the NY-24 electorate change enough to close the 5-point gap that separated Balter and Katko in 2018?
“If casual and moderate Republicans stay home,” the WNY op said, “and the same on the Dem side come out, it could get very unpredictable.”
Asked about campaigning in the age of COVID, Balter said it was, to put it mildly, “a very strange time to be running for office.”
“You can’t go out to parades and meet people in their living rooms, or shake hands on the street corner and talk to people as you normally would,” Balter said. “That’s a really important part of politics and those personal connections are what keep you grounded.”
It was going to be a struggle for Balter to get over the top against Katko even in the best of circumstances. The profound upheaval of the coronavirus clipping the campaign’s wings with regards to direct voter contact will prevent Balter from doing much one-on-one in-person messaging. 2020 will be a grand experiment in modern campaigning, even if some of the control factors are non-standard. Balter has been campaigning for this seat for four years; Katko has been serving in it for six. Millions of dollars were spent in 2018 on advertising for and against the candidates, both introducing them to voters in a positive light and attacking them on a variety of issues. Both have substantial local name recognition, much more (especially for Balter) than one would expect to find in a congressional seat defense.
“Balter has had two years to improve her finesse,” said a Washington-based consultant. “She would be a good congressperson, no doubt, but right now it’s a candidate’s game.”
Timely issues are central to Balter’s campaign and she said she feels a sense of history in this race.
“We’re facing challenges that are more massive than anything we’ve seen in generations and they’re all happening at once,” Balter said. “Public health, the economy, racial justice, the environment — they’re all converging and what it says to me, is that there has never been a more important time to be politically engaged in whatever way works for you.”
Balter’s already spent years building a coalition of powerful supporters that includes national left-leaning heavy hitters like EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood Political Action and End Citizens United. Also jumping on the Balter bandwagon are powerful political action committees like House Majority PAC, which spends money supporting Democratic candidates who can help — you guessed it — keep the Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives. Outside of institutional party support, Balter is also attracting the attention of upstart PACs like the New York-based Late Breakers, which added Balter to its candidate stable earlier this month — a sign that the race is beginning elicit attention from interests who can push chips toward her. People and organizations with resources, the CW goes, didn’t get that way by betting on losing causes.
The local picture
John Katko in 2018’s election won Oswego County with 14,180 votes to Balter’s 9,295 votes. Those 5,000 votes of difference are just a fraction of the eventual district-wide vote total for each candidate (136,000 for Katko 123,000 for Balter), but it was a stronger showing in Oswego County for a Democrat than in 2016 (a 8,800 vote difference). The districts’ boards of elections said they issued more than 28,000 absentee ballots for June’s Balter/Francis Conole primary. In 2018, a total of 115,000 Democrats district-wide pulled the lever for Balter (the rest of her votes were compiled on minor party lines). That means an amount of 2020 voters equal to a little less than one quarter of all 2018’s Dem general election voters requested to vote by mail in the 2020 primary. Those are explosive numbers for any party, any year, and have given local Democrats a reason to believe.
"Since Dana decided to take another shot at NY-24 and John Katko, my message to her has been simple: finish the job,” said Oswego County Legislator Tom Drumm. “Dana has proved time and time again she is the person to represent Oswego County in Congress. She has been put through every test you can imagine and has come out stronger as a result. She refuses to cave to political pressure, unlike her opponent.”
The effects of a massive vote-by-mail surge this year will be known only after the votes are counted, but early indications are good for Democrats.
“Both the primary election and school district votes this year had vote-by-mail options, and both had record turnout,” said an Oswego County native, now working for an Albany elected official. “High turnout skews Democratic, and the district is trending Democratic, so new voters will only add to her total.
“But,” he added, “This election is like none we’ve ever seen.”
It’s unlikely Oswego County or the Syracuse metro area will receive much attention from national candidates, even with Joe Biden holding a juris doctorate from SU School of Law. New York is a reliably Democratic-voting state in the Electoral College so it doesn’t make sense to burn money here; Biden and Trump television ad wars have been raging in battleground states like Nevada and Michigan for months. In a close race we could see, as we’ve seen in the past with Biden, the Democrats’ Vice Presidential nominee visit the district. Two reported front-runners for the VP spot, U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, both closer resemble Balter’s liberal philosophy than the 77-year-old former Delaware Senator, and could be deployed with great effect.
The two NY-24 candidates are sure to trade more barbs and advertisements before the Nov. 3 Election Day in a race that feels increasingly desperate for both.
“(Dana Balter) can’t control the presidential election, but she can control her campaign methods and messaging, raising money, trying to reach voters,” Balduzzi said.
One of Balter’s messages, she says, will be to deny the “false choice” between a president who is good for the economy and one who “respects and defends government institutions.”
“We don’t have to trade economic security for personal safety, or access to health care, or strong democratic institutions,” Balter said. “John Katko has fallen in line with the failed economic policies of the 1980's. The way you make an economy strong is not by giving money to the rich and propping up the stock market.”
Seth Wallace is the managing editor of The Palladium-Times. He lives in the city of Oswego.