Three-term Rep. John Katko (NY-24) is one of just three House Republicans left from districts Hillary Clinton carried, after defying 2018's blue wave. His key to success: taking advantage of Syracuse's small, cheap media market to build a reputation as a gang-busting former prosecutor and moderate who isn't afraid to buck his party, including voting against the GOP's healthcare bill in 2017.
The apparent winner of Tuesday's Democratic primary is progressive activist Dana Balter, who leads Iraq veteran Francis Conole 65 percent to 35 percent as of the current count. Balter, a former lecturer at Syracuse's public affairs school, held Katko to a 53 percent to 47 percent win in 2018 and never really stopped running since. She's tapped her network to raise $854,000 for the rematch.
But the main threat to Katko isn't Balter; it's the top of the ticket. President Trump is currently tanking in national polls, and Joe Biden — a 1968 Syracuse Law graduate whose first wife was from Skaneateles in the Finger Lakes region — is something of a favorite son here. Clinton won here 49 percent to 45 percent in 2016, but Katko could face much stronger headwinds this time.
In 2016, Katko ran 16 points ahead of Trump, taking a massive 61 percent en route to a second term after saying, "Donald Trump has not and will never earn my vote." But many voters went to the polls that year thinking Clinton would win and saw a vote for Katko as a check on Clinton. This January, Katko endorsed Trump for reelection, opening him to charges of flip-flopping.
As in 2018, Katko and Republicans will seek to localize the race by defining Balter, 44, as a radical egghead academic who grew up in Connecticut and has spent the past few decades working towards a Ph.D. One Katko ad last cycle rolled footage of "visiting assistant professor Dana Balter," explaining on tape that "we would pay for Medicare for All with a healthcare tax."
Democrats believe the five-point margin in 2018, down from 21 points in 2016, is evidence that they've made progress denting Katko's bipartisan image. Balter will highlight Katko's opposition to a 2019 background checks bill for gun purchases. Katko will talk about sponsoring bipartisan legislation to provide more mental health funding for frontline healthcare workers amid COVID-19.
In an era when split-ticket voting is rarer and rarer, Katko is part of a dying breed. He has a knack for getting good local press, and Balter has less than an ideal resume for the district. But Democrats are upbeat about their internal polling against Katko, and there's no question the national environment has deteriorated for Republicans. The race moves from Likely Republican to the Lean Republican column.