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The Hill

Democrats eye prime pickup chance in Katko retirement

By Julia Manchester,

© AP/Andrew Harnik

Democrats are eyeing New York’s 24th Congressional District as a prime pickup opportunity after incumbent GOP Rep. John Katko announced last week he would not seek reelection in November.

New York hasn’t finalized its new political maps, but Democrats say they’re confident the Syracuse-area district will play well for them as the party faces an uphill battle to retain its grip on the lower chamber. The Cook Political Report rates the district as favorable for Democrats, and President Biden won the district by 9 points in 2020.

Population shifts could also benefit Democrats in the redistricting process, and there are questions as to how well the Trump-touting GOP primary field could play in what is seen as a moderate district.

“Democrats are excited,” said one Democratic operative. “John Katko was obviously, I think, one of the more difficult Republicans to go up against.”

Katko, one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach former President Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, was one of just nine House Republicans in 2020 to win a district Biden carried. The 59-year-old has represented the district since 2015 and defeated his Democratic challenger in 2020 by 10 points, so strategists say his absence opens the door for Democrats.

Three Democrats, all military veterans, have so far thrown their hats into the ring, including Navy veteran Francis Conole, Air Force veteran Sarah Klee Hood and Army veteran Steven Holden.

Conole and Hood have both been described as moderate Democrats, which strategists argue would help them fit into the purple district. But both brushed off that characterization in interviews with The Hill.

“I think it’s important to meet people where they are and to listen and to understand the problems and the challenges they face,” Conole said. “I think sometimes we focus too much on these labels.”

Hood said that while she is in favor of universal health care, a major progressive policy, she believes that it should be gradually introduced and implemented over a period of time.

“I also understand that there’s been a lot of fearmongering about what universal health care truly looks like, so really at the end of the day it’s a change management process,” she said. “If we need to take baby steps to get toward universal health care, I’m open to that.”

Dana Balter was the last progressive to run in the district. She defeated Conole in the district’s 2020 Democratic primary but lost to Katko by 10 points in the general election. In 2018, Balter lost to Katko by a narrower, 5-point margin.

In 2020, Republicans hit Balter over her stance on “Medicare for All,” arguing she was too extreme for the district. The GOP successfully employed similar strategies against Democrats in battleground districts across the country.

Despite skepticism over how well liberals can perform in the district, Holden has positioned himself as the contest’s progressive candidate.

“In the primaries, progressives do very well here,” Holden said, citing Balter’s previous two runs. “She beat two establishment candidates, and people say it’s because of name. No, it’s because she’s progressive.”

But other experts warn that nominating someone who is too far to the left could turn off moderate voters, such as those who voted for both Biden and Katko in 2020.

“It’s fundamentally moderate even if it leans Democratic,” said Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

“There are a lot of moderate Republicans, there are a lot of moderate Democrats, and it is an area that generally likes to get comfortable with its political representatives, all things being equal, and keep them in office for a long time,” Reeher continued.

Before Katko’s announcement last week, three Republicans announced they would challenge who they thought would be the incumbent in the primary. They include neurosurgery physician’s assistant Tim Ko, software engineer John Murtari and Air Force veteran Andrew McCarthy. All three of the candidates have expressed a level of support for Trump and have spoken out against Katko’s vote to impeach him.

Democrats appear eager to tie the eventual GOP nominee to the former president in November’s general election.

“Central New York will be an uphill climb to win a congressional seat in this area off a Trump agenda,” the Democratic operative said.

But Republicans point to Biden’s foundering approval ratings as a reason to be optimistic going into November.

“Joe Biden won this area, but there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse with Joe Biden right now,” Ko told The Hill. “Democrats vote for Democrats. That’s how they behave, so I’m not overly concerned about getting Democrat votes. I’m more interested in independents, conservatives and Republicans.”

“We keep saying Joe Biden is the gift that just keeps on giving,” he added, referring to inflation and the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

Ko referred to himself as a supporter of Trump’s policies but noted that his communication style differs from that of the former president.

“I’m not one to back down from a fight,” Ko said. “But I also don’t go picking fights either.”

Ultimately, the seat’s future amid the redistricting process remains unclear, but Democrats appear to have the upper hand, given their control of the state legislature.

Last week, New York state lawmakers voted down redistricting maps that were sent to them by the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission. The commission has one last opportunity to redraw the state’s congressional map later this month, but experts say they expect the process could end up in the hands of the Democratic-led legislature. The new lines would likely favor Democrats if the party’s state lawmakers take over the process.

The Empire State is losing a congressional seat as a result of population decline. The commission had previously floated the idea of merging the 24th Congressional District with the 22nd District, which is represented by Rep. Claudia Tenney (R). That scenario would have pitted Tenney and Katko against each other in a primary.

As candidates await redistricting results and gear up for primaries, experts are warning parties to elect candidates away from the fringes of the political spectrum.

“I think it would be unfortunate for the district, if it’s relatively the same district, if in the general election the voters were presented a choice by the two parties between a Trump-supporting Republican and an election-denying Republican and a super liberal or extremely progressive Democrat,” Reeher, of Syracuse University, said. “That would be a hell of a choice.”

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