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Blue wave survivors: Can John Katko defy gravity again?

New York Republican faces rematch against Dana Balter

New York Rep. John Katko, who faces a rematch against Dana Balter, has outrun the top of the ticket before.
New York Rep. John Katko, who faces a rematch against Dana Balter, has outrun the top of the ticket before. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

This is the second installment of “Blue wave survivors,” a series analyzing whether House Republicans who survived the 2018 blue wave that swept Democrats into control can win against the same opponents in 2020. The first installment looked at Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis.

If anyone can survive a blue wave, it’s probably Rep. John Katko. The New York Republican has done it before, but this year could be different. 

Katko’s bid for a fourth term will be a test of whether a lawmaker can leverage his own personal brand and defy political gravity, after Republicans with similar profiles were swept out of office in 2018.

Two years ago, 22 of the 25 House Republicans representing districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 lost reelection. Katko was one of three such Republicans to survive. This year, he is among the most vulnerable lawmakers in the country as the political environment once again favors Democrats. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Katko’s race against former college professor Dana Balter Tilt Republican.

Strategists in both parties attributed Katko’s 2018 win to his strong brand as a moderate former prosecutor and to Balter’s more liberal profile. But the Democrat sees one key difference from 2018: Trump is on the ballot this year, and Katko has pledged to support him.

“That, I think, is the thumbnail sketch of why [Katko] is not the right representative for this district and why we’re going to win,” Balter said in a recent interview. “Because he supports Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s agenda. And the people of this district don’t.”

The Trump factor 

Katko didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, and he’s often criticized the president, most recently saying he disagreed with his decision last week to end negotiations over a pandemic relief package.

Back in January, Katko endorsed Trump, and he’s reiterated his support for the president since then. In August Katko told a local NPR station that his support for Trump was “no ringing endorsement of this president,” but rather out of concern that Joe Biden would cave to pressure from the far left and embrace a liberal agenda. 

“It’s a question of where are we going in this country as a whole, philosophically and politically,” Katko said.   

“I couldn’t agree with that more,” Balter said. “That’s exactly what this election is about. … And his choice, his conclusion is to endorse Trump.”

Former GOP Rep. James T. Walsh, who represented a predecessor district for two decades, still believes Katko is in a strong position to win. Walsh described the area as “center right,” noting that voters have been known to split their tickets.  

“They do it all the time here. I’m going to do that this time,” said Walsh, who’s voting for Biden and Katko. 

Voters did so in 2016, when Clinton carried the district by 4 points and Katko won reelection by 21 points. 

Katko is going to have to outrun Trump again, but the question is by how much. Biden, who attended law school at Syracuse University, is expected to win the district handily. 

He led Trump by 19 points in a Sept. 27-29 Siena College/ poll, which also showed Balter with a much narrower 3-point lead. 

In an apparent acknowledgment of Biden’s popularity, Katko and the National Republican Congressional Committee have even invoked the former vice president in TV ads, using footage of Biden criticizing “Medicare for All,” or a government-run health care system, which Balter supports.

Katko campaign manager Tom Haag called Balter “a far-left partisan who is too extreme for Central New York” and a “professional candidate who CNY voters have already rejected once.”

“She pushes a costly government takeover of healthcare that would end private insurance as we know it,” Haag said in an email. “Even Joe Biden criticizes Balter’s plan as a tax increase on the middle class.”

Balter said she does not support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ specific Medicare for All bill, noting she wants to preserve private insurance and supports “a gradual transition process from where we are to universal coverage.” 

Balter said she wasn’t surprised to see Republicans use Biden against her, but she sees it as a hollow attack, noting she was the first House candidate Biden endorsed.

Republicans have also launched ads criticizing Balter’s support for changes to the state’s cash bail processes, arguing those changes could put criminals back on the streets. Balter said such attacks were “using the Trump playbook to run a campaign of fear and lies.”

Democratic groups have sought to tie Katko to Trump in recent ads. Outside spending in the race is nearing $5 million, already surpassing the $4.4. million spent in 2018. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm did not spend in this race two years ago, but this year, its first ad targeted Katko, a sign the party sees the district as a top pickup opportunity. 

Balter attributes the national party’s engagement to her narrowing Katko’s victory margin to 5 points when he had previously won by double digits. For Balter, finally defeating Katko is just a matter of time. 

“I look at the last election as not that we lost, it’s just that we didn’t win yet,” she said. 

Coming next: Rep. Don Bacon faces a rematch with Democrat Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd District.

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