Originally published in The Intercept on August 11, 2021.
FLIPPING THE HOUSE SEAT in New York’s 24th Congressional District — which includes all of Cayuga, Onondaga, and Wayne counties as well as the western part of Oswego County — should be a feasible task for Democrats, given that the district elected President Joe Biden in 2020 by 9 percentage points, Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 4 points, and President Barack Obama in 2012 by 16 points. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already designated the upstate New York district as one of its 21 “red-to-blue” targets for 2022.
Hoping to capitalize early on this for the Democratic Party is Steven Holden, a 48-year-old retired Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holden, the only primary candidate so far, served as a military finance officer and says he was part of the unit that helped finance the operation that led to Saddam Hussein’s capture in 2003.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in
But Democrats have faced tough defeats in their past attempts to unseat Rep. John Katko, a former U.S. attorney who was elected in 2014. He’s earned a reputation as an independent thinker in a party increasingly drifting toward extremism. While Katko voted with President Donald Trump more than 90 percent of the time during the representative’s first term, that figure dipped to just over 50 percent during his second. Analysts say things could be different, though, now that Trump is out of office. In January, Katko also voted to impeach the president following the attack on the Capitol — a decision that cost him the backing of prominent local conservatives.
In other words, despite the grim national forecast Democrats face for the 2022 midterms, the party is still hoping that now might be a favorable time for a Democrat to flip the seat. The next question is whether Holden is the man for the job.
When Balter ran to unseat Katko in 2018 and 2020, she campaigned on issues like universal health care, legalizing marijuana, and a $15 minimum wage. In both races, she suffered great losses, losing by about 6 and 15 points, respectively. While her first run was hobbled by a lack of financial support from the party establishment, her 2020 run had the support of the DCCC, EMILY’s List, Obama, Biden, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The 2020 contest was among the DCCC’s “red-to-blue” targets.
Moderates were quick to pin Balter’s losses on her progressive platform. In a blog post, the centrist group Third Way said her defeat showed that Democrats “must run with mainstream, moderate candidates and ideas central to the Party’s position.”
But 2020 was a tough year for nearly all “red-to-blue” candidates, as well as incumbent moderate Democrats like Abby Finkenauer in Iowa and Max Rose in New York. House Democrats lost a net of 11 seats and saw their majority drop to a slim 220-212 lead over Republicans.
Despite centrists’ warnings, Holden thus far is not looking to create much distance between him and Balter on matters of policy.
“I know there are some political actors who take the view that [Balter] lost because she ran too much as a progressive, but I don’t think that’s accurate,” Holden told The Intercept. “Just from what I know here, the biggest reason she lost is because of turnout, that’s honestly what this is.” (In fact, more than 340,000 voters cast ballots in the 24th District race in 2020, up from 260,00 in 2018 and 302,000 in 2016.)
Balter, who told The Intercept she is not considering running for office “at this time,” said she thinks that a Democratic candidate, whoever that is in 2022, could beat Katko. “President Biden and the Democrats in Congress are delivering for the people,” she said, pointing to pandemic relief checks, local government aid, and the expanded child tax credit. Katko, by contrast, “is failing central New Yorkers in a big way,” she said, and “spends his time stoking the fears of his extreme right-wing base and placating his corporate donors.”
Holden’s theory of change rests on increased turnout (a harder task during the midterms) and “hammering Katko from all sides” on policy. He chalks Balter’s loss up to some siphoned votes from traditional fusion voting. (Over 13,000 voters cast ballots for Steven Williams, a Working Families Party candidate, though Balter lost by almost 35,000 votes.)
He also thinks his background and experience as a veteran could help him win back some Democrats who voted for Katko as well as attract rural voters. “I know Dana tried, but I’m going to go in and talk about issues with Wayne County and the rural part of Cayuga County, and really getting rural and suburban voters to where they feel comfortable with me,” he said. Left unspoken is the question of whether a male military veteran will fare better in upstate New York than Balter, a female professor, did.
BUT HOLDEN’S STRENGTH as a candidate is unclear, particularly if he hopes to clear the progressive lane. For one, regional activists say that so far his campaign has involved little grassroots organizing.
“We don’t have a relationship with him and haven’t been contacted by him,” said Brian Escobar, co-chair of the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America chapter.
“We don’t know anything about Holden, and he hasn’t reached out to us,” added Tom Heck, a member of the steering committee for Indivisible-24, a local chapter of a national progressive advocacy group.
Nearly two months into his campaign, Holden has no Twitter account, and his Facebook page, which he updates frequently with videos of him discussing issues, has roughly 110 followers.
The district is also set to be redrawn soon, and Heck thinks it’s too soon to say how competitive it will be. (Indivisible-24 backed Balter in 2018 and 2020, and Heck says the group is focused right now on both local issues and pushing nationally for voting rights reform.) That redistricting process hasn’t started yet, but the census data is set to be released later this month, and it will be the first time in the state’s history that district lines are drawn by an independent redistricting commission.
Meanwhile, Katko has his own intraparty conflicts to attend to before the election. While the local branch of the Conservative Party of New York announced in April that it will not endorse Katko, whether the incumbent faces a real primary threat will depend on if the Conservative Party actually chooses to get behind another candidate.
In a statement to The Intercept, Onondaga County Conservative Party Chair Bernard Ment said the local party’s decision about John Katko “will ultimately be decided by our state party with recommendations forthcoming from the counties in the Congressional District” and that they are waiting for the redistricting commission to issue its recommendation. “I will say that I have been approached by a number of candidates willing to take up the challenge to primary Mr. Katko for the Republican endorsement and we may be inclined to back a challenger if that individual shows bonafide Conservative credentials,” he said, adding that the decision will ultimately be up to Gerard Kassar, chair of the state Conservative Party, and the state executive committee.
For now, no other Democratic candidates have jumped into the race, but a source with knowledge of the local Democratic Party said they’re aware of other candidates being recruited and expect some additional people to announce bids soon.
“We are looking forward to reminding voters of Katko’s toxic record and sending him into retirement in 2022,” DCCC spokesperson Abel Iraola said in an email. “His craven flip-flop on pursuing the truth about the insurrection and his vote against the Child Tax Credit and relief for New York families and small businesses show he is more out of touch with his district than ever before, and make him one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.”