Fallout From DCCC Intervention in NY-24 & Why It May Not Matter By Luke Perry
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) intervention in NY-24 supporting Juanita Perez Williams over Dana Balter has provoked backlash and splintered the party. Such intervention during a primary tends to generate consternation among local party officials and members. The situation in NY-24 is particularly sensitive for several reasons.
1) Perez Williams Changed Her Mind
Stephanie Miner, former Syracuse mayor, would have been the likely Democratic front runner in NY-24, but she decided not to run, citing a potential primary challenge to Governor Cuomo. This was an early indication of how formidable an incumbent John Katko is.
Perez Williams initially declined to run, endorsed Balter, and even donated to Balter’s campaign three days prior declaring her own candidacy. Perez Williams later explained that her decision was influenced by a political mentor, whom she has not publicly identified.
2) County Committees Had Already Endorsed Balter
Perez Willliams joined the race after all four Democratic county committees in the district had endorsed Balter. Balter won Onondaga County, the largest in the district, in the first round of voting with over 70 percent support.
Committee chairs subsequently criticized the DCCC, whom they believe recruited Perez Williams, in the following joint statement:
3) Balter Has Widespread Grassroots Support
Balter has several endorsements from grassroots liberal organizations, such as local Indivisible chapters and Central New York Solidarity Coalition, where Balter was previously an organizer. Progressive groups also criticized the DCCC in the following joint statement:
4) Perez Williams’ Signatures Created A Ballot Battle
The timing of Perez Williams’ declaration led to an intense effort to obtain the 1,250 necessary signatures to be placed on the ballot. The validity of the signatures were challenged by Diane Dwire, an Ononadaga County Democratic Committee Chairwoman.
5) DCCC Put Perez Williams in the Red-to-Blue Program
According to the DCCC, the Red-to-Blue program is “a highly competitive and battle-tested program at the DCCC that arms top-tier candidates with organizational and fundraising support to help them continue to run strong campaigns.” Perez Williams was included shortly after declaring and was one of several recent additions who face contested primaries.
Why NY-24 is a Target
Democrats are targeting this seat for three reasons. Hillary Clinton won the district by 4 points in 2016. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in NY-24 by 11,183 as of April 2018. The seat has switched party control in recent years. The seat has switched party control in recent years.
The current contours of the district were developed through redistricting in 2010, limiting historical comparison to recent cycles. Dan Maffei (D) defeated Ann Marie Buerkle (R) by five points in 2012. John Katko defeated Maffei in 2014 by 19 points and Colleen Deacon (D) by 22 points in 2016.
Katko’s upset of Maffei was helped by support among women and independents, along with his debating ability. A former federal prosecutor, Katko excelled in several televised debates during the final weeks of the campaign.
Perez Williams: Better or Worse for Democrats?
Perez Williams believes her candidacy was necessary because Balter didn't raise sufficient money or attention to be competitive. After the first quarter of 2018, Katko raised $1.24 million compared to Balter’s $120,000.
Perez Williams expressed disappointment that Balter’s campaign has not gained traction with national Democratic leaders or donors. She described Balter as a “brilliant” and “superb person,” but “the race was not getting attention at the national level. We need the national endorsements and the funding, and that should be happening now."
Kristi Andersen, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, had dismissed the DCCC “supporting the less progressive, more conventional candidate in primaries as a ‘coastal problem’ where there were more obvious splits in the Democratic Party. But here we are.” Anderson suspects the DCCC didn’t like Balter “because she is young, untested, and doesn’t have political experience.”
Andersen believes if the DCCC had anyone on the ground, “they’d see that Balter has a huge amount of grass-roots energy behind her” and “managed to convince the four county committees, who are presumably composed of pretty conventional, long-term party folks, to give her a strong endorsement.”
Andersen acknowledges that Balter is “not a perfect candidate” to challenge Katko, but Perez Williams ran a “problematic mayoral campaign and didn’t do very well.” Last November, Ben Walsh won the mayoral election, only the second time an independent had done so. Perez Williams finished second, with 9,105 votes, 16 points behind Walsh.
Katko Is Tough Regardless
Representative Katko has walked a fine line in navigating challenges related to Donald Trump. Katko called for Trump to withdraw from the 2016 campaign due to his vulgar comments about women, and didn’t vote for him.
Katko has voted with the president 90 percent of the time, but not consistently on major legislation. He voted against the GOP healthcare bill, but for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that divided the House delegation from New York.
Most recently, Katko supported withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, but opposed the Farm Bill supported by party leadership and President Trump. He was one of just 30 Republicans to break with the GOP and the only from upstate New York.
If this midterm is about President Trump, it is less likely to hurt Katko than other GOP incumbents in Central New York, like Claudia Tenney (NY-22), who has closely aligned with the president.
Moreover, the district’s 24,493 Independents are a key component of Katko's electoral success, as reflected in his legislative behavior and reelection strategy. Last November, for instance, Katko was elected co-chair of the Tuesday group, a collection of about 50 moderate GOP House members.
The Bottom Line
Grassroots progressives in NY-24 want the DCCC to respect their locally chosen candidate, who they believe can turn out the base. This is important, but unlikely to outpace or displace Katko's 63,721 vote margin of victory in 2016. His coalition included many independents and moderates, who don't seem interested in rejecting him at this point.
Juanita Perez Williams fits what the diverse slate of candidates of the DCCC wants to promote nationally and NY-24 looks good to Democrats on paper. This is not the reality on the ground, particularly with Democratic dissension through the June 26 primary.
The DCCC took drastic action in the hopes of better competing in a swing district. They believe Democratic candidates can’t get their message out without money, which is true. At the same time, angering grassroots progressives, who are incredibly enthused and organized this cycle, is shortsighted and counterproductive.
The NY-24 campaign is an important reminder of how candidates matter. John Katko is a proven 20 point winner who has exhibited tact regarding Trump, avoided making mistakes and amassed a financial war chest. These variables help insulate him from what looks to be an unfavorable November for House Republicans. Something remarkable will have to occur for this to change.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.
Given the electoral dynamics in NY-24, independents are a key constituency. There were 24,493 registered independents as of April 2018.