Donald Trump

How the GOP lost Trump country

President Donald Trump tried and failed to help his party’s House candidates in Central New York.

Claudia Tenney's avid support for President Donald Trump did not save her from electoral defeat in the 2018 midterms.

Claudia Tenney's avid support for President Donald Trump did not save her from electoral defeat in the 2018 midterms. Carolyn Caster/AP/Shutterstock

On Aug. 13, Donald Trump became the first sitting president to visit Utica in 70 years. The reason for Trump’s stop was to raise funds for Claudia Tenney, then a first-term Republican representing New York’s 22nd Congressional District. Trump’s coattails had carried Tenney to victory in 2016, and she was banking on the president putting her over the top again in 2018.

Trump’s visit was important for Tenney’s campaign – and for a city long seeking to redefine itself in a post-industrial economy. Prominent political visits to Utica are a relic of better times. A century ago, the city was a thriving metropolis, and the home to Vice President James Sherman. It was a place where Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for governor, Teddy Roosevelt frequented as a New York state legislator, and Abraham Lincoln stopped to speak at the train depot en route to his first inauguration. But the last time a president had come through was in 1948, when Harry Truman spoke there.

Details of Trump’s visit remained secret, fueling speculation on the undisclosed location of the event and what was in store for the “hosts” shelling out at least $15,000 to attend, nearly half the median household income in Utica. Tenney supporters were told there were no comps, per a request from the White House, but last-minute offers of discounted tickets were made to select party faithful. Earlier in the day, Republican state Sen. Joseph Griffo, Utica’s longtime advocate in Albany, drove to Fort Drum in the neighboring 21st Congressional District to see the president. The Tenney campaign denied requests by Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri, a Democrat, to welcome the president, claiming this was not customary for a fundraiser. Later, when Palmieri requested reimbursement for nearly $30,000 in public security-related expenses, the Tenney campaign refused.

That night, Utica’s main boulevard separated Tenney and Trump supporters, who welcomed a president they believed was making Utica great again, from a larger contingent of Trump critics who expressed opposition to a president they believed was unfit to serve. Blocks away, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, Tenney’s Democratic challenger, organized an alternative fundraiser for a fraction of the cost, galvanizing supporters and generating competitive media coverage. In the words of one prominent district campaign operative, this pivotal moment “could have gone either way,” making or breaking either side.

Trump’s visit to Utica was marked by monolithic assessments of the president’s popularity upstate. While Trump did exceptionally well in 2016 throughout rural New York, most upstate congressional districts include small urban centers, like Utica, where a backlash to Trump energized Democrats and divided the GOP. This produced an overlooked challenge in Central New York as Republican incumbents pursued reelection: how to navigate the Trump presidency. Reps. Claudia Tenney, John Faso and John Katko pursued different approaches with varied results. Despite the boost Trump had provided in 2016, this time around, the president did more to hurt than to help the electoral prospects of upstate Republicans.

It may be tempting to think that New York Republicans are an endangered species following the 2018 midterms. A blue wave gained 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for Democrats, including three in New York, but this was on par with historical norms. Since 1946, the president’s party has lost an average of 37 seats when the president’s approval rating is below 50%, as was the case with Trump.

It can be easy to forget how beneficial the previous midterm election was for New York Republicans. In 2014, challenger John Katko easily defeated Democratic incumbent Dan Maffei. Elise Stefanik became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, winning an open seat to replace Democrat Bill Owens in the North Country. Republican Lee Zeldin defeated Democratic incumbent Tim Bishop on Long Island, while GOP incumbent Chris Gibson was comfortably reelected in the 19th Congressional District. Katko, Stefanik and Zeldin went on to win reelection twice, while Gibson retired in 2016.

Upstate New York is not politically homogeneous. In 2018, New York was home to a large number of “pivot counties,” those that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016, and all but one was located upstate. Half of these counties were found in three congressional districts, the 19th, 22nd and 24th – which also swung between Democratic and Republican House representatives this century – generating national interest and becoming targets of congressional campaign committees.

Redistricting following the 2010 census resulted in significant changes to district boundaries, bringing in new pools of constituents. Other changes came more gradually. The 19th and 24th districts became more Democratic between 2012 and 2018, while the 22nd District remained solidly Republican, with a registration advantage of 27,000. Democrats in the 24th District tripled their edge over Republicans to 14,235, while Republicans in the 19th District lost their narrow advantage in 2016, when the district flipped, and faced a more than 11,000 Democratic voter registration advantage in 2018.

While these trends were not ideal for Katko and Faso, they enjoyed the advantage of incumbency. Political scientists have documented that 93% of House incumbents were reelected since World War II, including 97% in 2016. This advantage was especially strong for Katko, who was reelected that year with around 60% of the vote. In 2018, Katko survived the threat of Democratic challenger Dana Balter, 53% to 47%. Tenney and Faso were not as fortunate, as they joined 29 other GOP House incumbents who lost in 2018. What happened?

Rep. Antonio Delgado, left, defeated John Faso, right, in 2018, but will he hold on to his seat in a swing district?
Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

When asked for his thoughts on Brindisi, one longtime Oneida County Democratic leader looked across the street at the picturesque Clinton green before us, and with a shy smile said, “I’ve had several candidates speak in that little pavilion through the years. Anthony was the only one to come right down into the crowd and speak with the people. He’s a natural.”

Brindisi declared his candidacy early, six months into Tenney’s term, in order to raise money and build up his name recognition beyond Utica, which he had served as a member of the Assembly since 2011. Brindisi ultimately outraised Tenney, though her seat on the House Financial Services Committee was a fundraising boon. Brindisi, widely considered the best hope for Democrats, did not face a primary challenge.

Delgado, a native of the 19th District and lawyer at Akin Gump, moved back to the Hudson Valley days after Trump was inaugurated. Faso struggled to disqualify Delgado as a carpetbagger, as Delgado defined his life story through his middle-class upbringing in the district. Delgado emerged from a crowded primary in June 2018 with just 22% of the vote.

The seven-way race was divisive, but factions unified quickly, and prompted a high level of Democratic engagement and organization heading into the general election. Delgado became a formidable challenger thanks to “his charismatic oratory style, grassroots appeal and fundraising prowess,” as one news report described him.

In Katko’s Syracuse-area district, Dana Balter was hampered by the last-minute candidacy of Juanita Perez Williams, who the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included in its “Red to Blue” program before the primary. Perez Williams had been an unsuccessful 2017 Syracuse mayoral candidate, but the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants furthered national party efforts to embody diversity.

All four Democratic county committees in the 24th District had already endorsed Balter, prompting a joint statement criticizing the DCCC for “meddling” in local races. Balter, a community organizer, won the primary at the cost of valuable time and money. The first-time candidate had little name recognition and initially struggled with fundraising, then shattered area fundraising records after the securing the nomination.

Brindisi and Delgado benefited from facing unpopular incumbents, while being perceived more favorably themselves.Tenney and Faso hovered around 40% favorability prior to the election. In contrast, Katko remained popular throughout the 2018 campaign, with 48% favorability weeks before Election Day.

Incumbent unpopularity was part personal, part political. Tenney’s strategy was to tightly align herself with the president to help expand her base from the 46% she won in 2016 in a three-way race. Tenney emulated Trump’s personal and populist campaign style, and sided with him on major legislation, including the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and the American Health Care Act of 2017. Prominent face time with national elites was helpful for Tenney, who arranged visits to the district by members of Trump’s administration, members of the president’s family, the White House press secretary and, of course, the president himself.

Tenney frequently went on the attack, against Brindisi’sfamily and the local news media, made nationally controversial statements, perpetuated conspiracytheories, hyperbolically lauded the administration, and defended the president’s advisers as they pleaded guilty to federal crimes. This appealed to pro-Trump Republicans but turned off independents and moderate Republicans, while galvanizing grassroots liberals united around their mantra: #OneTermTenney. Senior Republican operatives expressed concern early on, with one quipping that “every week she says something controversial or stupid,” while local GOP leaders privately encouraged Tenney to focus on issues and stay on message.

Katko’s strong suit was messaging. His biggest legislative accomplishment? “Bipartisanship.”

Concerned about Trump’s fitness for office? “No, I fully believe in checks and balances.” Katko’s malleability explains his electoral success as he spent years building a political base that includescrossover Democrats and third-party support. His endorsement from the Conservative Party and the Independence Party combined for more than 16% of his votes in 2018, while strong relationships with local GOP officials bolstered rural and suburban turnout.

Balter made significant inroads by flipping Onondaga County, home to Syracuse, but Katko won each of the three other counties with 60.6% of the vote. Katko benefited from Balter being more progressive than Delgado and Brindisi. Balter was the only one to run on “Medicare for All.” As an organizer, Balter tended to not view the electorate in ideological terms, but related positioning was necessary to expand her base beyond its progressive core.

In the 22nd District, Tenney lost 50.9% to 49.1% because Brindisi took the two most populated counties, flipping Oneida County, home to both candidates, and winning Broome County. Tenney’s margins of victory fell in every county she won compared to 2016, all of which were rural and less populated.

Disaffected Republicans were a major problem for Tenney. About 1 in 4 had a favorable view of Brindisi right before the election. Casting a wider net would have been helpful, but that has never been Tenney’s style, who first pursed the seat in a Tea Party primary challenge to fellow Republican Richard Hanna in 2014.

This illustrates how Trump divided upstate Republicans after taking office. In the 22nd District, about one-third of Republicans are enthusiastic supporters. Another third are “hold your nose” Republicans who like conservative policies, such as tax cuts and deregulation, but do not care for Trump’s tweeting, lying or learning on the job. The final third cannot stand the president and will privately support competent alternatives irrespective of party. Much had changed in two years.

John Faso was excited and feeling at home with his new role as a congressman, sitting in his office on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. Faso looked at ease while his communications director's little dog scurried about our ankles. Following our interview, Faso pulled an ID out of his wallet and showed it to the two students with me. “I interned on the Hill in college,” he said, looking down at the 40-year-old picture of himself, with the long hair he used to sport. A quiet moment passed. Faso looked up with a smile and almost whispered, “This was my office.”

Faso won more convincingly than Tenney in 2016, elected with 54% of the vote, but he lost more decisively in 2018. Trump was less popular in his district than in Tenney’s, with higher disapproval than approval. Faso distanced himself from Trump to a greater degree than Tenney did, but this did not work as well for him as it did for Katko, who had long cultivated an independent persona, including co-chairing the moderate Republican Tuesday Group caucus and regularly citing his high bipartisan ratings. Neither Faso nor Katko voted for Trump in 2016. Faso described Trump as “seriously flawed” prior to the election and voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson. Katko voted for Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, and as a former federal prosecutor, he was critical of the president’s attacks on the Justice Department.

Faso cited “significant policy differences” with Trump during the 2016 campaign, but supported the president 90% of the time in Congress, identical to Katko, while Tenney clocked in at 97%. Faso voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but opposed his party’s tax cut legislation because of the new cap on the state and local tax deduction. Katko did the opposite, citing his persistent unwillingness to repeal Obamacare without a viable replacement while voting for the tax package.

Health care was ultimately a winning issue for Democrats nationwide in 2018. Faso and Tenney were hurt by their repeal vote and sought to rebuff assertions they did not support covering people with preexisting medical conditions. Russia was a main source of Faso’s criticism of Trump, particularly the president’s equivocal response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Like the president, Tenney consistently maintained that the Russia investigation was a “hoax.”

Trump did not visit Faso’s district to campaign on his behalf, despite a surprising but welcome endorsement from the president via Twitter. Sentiments quickly shifted post-election, when the president publicly blamed GOP incumbents for not sufficiently embracing his presidency and seeking his assistance on the campaign trail. Faso described the president’s remarks as “unfortunate.”

After his loss, Faso spoke candidly about his difficulties navigating the Trump presidency. There was “no doubt the president has strong support within the Republican Party,” Faso said, but the party has to “recognize the tone sometimes is going to turn off some voters.” This contributed to his district becoming “very divided” and the Democratic base being “energized.” Trump did prompt a unique opposition movement that bolstered Democratic candidates around the country, and in Central New York. The ranks of existing grassroots organizations grew, while new organizations emerged. Indivisible, a network of progressive groups,arguably had the biggest the electoral impact in 2018, premised on a “practical guide to resist the Trump agenda.”

“He was a decidedly negative factor in my race and races across the country where we lost the House. I think it’s fair to say his prospects in 2020 are very uncertain.” – former Rep. John Faso, on President Donald Trump

Women were central to anti-Trump grassroots organizing, beginning immediately after Trump’s inauguration with the Women’s March, the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history. Knit the District in Tenney’s district, for instance, was formed to foster collaboration among liberal organizers, support progressive candidates, share best practices – and defeat the congresswoman. Grassroots organizers throughout Central New York undertook extensive canvassing efforts, utilized traditional and social media and organized regular protests. This new set of challenges was clearly a nuisance for GOP incumbents, who attempted to discredit these efforts as disruptive or devious.

Faso believed the 2018 midterms were “a real warning” and “wake-up call” to the president and his fellow Republicans, saying “the party is in trouble.” Republicans are concerned “by the daily chaos and the personality issues that surrounded the president and the White House,” and wish Trump “wouldn’t say a lot of what he says.” Faso concluded: “(Trump) was a decidedly negative factor in my race and races across the country where we lost the House. I think it’s fair to say his prospects in 2020 are very uncertain.”

One thing is certain. Trump upended Faso’s rendezvous with destiny.

Rep. John Katko celebrated on election night in 2018 after defeating Dana Balter, who may be eyeing a rematch.
Adrian Kraus/AP/Shutterstock

Central New York helped illustrate several features of the 2018 midterms: candidates and grassroots organizing mattered; moderate Democrats were more successful than progressive ones; Republicans were forced to be defend their views on Obamacare; and Trump hurt House GOP incumbents by energizing Democrats and dividing Republicans in competitive districts.

Trump, his family and members of his administration will probably not be heading back upstate anytime soon. Still, replicating narrow congressional victories in Central New York is far from certain, even though the political ground has shifted in the Democrats’ favor. Balter is well-positioned to run again and could be even more competitive in 2020. Tenney is not, but may do so with encouragement from the National Republican Congressional Committee. And Faso is equipped to say, “I told you so,” if 2020 is similarly unfavorable for Republicans.

The president was not on the ticket in 2018, so 2020 could be different, though Trump campaigned more heavily than most presidents typically do during a midterm. Trump’s lack of governing experience has hampered his ability to deliver on campaign promises, from building a wall on the southern border to repealing Obamacare. Beneath these signature issues, other priorities like the trade war with China have negatively impacted New York farmers, injecting doubt into his rural dominance. Trump’s opponent will matter too. Upstate New York Republicans might vote for a Democratic presidential candidate – but not Hillary Clinton, or someone with similar partisan baggage.

Central New York representatives are no longer pegging their future on the president. Katko was “humbled” by what he recognized as his toughest electoral challenge and pledged to “earn the trust” of Democrats who did not vote for him in 2018. Brindisi and Delgado have prioritized access, accountability and bipartisanship in beginning their terms, hosting several town halls in their first few months. The 2018 midterms illustrated why this is this the most electable path to Congress in Central New York.

The irony of the most divisive presidency this century is how Trump inadvertently prompted unity and bipartisanship upstate. The budding friendship between Katko and Brindisi, whom both represent Oswego County, is a departure from Katko’s relationship with Tenney. The two quickly began working together on various issues post-election, from ending the government shutdown to trying to entice Amazon upstate and even sat together at the State of the Union. Brindisi’s partnership with Griffo, the local Republican state senator, was a cornerstone of his representation as assemblyman, and one he welcomes replicating, given his poor showing in Oswego County. Meanwhile, Katko knows “the resistance” is a real and growing threat in his district. Allying with Brindisi, widely embraced by moderates and progressives, could be pivotal to holding his seat in 2020.

The 2020 battle for Central New York could look a lot different than previous congressional elections, as Republican and Democratic candidates seek to pivot from the president and his combative political style.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to a dog owned by then-Rep. John Faso's chief of staff. The dog belonged to Faso's former communications director.