Policy & Personality in NY-24: Why Katko Beat Maffei

Republican challenger John Katko cut a distinguished figure as he strode confidently into WCNY’s Green Room, hand extended to introduce himself to the debate moderators. Handshakes, eye contact. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Katko said, smiling.

It was about five minutes before we took our places in the studio for the only live television debate of the campaign for New York’s 24th Congressional District. Katko’s opponent, Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei, was also in the building but alternately on his cell phone or behind closed doors, unavailable.

It was a snapshot of what central New Yorkers saw during this campaign: an outgoing, self-assured former assistant U.S. Attorney in Katko versus a reticent Maffei, who looks like an unmade bed and struggles to make small talk.

It didn’t help that Maffei prefers to campaign in small, controlled settings and, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard, “is painfully unable to connect with constituents.”


The 24th Congressional District in the central part of New York State includes Wayne, Cayuga and Onondaga counties, as well as parts of Oswego County. The population centers are Syracuse, Auburn, Fulton and Oswego. It’s a rough mix of rural, urban and suburban, with all the problems that come with each designation: urban poverty, sky-high property taxes, both failing and exceptional schools, and an anemic economy dependent on agriculture, military contracts, higher education and hospitals.

It is considered a swing district, something Maffei deeply understands; he has been swinging from the winner’s to the loser’s column every two years since 2008.

Democrats have a slight enrollment edge here, but the almost 114,000 unaffiliated voters make or break campaigns. Those voters helped Maffei after longtime Rep. Jim Walsh, a Republican, opted not to run in 2008. Those same voters turned to Republican Ann Marie Buerkle in 2010, a midterm election year. In 2012 they returned Maffei to power during the Obama wave.

That tenuous grasp on power was acknowledged by the Democratic congressional leadership. According to Ballotpedia, Maffei was a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline Program, designed to help protect vulnerable Democratic incumbents during the 2014 election cycle.

It didn’t help. The incumbent lost by 20 percentage points to challenger Katko, a political newcomer.


Maffei was not supposed to lose. He had campaign cash and name recognition. Up until two weeks before Election Day, he was leading Katko in the polls. Political luminaries such as Bill Clinton and Joe Biden traveled to Syracuse to stump for him.

Maffei also seemed to have a better grasp of the issues than his challenger, something he was able to showcase during a series of television and radio debates.

When questioned, for example, about how they would ensure the viability of Social Security, Katko responded, “You can’t tax your way out of every problem.” Instead, he argued, a “bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and businessmen and leaders from all over the country” needs to sit down and hammer out a solution. “We have 20 years,” Katko said, “a whole generation to do that.”

Maffei, on the other hand, had a very specific solution: allowing Social Security to be taxed on incomes over $117,000 dollars. When Katko countered that the idea would hurt the middle class, Maffei responded that the tax could “click back in” at a higher salary so the “rich pay their fair share.”

When asked what they would do to create jobs in rural Wayne County, Katko reminisced about visits to his wife’s father’s potato farm. Maffei cited specific companies he has assisted in the past, such as Motts in Williamson. While neither candidate gave a great answer, Maffei’s response was more substantive.

The most notable takeaway from the series of candidate debates was that they shared common ground on several important issues, including fixing the Affordable Care Act, creating jobs and immigration reform.

The Candidates

Maffei’s background is impressive. After graduating from Brown and Columbia, he received a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He worked for Sens. Bill Bradley and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and served as a senior staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee. He knows how the unseen levers of power work in Washington. Unfortunately for him, that hasn’t translated into passing legislation, something Katko continually pointed out on the campaign trail.

What Katko lacks in policy chops, he makes up in good old-fashioned likability. That’s not to say he can’t point to his own string of accomplishments. Katko earned a law degree from Syracuse and has a solid 20 years of experience at the U.S. Department of Justice, first as a special assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia and then with the DOJ’s Criminal Division, Narcotic & Dangerous Drug Section.

But this was Maffei’s race to lose, and he lost. Though, to be fair, his candidacy and that of other New York Democrats was hampered by the national mood.

“Low turnout no doubt helped the Republicans pick up three House seats, so that the House delegation from New York State now is Democrats 18 and the Republicans 9,” explained political strategist Bruce Gyory of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “Lee Zeldin defeated Tim Bishop in Suffolk; Elise Stefanik defeated Aaron Woolf in the open seat in the North Country and Katko defeated Maffei handily in the Greater Onondaga County region district.”

Also, since Democrats benefit from voter turnout, the barrage of negative ads from both camps may have poisoned the well, keeping some voters home and hurting Maffei.

The Upshot

According to the Post-Standard, the choice that voters were asked to make in the 24th “was less about policy positions and more about confidence in the candidate’s ability to forcefully represent our region and lead it into a new era of prosperity.”

It is an assessment that John Katko apparently agreed with.

Shortly after his win, he told Liz Benjamin of Capital Tonight: “In the end, it boiled down to who [voters] thought could go to Washington and get the job done more.”

After three tries, it was clear that Dan Maffei was not that guy.

Susan Arbetter (@sarbetter on Twitter) is the Emmy award-winning news director for WCNY Syracuse PBS/ NPR, and producer/host of the Capitol Pressroom syndicated radio program.

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