2024 New York congressional battleground

Who’s running for Congress in the Western NY special election?

After former Rep. Brian Higgins stepped down, the 26th Congressional District special election is likely to be a win for Democrats.

Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy, left, and Republican West Seneca Town Supervisor Gary Dickson, right, are vying to represent the 26th Congressional District.

Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy, left, and Republican West Seneca Town Supervisor Gary Dickson, right, are vying to represent the 26th Congressional District. NYS Senate Media Services; Gary Dickson campaign

After the juggernaut special election on Long Island this month, New Yorkers will choose another member of Congress in another special election in April. But this one is decidedly lower-profile. 

Western New York Republicans have picked a local government leader who turned a historically Democratic suburb red as their candidate in an April election in a Democratic stronghold. Democrats, meanwhile, have backed a popular state senator with strong fundraising prowess.

Republican leaders in Erie and Niagara counties have backed West Seneca Town Supervisor Gary Dickson to face Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy in the April 30 special election to succeed former Rep. Brian Higgins. Former Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray, a Democrat, has floated a potential independent candidacy

“Gary is one of the most highly-regarded local officials in western New York – certainly a very well-respected member among the Republican organization – who has a proven record of winning in Democratic areas,” said Michael Kracker, chair of the Erie County Republican Committee. 

Dickson, a retired FBI special agent and Army veteran who was once a Democrat, told City & State he considers himself to be a moderate Republican. Though he spoke extensively about traditional GOP talking points – such as curbing crime, immigration and tax increases – he said he felt most impassioned by ways to improve education and the environment. 

“You know, everybody deserves clean water, everybody deserves creeks that don't have sewage in them. And everybody deserves good schools,” he said.  

The race for the vacated congressional seat falls on the heels of Higgins’ departure this month after 20 years in Washington to lead Shea’s Performing Arts Center in downtown Buffalo. 

Kennedy, the state Senate Transportation Committee chair, announced his candidacy shortly after Higgins’ announcement and he has been viewed as the front-runner since. The Erie County Democratic Committee backed Kennedy as their nominee for the special election in January

“I ran for state Senate to change Albany. We changed the culture in Albany. And I’m determined to do the same thing in Washington. I believe in Buffalo, and I believe in Western New York,” Kennedy said in an email. 

Kennedy, a former Erie County legislator, also noted which issues he hopes to tackle should he get elected, which include women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, health care accessibility, banning assault weapons and making transportation safer. 

Kennedy has been a successful fundraiser during his time in the state Senate, including leading fellow lawmakers in fundraising during parts of 2023, using the warchest to promote his Albany work in a state district that spans key parts of the congressional district. In the first six weeks of his congressional campaign, Kennedy raised $744,903 for his federal account. Kennedy spent just under $33,000 of that, leaving him with $712,001 on hand as of the Dec. 31 reporting deadline. 

Due to Dickson’s recent entry into the congressional race, no fundraising data is currently available with the Federal Election Commission. 

Some political analysts speculate that Kennedy will be the likely winner when voters cast their ballots in April. 

“(Kennedy is) starting this race with significant advantages – enrollment advantages, what I would call pseudo-incumbency advantages, et cetera, that the Republican is not going to have,” said Jake Dilemani, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs. “Elections are about numbers, and I just don't see how a Republican wins the seat.” 

The 26th Congressional District, is a geographically small district stradling all of the state’s bridge border crossings with Canada. The district includes all of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, traditionally working class suburbs including Cheektowaga, West Seneca and Lackawanna, leafy suburban communities including Amherst, Williamsville, Lewiston, Kenmore and North Tonawanda and a collection of rural towns and villages along Lake Ontario. 

Kennedy’s South Buffalo base has been a key driver of Democratic votes in recent elections, including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s 2021 write-in campaign for a historic fourth term, while East Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls have been traditional Democratic strongholds. Amherst, one of upstate’s largest suburban towns, had been a traditionally moderate Republican community which turned a sapphire blue in the last decade. 

Jack O’Donnell, a Buffalo political veteran and managing partner at O’Donnell & Associates, pointed to Kennedy’s progressive track record in the state Legislature as further justification for his potential win. 

“He has shown in the state Senate that he’s a fighter – standing up for worker’s rights, women’s rights and WNY – and working to create jobs, and deliver resources to our community,” O’Donnell said. “And no one works harder than Kennedy.”

Dickson though could prove to be the one Republican who could put a chip in Kennedy’s armor. In 2019, Dickson became the first Republican elected to lead West Seneca, a union heavy Democratic inner ring suburb bordering South Buffalo, in a half century. Last year, Dickson not only won reelection and cemented control of the town board for the GOP, but he also led the Republican wave that elected Republicans as town clerk and town justice. 

Former moderate Republican Rep. Jack Quinn knows a thing or two about Republican town leaders winning Democratic congressional seats in Buffalo. Quinn was Hamburg town supervisor in 1992 when he defeated then Democratic Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski in a Democratic district. Quinn would hold the heavily Democratic seat for 12 years before retiring and being succeeded by Higgins. 

Quinn told City & State that people tried to discourage him when he first ran and that he would never be able to win in a three to one Democratic district and that he would never be able to hold it. 

Quinn said Dickson’s position in local government could help in a campaign and would give him an advantage in Congress.

“When I went to Washington, I used to say all the time, the best experience I've had for Washington would be the town supervisor,” he said. “When you get there, you meet lots of former governors, lots of former, you know, state senators, but the local government is where the rubber meets the road.” 

Special elections are also more likely to deliver surprising results than regularly scheduled elections because voters turn out in fewer numbers and with unpredictable voting tendencies. In fact, Gov. Kathy Hochul made her way into the House in 2011 because of a special election, which marked the first time in 40 years that a Democrat won the seat. 

“Special elections are tough,” Quinn said. “You gotta give them a reason to come out and vote. And I sense that people don't like to be told who to vote for.”

Hochul captured a historically Republican congressional seat in rural Western New York in 2011 in a three-way race that featured her, Republican Jane Corwin and independent businessman Jack Davis, who had previously sought the seat three times as a Democrat. This year’s special election could have a parallel with McMurray having unsuccessfully sought a seat that spanned parts of the current district in 2018 and 2020. 

Hochul lost her seat, which included Amherst, in 2012 to Republican Chris Collins. 

Republicans in western New York seem to be more concerned about the nature of how special elections operate in the state. Quinn, Kracker and Dickson all expressed concern that local parties’ ability to choose candidates for elections in districts that aren’t very competitive. 

“If we didn't have a good Republican candidate, he’d just be able to waltz in, and I don't think there should be a coronation,” Dickson said about Kennedy. 

Joe Bonilla, a managing partner of the creative strategy firm Relentless Awareness, thinks Kennedy will be the winner. But he also noted that the race, like the recent one in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, serves as a bellwether for the presidential election ahead. 

“If the race is close, then that should send shockwaves to Democrats and would be a huge boost for Republicans heading into the summer,” Bonilla said.