Campaigns & Elections

It’s Election Day in Western New York

Voters are deciding on a new member of Congress to represent them in the 26th Congressional District.

Republican West Seneca Supervisor Gary Dickson, left, and Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy, right.

Republican West Seneca Supervisor Gary Dickson, left, and Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy, right. Gary Dickson campaign; NYS Senate Media Services

Buffalo voters are headed to the polls Tuesday in a special congressional election in a Democratic-stronghold where Republicans have been hoping that the lightning that struck three decades ago could return. 

The race to succeed former Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins has been Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy’s to lose since Higgins’ announcement in the fall that he was leaving Congress to become president of Shea’s Performing Arts Center in downtown Buffalo. Kennedy, the powerful state Senate Transportation Committee chair, quickly cleared the Democratic field and armed with a warchest and high name recognition been the front-runner against Republican West Seneca Supervisor Gary Dickson. 

“Tim has wisely used his funds,” former Republican Rep. Jack Quinn said. “Dickson did not have the money. You can have the best message, but if you don't have the money…”

Quinn knows a thing or two about being a Republican running for Congress in Buffalo, having won a 1992 election for an earlier version of this deep blue seat and holding it for six terms before retiring in 2004 and being succeeded by Higgins. 

The 26th Congressional District seat encompasses all of the city of Buffalo, the city of Niagara Falls, the traditionally working class suburbs of West Seneca, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga, leafy suburban communities including Amherst, Williamsville, Kenmore, Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, Grand Island and Lewiston and several rural communities along Lake Ontario.

A map of the 26th Congressional District
The 26th Congressional District. Lines will shift due to redistricting in 2025. Credit: Redistricting & You and The Graduate Center at CUNY.

The district has a deep blue tilt with Kennedy’s base of South Buffalo being a key driver for Democratic victories in Erie County, along with the Democratic strongholds of East Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls. Amherst was once a key base for Erie County Republicans, but has become reliably Democratic in the past eight years, particularly in state and federal elections. 

In his campaign, Kennedy has focused on his almost 14 years in Albany, including his work on transportation issues as he seeks to make the move to Washington. Kennedy, a former Erie County legislator, first won his Senate seat in 2010 in a competitive race against then-GOP Assembly Member Jack Quinn III, the son of the former member of Congress. 

“We are feeling great,” Kennedy campaign spokeswoman Molly Hirschbeck told City & State. “Tim is out in every corner of the community. He’s really energized.” 

Kennedy easily captured the Democratic nod for the congressional election following Higgins’ announcement, quickly dispatching the potential candidacies of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. 

Dickson, an Army veteran and former FBI agent, is no stranger to tough races. Dickson flipped West Seneca Town Hall in 2019, when he became the town’s first Republican supervisor in a half century, a post he was reelected in a 2023 wave election for West Seneca Republicans. Erie County Republican Chair Michael Kracker remains optimistic that Dickson, who has positioned himself as a moderate, can pull off the same victory Tuesday.

“The Party will fight for every vote,” Kracker said. “This is an election, not a coronation. We think that the voters across the district will listen to Gary’s message.”

The special election has not garnered the excitement of February's special election on Long Island to replace former GOP Rep. George Santos, or the last time this district was open. In the 2004 contest to succeed Quinn, Higgins was locked in a competitive race with then-Republican Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples. Higgins defeated Naples by 3,774 votes, just over 1 percentage point.

Quinn’s 1992 election would be the most similar to this year’s, with Quinn then being the suburban town supervisor - of Hamburg - who was running against then Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski to succeed long time Democratic Rep. Henry Nowak. Quinn credits his independent streak and moderate record in Hamburg town hall as key to victory over Gorski. Quinn’s moderate record in Washington, including a willingness to embrace organized labor in his union-heavy district and ability to buck his party, allowed him to represent the most Democratic district of any Republican. 

Quinn’s 1992 victory would have a profound effect on state politics, paving the way for an unknown small business activist named Kathy Hochul to be appointed to a town council seat vacated by his successor as town supervisor. 

Quinn noted that a special election is different, in particular the short time frame, than the general elections he or Naples fought. He said though that any Republican will have an uphill climb to win in any district dominated by Buffalo.

“It is really difficult,” he said.