U.S. Rep. John Katko knew it was going to be a more difficult race than his two previous campaigns for Congress. In the end, though, the result was the same.
Katko, R-Camillus, defeated Democratic challenger Dana Balter in the 24th Congressional District election Tuesday. Katko won by six percentage points, 53 to 47 percent, and received 129,276 votes compared to Balter's 114,102.
What were the keys to victory for Katko? And why was he successful when other House Republicans, including a few in New York, weren't?
(1) Dominance in rural areas. Balter won Onondaga County by 1,879 votes. She received strong support in the city of Syracuse. But in the suburbs and more rural areas of the county, Katko outperformed her by a wide margin.
That was the case in the district's other three counties, Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne. In Cayuga County, Katko won by 22 points, 61 to 39 percent. He received over 5,600 more votes than Balter. He narrowly won the city of Auburn, too.
In Oswego County, he won by 22 points, 61 to 39 percent. His margin of victory in Wayne County? Again, 22 points.
One of the main elements of Katko's electoral successes is his dominance in rural areas. That continued Tuesday night. Even as Balter had a strong showing in Onondaga County, Katko padded his lead in Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne counties.
(2) Democrats were energized, but Republicans didn't stay home. We won't know the final turnout figures until the absentees are received and counted, but it's clear this midterm election received attention from voters in both major parties. It wasn't quite on par with a presidential election year — there were more than 300,000 votes cast for either Katko or Democrat Colleen Deacon in 2016 — but turnout was high for a midterm election. In fact, it was the most votes cast in a midterm election over the past four decades.
Democrats benefited from an energized base and turnout increased. However, Republicans didn't stay home Tuesday. Both parties were motivated. There's no question Balter had strong support for her candidacy. Katko proved his campaign had a great base of support, too. He received 129,276 votes, the most a Syracuse-area congressional candidate has received in a midterm election since then-U.S. Rep. Jim Walsh won re-election in 2002 with 144,610 votes.
(3) Katko's crossover appeal. The results show Katko probably didn't receive as many votes from Democrats as he has in past elections, but it's clear he received some support from the other side. Case in point: He received 3,801 votes in Auburn, a perceived Democratic stronghold. Balter netted 3,623 votes in the district's second-largest city. Auburn is home to a Democratic mayor, and an all-Democrat city council. Yet, it was Katko who appears to have received more votes in the city. (Absentee ballots could change that outcome. But for now, he holds a slim lead.)
Throughout the campaign, Katko said he wanted to run on his record. He touted his bipartisan efforts and pointed to moments when he broke from his party to oppose a bill, such as his vote against the GOP's effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Balter's campaign attempted to highlight other votes that raised doubts about his bipartisan streak, most notably his vote for the Republican tax plan. While that may have had some success, he was still able to win some support from Democrats. And in an election with higher Democratic turnout, that's significant.
(4) He embraced President Donald Trump — sort of. There was a reason why Democrats attempted to label Katko a "Trump yes man." They knew Trump wasn't a hugely popular figure in the district. But public polling showed the president's job approval rating in the 24th Congressional District was OK. There was some support for him, especially in the rural counties and the Onondaga County suburbs.
Katko isn't a "Never Trumper," but he also hasn't been a huge fan either. After all, in 2016, he cast a write-in vote for then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in the presidential election.
But Katko, who hasn't been shy about criticizing Trump at times, hasn't been afraid to praise him on some issues. One example is trade. While Katko has concerns about the president's approach, he lauds Trump for addressing the trade imbalance. Katko has long felt that certain trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, harmed the central New York economy.
Trump didn't publicly endorse Katko during the 24th district campaign. But over the summer, three high-ranking Trump administration officials visited central New York and appeared alongside Katko. Vice President Mike Pence made two stops in central New York, including an event at Nucor Steel in Auburn. Ivanka Trump, an advisor to the president and his daughter, joined Katko for an education roundtable. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the GOP congressman toured FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego County and highlighted the benefits of nuclear energy.
Katko maintains that the visits were more policy focused and less about politics. But there were political benefits to those appearances. One is that it signaled to Trump supporters in the 24th district that while he has some disagreements with the president and isn't a fan of his style at times, he's willing to work with the president on matters of shared interest.
(5) Katko's campaign infrastructure. Balter ran two great campaigns, first in the June Democratic primary and then the November general election. This was Katko's toughest race yet.
But something that shouldn't be overlooked is the strength of Katko's campaign, his consistent messaging and own voter mobilization effort. Because of the blowout wins in 2014 and 2016, it was easy to overlook Katko's ground game. However, it's a big reason why he wins elections, and it helped him win again this year.
Katko's campaign slogan is, "Solid. Steady. Strong." It's also an appropriate way of describing his campaign's infrastructure.
Even as Balter raised more than $1.9 million (likely more) in the last few months of the campaign, Katko had already built up a sizable war chest of his own to ensure he wasn't grossly outspent. As Balter flooded the airwaves with ads, he answered back. One of the problems for Republicans in other House races is that they were out-raised by a wide margin and didn't have the funds, on their own, to compete. That wasn't an issue for Katko. Democrats poured a lot of money into this race, especially in the last month. On Tuesday, though, he fended off the challenge.