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Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter, left, consoles heartbroken campaign volunteer Mickey Belosi, of Auburn, after conceding defeat to Republican incumbent John Katko.

As Republicans celebrated U.S. Rep. John Katko's win at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel and Conference Center Tuesday night, Democrats were a mile away at the Marriott Syracuse Downtown consoling each other after Dana Balter's loss. 

It was a hard-fought campaign. Katko, R-Camillus, acknowledged as much in his victory speech. He even joked (or perhaps he was serious) that he hopes Balter, D-Syracuse, won't run again in 2020. 

The election night tally shows Katko won by six percentage points. It was his closest race in three campaigns for Congress after winning by 20 points in 2014 and 22 in 2016. 

What went right for Balter

Despite public polling showing her trailing by double digits, Balter lost by six points. The result confirmed what internal polling found during the final weeks of the campaign — that it would be a much closer race than the public polls suggested. 

From July 1 on, Balter showcased her fundraising prowess. She raised at least $1.9 million in the three-and-a-half months after the Democratic primary, which she won by 25 points. 

For better or worse, money is often the main factor used to determine if a race is competitive or not. When Balter's campaign reported that she raised more than $1.5 million in the third quarter — a record for a Syracuse-area congressional candidate — it changed how the race was viewed. Cook Political Report upgraded its race rating from likely to lean Republican. Outside groups, including GOP organizations that wanted to ensure Katko remained in Congress, intervened. 

But Balter's campaign wasn't built on money. She won the Democratic primary in June with a top-notch voter mobilization effort. Her campaign boasted hundreds of volunteers who knocked on doors, made phone calls and sent text messages. In a campaign against Juanita Perez Williams, who was supported by national Democrats and received funding from House Democratic leaders, Balter won the primary by 25 points. 

That momentum carried over to the general election. Balter received 114,102 votes on election night. It's the fifth-most votes cast for a Syracuse-congressional candidate since 1982. It's the highest vote total for a losing candidate over that four-decade span. 

After her election night defeat, Balter said her campaign built a movement. She was right. In many ways, that movement was already there after the 2016 election. But it organized behind her in the lead-up to the 2018 election. It was strong enough that she won the support of local Democratic committees earlier this year — before the national Democrats attempted to supplant her as the party's nominee. 

Her campaign wasn't successful this time around, but the infrastructure is there if Balter wants to run again in two years. She will have a more favorable environment for it — it will be a presidential election year — and Democratic turnout could be even higher. 

What went wrong for Balter

For Democrats, they can't help but wonder what might have been if Balter didn't have to run in a primary. One of the knocks on her early in the race was that she didn't raise enough money. However, until July, she had to contend with other Democrats for fundraising. 

After she won the designation in February, it appeared she would have a chance in the second fundraising quarter to build up her campaign war chest. Instead, she had to fend off a primary challenge. 

If she didn't have a primary foe and she could raise money as the solo Democratic candidate in the race, it's possible she could've had a successful quarter that may have drawn interest from outside groups. That would've put the race on the map earlier in the calendar and given national Democrats more of a reason to get involved over the summer instead of the last month of the race. 

But that was before Election Day. On election night, another problem emerged: The urban/suburban/rural divide in central New York. 

Balter fared well in the city of Syracuse and she narrowly lost the city of Auburn. She edged Katko in Onondaga County. She topped the GOP incumbent in some pockets of the district's largest county, but most of her support came from Syracuse. 

However, she struggled in Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne counties. In each of the three counties, she lost to Katko by 22 points, 61 to 39 percent. Katko received a combined 47,269 votes in the three counties. Balter netted 30,216. 

Maybe in a presidential election year, Democrats can overcome that deficit with strong turnout in Syracuse. But even in a high turnout midterm election, the support in Syracuse wasn't enough. Democrats need to perform better in the rural areas to have a shot at winning this seat. 

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