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POLITICS

John Katko couldn't overcome Trump impeachment vote backlash

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FILE - In this November 2020 photo, U.S. Rep. John Katko stands with supporters on Election Day in downtown Auburn.

For U.S. Rep. John Katko, the beginning of the end was on Jan. 13, 2021. 

On that day, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection. Katko, R-Camillus, was one of 10 Republicans who joined with Democrats to impeach the president. 

Katko, a former federal prosecutor, felt he could not ignore Trump's conduct after the 2020 presidential election and on Jan. 6, 2021 — the day a mob of the president's supporters attacked the Capitol to disrupt the certification of the election results. But he also predicted that he would face a backlash for the vote. 

"This wasn't a political calculus. If it was, obviously, I would've done something differently. But it wasn't to me," Katko told The Citizen after the impeachment vote. "I take my oath to uphold the Constitution very seriously and I've had a lot of experience doing so over the years. To me, I had to put the blinders on, as tough as it could be, I had to put the blinders on knowing I was probably going to take a very serious hit because of this. But that's what leadership is in my mind. You gotta sometimes do not what is comfortable, but what is right." 

One year and a day after he cast his vote to impeach Trump, Katko announced he will not seek reelection this year. 

There are other factors that may have affected Katko's decision. With congressional district maps being redrawn this year, the Syracuse area could be in an even bluer district than it is now. While Katko has been successful in a district with a Democratic enrollment advantage, increasing that edge would hurt his reelection chances. 

But there was a strong possibility Katko wouldn't make it to the general election, and that stems from his impeachment vote. A few primary challengers emerged in the last several months and, in one redistricting scenario, Katko would wind up in the same district as U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, a conservative Republican with Trump's support. 

Katko maintained some support among Republicans, but he lost the backing of the Conservative Party — a minor party that typically endorses GOP candidates in congressional races. Katko had the Conservatives' endorsement in each of his four runs for Congress, but the party's leadership made it clear he would not have their support in 2022. 

In the days after the impeachment vote, Katko attempted to position himself as someone that Republicans and Conservatives could support, even though they were unhappy with his decision. He criticized President Joe Biden's immigration stance and handling of an influx of migrants at the southern border. He repeatedly criticized "far-left" Democrats for their push to defund police departments. He made several appearances on Fox News — something he rarely, if ever, did in his first three terms in Congress. 

Katko hoped that those efforts and others would be enough for GOP and Conservative leaders to look past his impeachment vote. 

"If I'm being judged on this one vote, I understand that people are going to be upset," he told The Citizen in January 2021. "But if they judge me on the total mix over the next two years, they might feel differently. Time will tell." 

Unfortunately for Katko, time did not heal any of those wounds. His standing did not change and it became apparent that national Republicans weren't in a position to provide him cover. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who could become speaker if Republicans regain the majority this year, is allied with Trump. It wasn't a secret that Trump wanted to oust Katko. He pledged to support a primary challenge and urged House Republicans to stop providing financial support to Katko. 

Ultimately, Katko could not overcome Trump's stranglehold on the GOP. After the Jan. 6 attack and before the impeachment vote, Katko was asked if he would support Trump if the former president ran again in 2024. He said he would not endorse him. 

"He cannot be the standard-bearer of our party going forward," Katko said. "I think that people are recognizing that and I think he needs to recognize that as well." 

But that was a miscalculation. If anything, Trump has more power, especially now that Republicans want his help to win back the House and Senate. After Katko announced he will not run for reelection, Trump released a statement. 

"Great news, another one bites the dust," he said. "Katko, from Upstate New York, is gone!" 

The reaction to one vote overshadows Katko's work throughout his four terms in Congress — he was widely recognized as one of the most effective lawmakers and respected by members of both parties — and his political successes. A Republican in a Democratic district, he defeated an incumbent Democrat by 20 points in 2014 and won reelection three times, including a 10-point win in 2020. That year, he outperformed Trump by nine points in NY-24. 

When Katko announced his retirement from Congress on Friday, he called representing central New York in Congress "the honor and privilege of a lifetime." 

"My conscience, principles and commitment to do what's right have guided every decision I've made as a member of Congress, and they guide my decision today," he said. "It is how I've been able to unite people to solve problems, and how I was rewarded with resounding victories in every single campaign for Congress." 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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Now that Katko has come to conclusion that this is the right time for him to finish up his career in Congress, we hope he feels free to again publicly fight for the future of his party — and the country.

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