How Two Congressional Races Show What’s At Stake in the Midterms

In the reddest parts of upstate New York, Trumpism is on the ballot.

Two congressional races in upstate New York reflect a national trend of insurgent politicians challenging Republican and Democratic power structures in the Trump era.

In the 24th district, a progressive Democrat successfully defied the national party to win her primary and is running against a centrist Republican incumbent. In the 22nd, a moderate Democrat is posing an impressive challenge to a Trumpian incumbent. Whatever the outcomes, these races will reveal whether the nation is further polarizing or resetting to the center to pose a check on President Trump.

Though New York is a blue state, the upstate region has more in common with the industrial Midwest than it does with New York City. The largely rural region in 2016 went heavily for Trump, who carried 44 of 53 upstate counties. The 22nd and 24th districts in central New York are whiter, poorer, older, less educated, with more military veterans and fewer immigrants compared to the rest of the state and country. Residents feel long neglected by coastal elites. In other words, this is fertile Trump country. The president remains popular with more than half of its constituents, according to recent polling.

In New York’s 22nd district, freshman Republican congresswoman Claudia Tenney has voted for Trump’s positions 96.7 percent of the time. She has charged that Democrats “don’t love America” and that “so many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats.” At a recent debate, she gestured at reporters, denouncing them as “real fake news.”

An October Siena poll found that 42 percent of Tenney’s constituents have a favorable view of her, whereas 55 percent approve the president. The district, which sprawls from the Pensylvania border to Lake Ontario, has 30,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. A Trump summer visit to stump for her appears not to have helped much: Her GOP predecessor has endorsed her opponent; a key Republican county executive called her “a national embarrassment;”; and a quarter of registered Republicans report that they plan to vote for her opponent.

When I interviewed her, Tenney, 57, appeared burnished, tightly wound, and on message. She said, “I view everything through the prism of small business” from having run a family business. She denied being all-in for Trump. “We happen to agree on most policy issues, but when we disagree, I let him know. He listens–though not for long,” Tenney added with a slight laugh. “Do I agree with his more flamboyant statements and language? No, I don’t. But the key thing is focusing on the issues.”

Her opponent, Anthony Brindisi, is her complete opposite: an affable 39-year old center-left attorney and state assemblyman who fervently opposes Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House should the Democrats regain a majority. Yet he has tried to thread a needle on the mercurial president. “I’m not for impeachment” he says, adding he “applauds some of the president’s trade deals.” He recently received the New York Times’ endorsement. Brindisi stressed that he is “not part of a Blue Wave” and insisted, rather unconvincingly, that his race is divorced from what is happening nationally.

The Tenney-Brindisi battle is one of the most competitive House races in the nation, and may be the best chance for Democrats to gain a seat in New York. The October Siena poll puts the candidates in a dead heat with Brindisi edging 46 percent to Tenney’s 45 percent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) placed Brindisi in their “Red-to-Blue” program, making him one of their top eleven recruits nationwide and has spent more than $200,000 for his campaign through a super PAC closely linked to none other than Nancy Pelosi, whom he regularly lambasts on the campaign trail.

New York’s 24th district has a populist dark horse Democrat initially rejected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) running against a moderate Republican.

Rep. John Katko, 55, is an amiable former federal prosecutor who steers clear of invective and keeps his distance from Trump. He refused to vote for ACA repeal and is a member of the bipartisan House Problem Solving Caucus. A Georgetown University study rated him the seventh most bipartisan congressman.

His challenger, Dana Balter, has pulled off a surprisingly strong, unabashedly Bernie Sanders-like campaign. An obscure 42-year-old from the academic world, Balter assiduously worked the grassroots level to gain the endorsements of four county Democratic committees. Despite that support, the DCCC threw its weight behind a female Latino lawyer and navy veteran in the primary. That angered a lot of local Democrats, who ended up delivering the primary to Balter in a landslide. Since then, the bookish-looking Democrat outraised Katko by more than a million dollars in the latest quarter. The DCCC has since placed Balter on its exclusive Red-to-Blue list as well. An October poll has Katko leading by 15 points.

The Cook Report and POLITICO rate the Tenney-Brandisi election a toss-up and the Katko-Balter race as leaning Republican. FiveThirtyEight now puts the former in the leaning Democratic category, and the latter in leaning Republican. Other polling reveals that most constituents of both districts want the GOP to maintain control of the House.

Trump is on trial throughout swaths of areas that put him over the threshold two years ago. Whether we witness a Blue Wave or a Blue Ripple, Democratic Party leadership is also being tested, as reflected in the number of Democratic candidates who defy Pelosi and the party establishment.

My interviews with voters suggested that most conservatives are focused on the economy and immigration. While many express reservations over Trump’s leadership style, they are willing to forgive it in favor of his policies. With premiums projected to rise over $2,500 for a family of four in 2019, most Democrats and independents identified health care costs to be at, or near, the top of their concerns.

But President Trump has made the midterm elections about himself. “Get out in 2018,” he told a rally last month, “because you’re voting for me!” His approval ratings have crept up. Yet FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats an 86 percent chance of taking back the House. It is a combination of push-back against an unpopular president and strong Democratic candidates like Anthony Brindisi, who could tip the balance. Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania is evidence of this phenomenon.

We witnessed the power of insurgency in Democrat Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory in New York over ten-term congressman Joe Crowley. The 29-year old’s grassroots mobilizing beat long-term incumbency and the collective wisdom of superannuated party elders. Though lower profile, Dana Balter also pulled off a victory in face of DCCC know-it-alls. It is these younger, increasingly female, politicians who will eventually rejuvenate a Democratic Party without a coherent narrative that resonates with the voters they need to win back.

Next week’s elections, fought mainly in the hinterlands and suburbs, will crucially tell us whether our society will continue down the dangerous path of polarization or begin to reverse that trend. It will take a new generation of younger politicians to put the country back on track.

James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.