A little more than a month ago, New York’s 24th district was a relatively quiet contest. Now, just a few weeks before Election Day, Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., is stuck in yet another close campaign.
After weeks of million-dollar airtime wars put the congressman in political peril, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will make a trip to Syracuse to campaign for Maffei next week. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will stop in the central New York district , following Speaker John A. Boehner, who already headlined a fundraiser there .
The district slightly favors Democrats — an advantage that grew after redistricting in 2012. But the district has flipped between parties every cycle, with Maffei losing re-election after a single term in 2010. He won back the seat last cycle, and until recently, it wasn't clear whether Maffei would be targeted for defeat in the midterms.
But on Sept. 12, the National Republican Congressional Committee swooped into the district to reserve $1.5 million in airtime to help its nominee, John Katko. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee followed suit four days later, spending $859,000.
The investment has proven potent in this district, which is covered by the inexpensive Syracuse media market. Campaigns can make a huge impact in the district without a lot of money — at least compared to other districts. "Conventional wisdom would say his enormous cash advantage in such an inexpensive TV market like Syracuse would keep him safe," wrote Republican strategist Bob Honold in an email. "But because he's kind of a misfit in [central New York], and because it is a midterm, Maffei is decidedly unsafe."
The Katko campaign points to the NRCC's investment and Boehner's fundraising visit as a sign voters in the district are responding to his campaign.
"The speaker's a busy man," Katko said in a Sept. 30 phone interview. He "would not waste his time if he didn't think we had a good shot at winning."
Katko spent 15 years as an assistant U.S. attorney based in Syracuse before stepping down from the post in December — just a few weeks before he announced his campaign. In July, he reached Young Gun status with the NRCC — the committee's top seal of approval for candidates. In September, Katko received the Director's Award for Superior Performance , one of the Justice Department's top honors.
Maffei held positions as a congressional aide and think tank analyst in Washington before seeking office. His first congressional campaign was a failed 2006 race in what was then the 25th District. He won on his second try for the district in 2008, but he lost two years later to Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y. He defeated Buerkle in 2012 by more than 5 points.
This cycle, Maffei has been a member of the DCCC's Frontline program , which boosts the most vulnerable House Democrats, since last year.
The Maffei campaign did not respond to several messages and emails requesting a comment.
Republicans see tepid support for Democrats in statewide races as a driving force behind the competitiveness of the district.
"One thing I do think you’ll see is a big enthusiasm gap,"said David Laska, the communications director for the New York State Republican Party. “Part of that is that the top of the ticket will be Andrew Cuomo. His supporters don’t have a lot of fire in their belly."
Cuomo is favored to win re-election, but strategists don't expect him to be a big top-of-the-ticket draw for voters in central New York.
Nationally, Republicans are expected to make gains in the midterms in congressional contests. Republicans and, privately, Democrats, in the Empire State's 24th District noted Maffei doesn't always fit the district — though the two sides differ on how, and if that will even impact votes.
"He doesn't have the, 'Do you want to have a beer with this guy?' kind of thing," said one New York State Democrat strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the race, adding that won't hurt Maffei in November. He's the "kind of politician who always wants to wear a suit."
Mark English, the chairman of the Onondaga County Democrats, which includes the city of Syracuse, doesn't see the disconnect.
"It's very much a seat that is up for grabs, I imagine, for both national committees," English said. "I think Dan has shown that he's growing in his role as a congressman, and I think he's better known in the district than he had been."
The district stretches in the center from the bottom of Onondaga County up north to Lake Ontario. The largest concentration of voters is in the city of Syracuse, where education and medicine are the dominant industries. The Republican stronghold of Wayne County is in the western party of the district.
Aside from Syracuse, the district is mostly rural.
The race is rated Leans Democratic by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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