National Democrats came dangerously close to losing their preferred candidate in a key New York race — even in an election cycle where they’re sensing a blue wave.
But a divisive primary remains, where local Democrats are already fuming at meddling from operatives in the nation’s capital.
A week of uncertainty surrounded the 24th District in Central New York, which is a Democratic target in 2018. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s preferred candidate, Juanita Perez Williams, almost didn’t make it onto the ballot due to an issue with her petition signatures.
But the New York State Board of Elections ruled Thursday that Perez Williams, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Syracuse in 2016, could remain on the ballot following local Democratic challenges to her petition signatures. She will face professor and activist Dana Balter in the June 26 primary.
The primary has already stoked Democratic divisions, including a backlash against the DCCC’s involvement in recruiting Perez Williams after local Democrats had already coalesced around Balter.
And this is a race Democrats are looking to win. As one of the 25 districts held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, the district is one of their top priorities.
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But Republicans are confident that GOP Rep. John Katko is a strong incumbent, and they say a divisive Democratic primary will only help his chances for re-election.
The DCCC recruited Perez Williams, who had already declined to run for the seat, amid concerns that Balter was not building a credible campaign.
Balter raised $120,000 in the first quarter of 2018, and ended the quarter with $75,000 in cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission Documents.
The committee saw Perez Williams, a Navy veteran and former prosecutor, as a candidate with an existing infrastructure from her mayoral run whose profile would appeal to moderate voters.
National Democrats initially had trouble recruiting candidates to challenge Katko. Perez Williams originally passed, as did former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner.
So local Democrats coalesced around Balter, and all four Democratic committees had endorsed her by the end of February. But Perez Williams jumped in the race in early April, shortly before the filing deadline. The DCCC added her to its Red to Blue program for House challengers two weeks later.
The national Democrats’ involvement incensed local leaders.
The county party chairs issued a joint statement saying they would “stand united behind our designated nominee Dana Balter and against the DC meddling that has hampered far too many races thus far,” according to Syracuse.com.
One group led by Diane Dwire, an Onondaga Democratic Committee member, then challenged Perez Williams’ signatures. The DCCC assisted with collecting the signatures necessary to get on the ballot, paying for some of the canvassing effort. Nearly 2,000 signatures were declared invalid, but she still had more than the 1,250 needed to secure a spot on the Democratic line.
The challenge continued, and the state Board of Elections ruled Thursday that the Perez Williams had enough valid signatures to remain on the ballot. Dwire told Syracuse.com she had not decided whether she would pursue further legal action.
Balter criticized Perez Williams for the outside help in collecting her signatures in a statement Thursday.
“The New York State Board of Elections today affirmed what we already know — Juanita Perez Williams’ petitions were riddled with errors, and the only things keeping her on the ballot are DC consultants and a fancy New York City law firm,” Balter said.
Perez Williams’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment following Thursday’s ruling, but she said in a statement on Tuesday that dozens of volunteers worked to gather signatures.
“If Dana Balter and John Katko want to continue working together to fight the state of New York and overturn the will of thousands of voters, that’s a real shame,” Perez Williams said. “While they are wasting taxpayer money on frivolous lawsuits, I will be out talking with New Yorkers about the issues that really matter in their lives — finding a job, paying for prescription drugs, and sending their kids to college.”
Now they will battle it out for the Democratic nomination in the June 26 primary. Balter is also competing on the Working Families Party and Women’s Equality Party ballot lines.
Democrats may have better opportunities in other upstate New York Districts, but the 24th is still a target for Democrats given its history. After longtime GOP Rep. Jim Walsh retired in 2008, the district switched party hands in each of the next four straight elections.
Katko, a former federal prosecutor, was first elected in 2014 by a 19-point margin. He won re-election in 2016 by 21 points, despite Clinton carrying the district by 4 points.
Republicans are confident Katko is among a number of GOP incumbents in swing districts who have cultivated independent brands that could withstand a tough national environment. He has also a fundraising advantage, ending the first quarter of 2018 with $1.2 million on hand.
Katko’s campaign is not shifting its strategy with the new possibility that Perez Williams could be his opponent, said a GOP strategist involved in the race.
“We take every challenge seriously and we’re going to run our race,” the strategist said.
GOP operatives did not view Perez Williams as a stronger challenger than Balter, and pointed to her mayoral race in 2016. Independent Ben Walsh, who is the former congressman’s son, defeated Perez Williams by 16 points, and the city of Syracuse is one of the district’s Democratic strongholds.
Republicans said the heated Democratic primary allows Katko to continue to connect with voters, touting his bipartisanship — especially his work to combat the opioid crisis, which has hit all four counties in the district. Katko took a similar path during his 2016 race against Democrat Colleen Deacon, with one of his ads featuring a couple who lost their daughter and son as a result of the crisis.
But Democrats plan to tie Katko to the GOP agenda. Even though he voted against the GOP health care bill that repealed much of the Affordable Care Act, he supported the Republican tax overhaul. And Democrats say could be an issue for him.
A number of Katko’s fellow Empire State Republicans bucked their party and voted against the tax bill because of its effect on high tax states like New York. But Republicans counter that Central New York is not as wealthy as areas downstate, and don’t pay as high property taxes as those who might be negatively impacted by the bill.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.