SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In an election year that’s generally considered to be favorable to the GOP, the Central New York seat currently held by retiring Republican Rep. John Katko just might be one of Democrats’ best chances for a pickup as they attempt to hold onto their slim congressional majority.
The Democratic candidates seem to agree.
“It’s viewed as the number one opportunity, not just in New York, but really in the entire nation to win a seat,” Democratic hopeful Francis Conole, a commander in the Navy Reserves, said in an interview. “As an open seat, a district that President Biden carried by 8 points — you’re not going to find a better opportunity.”
But before Democrats can attempt to reverse their recent trend of underperforming in congressional races in the Syracuse area, they’ll need to choose a candidate Tuesday in a competitive four-way primary for the 22nd Congressional District under new lines drawn earlier this year.
Conole is generally considered the frontrunner, enjoying dominant leads in fundraising and the endorsements of top local Democrats. Yet the race is as wide open as any in New York.
But each of the four candidates — Conole, DeWitt Town Councilor Sarah Klee Hood, former state welfare commissioner Sam Roberts and Syracuse Councilor Chol Majok — could win in a low-turnout August contest.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face one of two millionaires running Tuesday for the Republican nomination, both of whom have financial assets worth more than all four of their potential Democratic opponents combined. Both say their primary concern is inflation.
The departure of the moderate Katko makes the race one of the most crucial for the parties in the country — even as it has received far less statewide or national attention than those also on the ballot Tuesday in places like Manhattan, Kingston and suburban Buffalo.
Conole, an Iraq vet who has worked as a policy adviser in the Pentagon, has secured a commanding lead in support from top Democrats in Onondaga County, the district’s population center.
He’s outraised his opponents by a comfortable margin. And thanks to the added support from a super PAC funded with cryptocurrency money, the total money spent on television ads touting his campaign has neared $500,000, according to tracking service AdImpact. That’s nearly 30 times as much as all his Democratic opponents combined.
He’s not declaring himself a frontrunner — “That’ll be for the voters to decide in a couple of weeks,” he said.
But a debate last week hosted by the Syracuse Post-Standard certainly indicated that Klee Hood, at least, thinks Conole was the candidate she needed to attack.
An Air Force veteran who moved back to Central New York to raise her family, Klee Hood is the director of a tech incubator for small start-up businesses, as well as a town councilor. She is the only woman in the race in a year where Democrats have heightened focus on women's reproductive rights following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and she does not hesitate to highlight that.
“As the only candidate here whose rights have been stripped away, we need to expand the court,” she said when the subject came up in the debate.
Like Conole, she has emphasized her military background: She led a team of 140 troops across four divisions and managed a $25 million budget. She said it has prepared her to advocate for Central New York, where she was born and raised, and to put their needs first over party ideals or hardlines in Washington.
“It’s really about the people; just like public office, it’s about understanding people and their needs,” she said of her Air Force service. “That’s more or less just a translation of understanding the community and making hard decisions.”
Roberts is more experienced at winning races in the area than the other three candidates combined: He served five terms in the Onondaga County Legislature in the 1990s and was elected to three in the state Assembly a decade ago.
He left that Assembly job when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed him to run the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance in 2015. The former United Autoworkers leader has been backed by top labor groups such as CSEA and 1199SEIU.
Majok, meanwhile, was born in South Sudan, but fled from violence as a 6 year old, resettling in America as a “Lost Boy” refugee. He went on to earn a doctorate in political science, work for former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and win election to the Syracuse Common Council in 2019.
He has raised far less than the other candidates and has focused on a grassroots-style campaign. That’s usually a tough path in a congressional race, but in a low-turnout August primary, even having a small swath of the electorate genuinely enthused about one’s candidacy can leave the door open to an upset.
“You’re going to see people that have never voted before,” Majok said. “My campaign has been intentional about that. We have to talk about so many people being written off that they have lost hope in the political process — not anymore.”
The winner will face one of two Republican candidates.
Steve Wells, a founding partner of American Food and Vending Corporation in Syracuse and former prosecutor, has the backing of a host of local elected Republicans — as well as North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik — largely in part to his ability and commitment to bankrolling his own campaign.
Wells' opponent, Brandon Williams, a technology executive and U.S. Navy vet, is painting himself as a political outsider and has been endorsed by state and local Conservative committees.
The crowded races came after New York Democrats redrew the seat in February to include the deep blue college town of Ithaca. Doing so turned a congressional district that President Joe Biden in 2020 won by 10 percentage points into one that he won by 19.
But those plans for a new safe Democratic seat fell apart when the state courts found the maps were improperly gerrymandered and imposed new lines. Now, the candidates will be running in a seat that Biden won by 8 points.
It’s a slightly tighter margin than in the past, but Democrats are advantaged by the retirement of Katko, who was regularly able to win crossover votes as the most moderate member of an increasingly polarized Congress.
“Congressman Katko had some pretty unique strengths in this district,” Conole said. “I didn’t agree with him on a whole range of policies ... but he also made the right vote, voting for impeachment [of President Donald Trump] in the end.”
Klee Hood suggested that Democrats might be boosted by moderate voters in the Utica area who were previously represented by far-right firebrand Rep. Claudia Tenney after Tenney two years ago won the district from Democrat Anthony Brindisi in a lengthy and bitter vote count.
“At the end of the day, we have a district that is consolidating two Republicans’ districts, but I can tell you there are a lot of folks that had Tenney as their representative who are very excited to have a Democrat," Klee Hood said.