Voters in Central New York will witness one of the most competitive political battles in the country when campaigning for the 24th Congressional District seat starts, say local political science experts.
The reason: U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei, D-Syracuse, is seeking re-election in a district that is sharply divided among Republicans and Democrats. That also raises the national stakes for both parties, say experts.
“The district has been very competitive recently, going back to 2006, said Grant Reeher, a political scientist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “It’s changed party hands a couple of times since. It’s also been seen as a barometer of sorts for the national struggles going on both between the two major parties, and within the Republican party.”
The 24th Congressional District encompasses the heavily Democratic city of Syracuse as well as more rural areas in Oswego and Cayuga counties that tend to vote Republican. It includes all of Onondaga, Cayuga and Wayne counties as well as the western part of Oswego County. Of the district’s 454,553 registered voters, 34 percent are Democrat, 33 percent are Republican and 24 percent have no affiliation with a political party, according to 2013 numbers from the New York Board of Elections.
The election will be Nov. 4, 2014. All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election this fall. In the 24th Congressional District, the GOP, as of March 30, was likely to have a primary election on June 24. In Onondaga County, the local GOP chose former federal prosecutor John Katko. But Syracuse businessman Ian Hunter has said he will force a primary for his own candidacy.
Democrat Dan Maffei has represented the area on and off for the last six years. He was first elected in 2008 but lost the seat in 2010 to Republican Ann Marie Buerkle. In a fiercely fought rematch, Maffei reclaimed the seat in 2012.
Maffei and his campaign did not respond to seven requests for interviews for this story.
As he campaigns for re-election, local political scientists say Maffei will have to strengthen his ability to relate easily to voters. Campaigning is not one of Maffei’s strong points, says Kristi Andersen, the Chapple Family Professor of Citizenship and Democracy at Syracuse University.
“I think he’s a smart person who likes policy and would like to have time to work in congress rather than campaign,” said Andersen. “He seems not very at ease with the public sometimes, so that’s an issue.”
And Maffei faces a major challenge in appealing to his rural and more Republican constituents, said SU political scientist Margaret Thompson. “This is a district that has a large agricultural population and a large urban population. When you’ve got a district that is not homogeneous you’ve got voters that need different things,” she said.
On the money front, Maffei has a strong head start. As of late March, he had raised nearly $1.2 million, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.
But SU political scientist Thompson cautions against seeing his money lead as a guarantee of victory. “As for money I don’t really think that’s the main factor here, said Thompson. When he lost in 2010 to Buerkle, reminded Thompson, Maffei had much more money and outspent her. “Yet,” said Thompson, “he still lost.”
Maffei is part of the national Democratic establishment and will get strong party support, said experts. He is one of 26 Democratic members of congress who is in the party’s Frontline Program. It is a program sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that is meant to protect vulnerable congressional incumbents.
According to his official website, Maffei is focused on “growing the middle class and bringing good-paying jobs to the area through smart investment in infrastructure and expanding educational opportunities.”
Maffei’s support for controversial national issues, like President Barack Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, informally known as Obamacare, may be a disadvantage for him in the November election, say local political scienteists. Obama’s national reputation and low polls numbers could also pose issues for Maffei campaign, suggested Grant Reeher, a political scientist at Syracuse University.
“The president’s popularity rating will likely hurt Maffei a bit,” Reeher said. “And the tradition is that the president’s party loses seats in this mid-term cycle.”
The battle for the 24th Congressional District could also foreshadow issues in the 2016 presidential race, he said. “If the Democrats were to lose the seat, it would be seen as one bellwether for potential problems in 2016,” said Reeher, “assuming that the Republicans were to field a strong presidential candidate.”
(Anna Giles is a junior with dual majors in broadcast journalism and international relations.)