Inside the upstate NY House primary where Dems stand best chance of defeating GOP in November

SYRACUSE, New York — This purple district in upstate New York is a crucial piece of Democrats’ plans to retake the House. There’s just one problem: The party has repeatedly botched contests here that it should have won.

This time incumbent Brandon Williams is arguably the most vulnerable Republican in the chamber, representing a district then-candidate Joe Biden won by 12 points. Yet the Democratic Party has long struggled to win the House seat here, including two in which their candidates entered as heavy favorites.

But with only a handful of truly competitive, flippable seats this cycle, this is a race they can’t afford to lose.

State Sen. John Mannion and Dewitt Town Councilor Sarah Klee Hood are facing off next week to determine who will challenge Williams. And top of voters’ minds is not crime or the Middle East or any other issue dominating the political discourse this presidential cycle. Instead, they are zeroing in on who is least likely to fumble the ball in November.

“Democrats across the board have realized that this race has gotten screwed up a lot over the years,” Syracuse City Auditor Alex Marion said. “People really want to make sure we get this right, because the road to this perilously close House majority could run right through Central New York.”

Democrats are no strangers to losing must-win contests in this district: Their nominees have lost each of the past five competitive races held here. The party needs to pick up four seats in November to retake the House, and New York — where Republicans gained ground on their road to power two years ago — is home to an estimated six swing seats this cycle.

Electability is always an issue in primaries. But it’s been placed on the backburner in most recent major Democratic primaries in New York, overshadowed instead by ideological battles between the center and far left.

Here, it’s at the center of every message.

“I am a short, feisty, energetic, overqualified woman,” Klee Hood said during the candidates’ first debate. “I excite voters — every single race that I’ve been in, I have overperformed. We need that type of voter turnout in November.”

“I’ve got a proven electoral record,” Mannion said after casting a ballot on the first day of early voting. “I’ve won tough elections, I know what it’s like. I’m the only Democratic senator who currently has a district with more registered Republicans.”

Unlike other New York primaries next week, there’s minimal daylight between the candidates on policy issues. The closest they’ve come to a major disagreement is on abortion — Mannion supports New York’s Reproductive Health Act, which was enthusiastically backed by groups like Planned Parenthood, while Klee Hood argues this doesn’t go far enough since it still requires a doctor’s approval for third trimester procedures. So both candidates have spent far more time highlighting their resumes and arguing that they’ll best appeal to voters in November.

Klee Hood, an Air Force veteran, says her familiarity with national issues sets her apart from an opponent with state-level experience.

“Republicans know Brandon Williams is weakest when Democrats nominate a veteran and a woman in the post-Roe era,” she said in an interview.

Mannion is a former teacher, a fact he highlights in practically every other sentence on the campaign trail.

“We are on a path right now that we have to change,” he said. “It takes true leadership and courage. It takes a teacher to be able to do that.”

Mannion’s experience teaching has been key to his political success in recent years. In 2018, he launched the most serious campaign in generations by a Democrat in a long-time Republican stronghold, managed to flip the seat in 2020, and held on by 10 votes out of 123,000 cast in 2022.

The New York State United Teachers has spent as much as $1.2 million boosting his campaigns in the past. Two of its national counterparts have combined to spend $300,000 on purchases like TV ads boosting Mannion — practically the only super PAC spending in the primary. That has helped him close a fundraising gap, with Klee Hood’s campaign outraising him $1.4 million to $900,000.

“He is one of our own, and we would love to send him to Washington, as much as we love him in the state Senate,” New York State United Teachers president Melinda Person said.

NYSUT usually focuses on state races while leaving congressional contests to its national counterparts, but worked to boost the national unions’ efforts in the primary and would very likely go all-out for Mannion if he winds up on the November ballot: “We’re running an ambitious member-to-member campaign,” Person said. “We have tens of thousands of members in the district.”

The district has been in Republican hands since John Katko won in 2014. Katko quickly developed enough of a record of bipartisanship to let him be the rare New York Republican who could hold onto a swing district during the “blue wave.”

He announced his retirement in early 2022, around the time it was becoming clear Democrats planned to gerrymander his district into a solidly-blue seat. The courts wound up rejecting that gerrymander, and Williams was able to eke out a 1 point victory.

Democrats have since redrawn the district again, making it 2 points friendlier than it was in 2022. And they’re confident that Williams’ tenure — which includes moments such as a brief refusal to forego a paycheck in a potential government shutdown — will provide plenty of fodder for ads.

Forecasters have unanimously agreed with this assessment. Roll Call has labeled Williams the country’s most vulnerable House Republican, The Cook Political Report has identified the district as the only Republican-held seat in the country that “leans Democrat,” and Sabato’s Crystal Ball makes that one of only two GOP seats with the “lean Democratic” label.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already opened a field office in the district with the hope of quickly pivoting to general election mode once the primary is over.

“No matter what the outcome is Tuesday night, we need to get our act together Wednesday morning,” said Marion, who has endorsed Mannion but has “nothing ill to say about” Klee Hood. “Because the general election starts immediately.”

The race in Syracuse pits a “feisty” U.S. Air Force vet against a former schoolteacher.  

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