Editor’s Note: This candidate profile series focuses on those running in the 23rd and 24th districts. Each candidate was given an equal opportunity to interview with FingerLakes1.com for this series. To check out the profile on Democratic Challenger Dana Balter click here.
“I’m very proud of that bipartisan record, and really kind of cemented my status in the House as one of the leaders of the bipartisan movement.”
Rep. John Katko [NY-24] is locked in a contentious race by seeking reelection to Congress for a fourth term in a rematch against Dana Balter, a Democratic challenger who vied for the coveted congressional seat and lost in 2018.
Since then, Katko has looked to solely run on his own record and that’s what he wants his constituents to see when they’re casting ballots ahead of this Election Day.
“I want to be judged on what I’ve done and not all this outside nonsense, and quite frankly, I’ve solidified myself as one of the most bipartisan members in all of Congress and I’m really proud of that,” Katko exclusively told FingerLakes1.com as a part of the Race for Congress: 2020 candidate series.
Most recently, he has predicated his pride upon a newly released bipartisan index report conducted by the Lugar Center, a non-partisan organization located in Washington, D.C. that conducts policy-based analysis and research on U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
In partnership with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, the index scores House representatives, naming him the “second most bipartisan member of the 116th Congress” when in comparison to some of his 437 colleagues.
In that report, Katko outranked every single sitting Democrat with a score of 3.4723 and all but one Republican: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick [PA-1] who scored a 5.38508, the highest statistical index from this year.
In contrast, Rep. Gary Palmer [AL-6], a Republican earned the lowest score of -1.71257.
Ever since he started serving office in 2014, Katko claimed that he has kept his promise to serve as a balanced voice in Washington, D.C., saying that his superb ranking isn’t a fluke either.
Even during his first year while in office, Katko ranked twelfth overall for the 114th Congress, according to the same Lugar Center’s index.
In 2017, he ranked seventh overall among his fellow members in the House of Representatives within the 115th Congress.
This year, in his third term, he has closed that gap as the runner-up from the latest Lugar Center ranking, an accomplishment that Katko proudly touts around.
“I’ve had a total of 65 bills passed by the House, and a couple of dozen of those signed into law, some by Obama and some by Trump, and I’m very proud of that bipartisan record, and really kind of cemented my status in the House as one of the leaders of the bipartisan movement,” he added.
FiveThirtyEight has even tracked Katko’s voting record for the last two sessions of Congress, comparing it with Trump’s actual political beliefs.
During the 115th Congress from 2017-2018, Katko politically agreed with Trump on 61.5-percent of all issues across 96 bills, but actually voted the same way for 90.5-percent of time in the House.
The following session, Katko found much less equal footing policy-wise between him and Trump.
For the 116th Congress from 2018-2019, he aligned with Trump on slightly more than half of all the issues at 17.4-percent across 84 bills, but only voted 54.5-percent of the time in agreement with the president.
“We have the toughest district in the United States for a Republican to hold from a statistical standpoint, it’s the worst.”
Despite brandishing a strikingly bipartisan record across his entire tenure in Congress, he now faces the most challenging electoral test of his political career ever since he started representing the 24th congressional district back in 2014.
Katko does not shy away from speaking about the challenges that Republicans have faced to secure NY-24, claiming that it’s “the toughest district in the United States” for the party to keep control over.
But that fact for Katko doesn’t deter him from crediting his staff and team for staving-off Democratic contenders.
“We’re routinely overachieving for this district,” Katko admitted.
The Cook Political Report has considered the outcome for Katko’s reelection bid in 2020 as a Republican toss up along with 15 other races in that category, according to their House race ratings from the month of October.
Cook’s Partisan Voting Index essentially measures in what direction each district is leaning toward at the presidential level in comparison to the nation as a whole.
His district is the only race that leans Democratic based on the PVI with a three-point bump in comparison to the 15 other toss up races among his Republican colleagues in the House.
In 2018, Republicans lost 40 seats in the House across 75 races, and the other 35 incumbents just narrowly won within less than the five percentage points that Katko acquired while defeating Balter last election cycle.
In that respect, his last reelection bid was still considered a success, according to Katko.
But this time around he’s trailing in the polls behind Balter by two points [42-40], according to a New York Times Siena poll that had been conducted in late-September.
However, Katko noticed in his review of the Siena poll that he’s “doing very well with independents,” banking on their turnout for him instead of his opponent.
“If we can do well with independents, when the real polls come out at the end they’re going to be in our favor,” he claimed.
This particular poll has a 5.1-percent margin of error, which is fairly high for pollsters.
Even though Katko has been down in the polls, he has been campaigning and hustling in the final weeks leading to Election Day, hosting nearly 50 virtual town hall events.
“I’ve done so many Zoom calls, I feel like I should own stock in the company,” he chuckled.
This is a part of the fact that “it’s always a tough fight here” in the 24th District, but especially this cycle when he can’t directly connect with his constituents in-person while still observing social distancing guidelines because of the pandemic.
When he ran the first time for Congress in 2014, Katko defeated Dan Maffei, a Democrat, who earned 40-percent of the vote, putting him at a 19.9-percent lead after earning a 59.9-percent majority.
The following cycle in 2016, Katko then collected 61.02-percent of the total vote against Democratic challenger Colleen Deacon to defeat her by almost two-thirds of the total vote with a 22.05-percent lead.
After a pair of uncompetitive races, Katko beat Balter by only five-points in 2018.
Clearly, this is Katko’s toughest test to date since arriving to Congress, but he’s convinced that Balter’s lead is not based on her policy propositions and rather “the simple fact of the demographics of this district,” which he still hopes to overcome by November 3rd.
“If she gets elected, then that’s just not where I am. It’s not my zip code, or quite frankly is not my DNA.”
With that being said, Katko is not interested in totally dashing his Democratic Party challenger this election cycle and rather sticks by letting his legislative record to speak for himself.
However, he still airs caution for what issues that Balter might advocate upon while in Congress, if elected.
“I have respect on both sides of the aisle and I get things done. I’m a very moderate person and I’m not here to throw a lot of elbows at my opponent. But my opponent really has shown all the signs that she’s going to be more of a partisan, more of a far left member of Congress. If she gets elected, then that’s just not where I am. It’s not my zip code, or quite frankly is not my DNA,” Katko explained.
In 2010, the Tea Party emerged to gather control over the Republican Party in opposition to then President Barack Obama.
Even though Katko wasn’t serving in Congress yet, he considered that time as “the heyday” for the “far right.”
But now, he believes that “the left seems to be having their Tea Party movement with AOC and her band of progressives” and lumps Balter into that partisan category.
“There’s no question in my mind that my opponent more aligns with the AOCs of the world than she does with the moderate Blue Dogs of the world, and that’s a real problem for this district,” he claimed.
Katko is “very proud” of his “bipartisan stripes,” saying that his opponent is “far more extreme for this district” than himself and insisting that she’s not “the right fit.”
“I think she should be held accountable for her far left ties and who she espouses to be and her far left policies, and I think that’s really what she’s trying to avoid talking about. She’s given every signal that she is going to be a progressive, and she’s going to be in the left wing of the party: Medicare for All, increasing taxes, supporting bail reform. Bail reform is going to be a very serious national issue,” he claimed.
During the Democratic Party primary for the presidential nomination, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris [D-CA] advocated for the removal of bail nationwide as a part of her policy platform if she were to win the primary.
But after her defeat and joining forces with former Vice President Joe Biden has his own vice presidential cabinet pick, Katko is still concerned about the prospects of nationwide bail reform at the federal level.
“But Kamala Harris said in the debates, not only do they want to reform bail, now they want to get rid of all bail altogether. That’s not the Democratic platform, and do you want to force states to get rid of bail? That’s incredible. That’s an incredibly progressive thing,” he considered.
Balter believes that she and Biden are going to win in their respective races in 2020 and Katko remains concerned about “down-ballot” voting for Democratic candidates.
“If this were a popularity contest or a nice guy contest, obviously, we wouldn’t be voting for the president, but that’s not the standard. The standard is what’s gonna be best for the country going forward.”
Lately, Katko has come under fire for his affiliation with President Donald J. Trump, some considering him a staunch supporter of the president and a turncoat to a promise that he made in 2016 about not standing by the side of the Commander in Chief.
Following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Katko posted on his campaign page in 2016, “Faced with two candidates with serious flaws, I have long declined to endorse or support Donald Trump in this race.”
However, Katko actually endorsed Trump ahead of 2020.
Although Katko has publicly supported Trump ahead of his reelection bid for the White House, he admitted that his own legislative record shows that he’s above blind partisanship for the president, insisting “it’s not possibly true.”
“That should quell any rumors that I’m in the bag for anybody I just couldn’t possibly be in the bag for Trump, like she [Dana Balter] says I am,” Katko expressed.
Despite those perceptions, Katko insists that he is transparent about whenever he’s with Trump or not.
“By the way, I call balls and strikes. When I’m with the President, I tell you, and when I’m not I tell you, I call him out routinely on things, and it’s not like I have some blanket support of the President, far from it,” Katko shared.
Although the congressman has his own publicly documented concerns with Trump, the choice between him and former Vice President Joe Biden is clear to him, despite their political and ethical differences.
“If this were a popularity contest or a nice guy contest, obviously, we wouldn’t be voting for the president, but that’s not the standard. The standard is what’s gonna be best for the country going forward,” Katko explained.
It’s no secret who Katko will be voting for this Election Day, only after telling FingerLakes1.com that he plans to actually cast his ballot for Trump.
“Given how far left the Democratic Party has gone, this is really basically a vote for democratic principles, despite the words of the president and he has a substantial on words. His rhetoric is harmful and not leadership worthy a lot of times and despite that where we’re going as a country is critically important. So, when I say I’m voting for the president, it’s really a vote for republican ideals versus democratic ideals and my record proves that I’m an independent guy,” he admitted.
His independency has become even clearer with the rise of QAnon, a digital conspiracy movement that is capturing popularity among some inner circles within the conservative party.
QAnon conspiracy-supporting candidates have been winning primary races after defeating longtime Republican incumbents in states like Georgia and Florida.
Katko has actively disapproved of the carving out of the moderate Republican Party, saying “I totally 100-percent denounce it” unlike Trump who still hasn’t officially repudiated the conspiracy theories on the national stage.
“As far as COVID goes, I’ve already provided the blueprint with the Problem Solvers Caucus.”
Even allocating pandemic relief can be political, but Katko has sought to rise above partisanship while dealing with COVID-19 at the federal level and on behalf of his district.
The Problem Solvers Caucus, a coalition of 25 Democrats and Republicans each have drafted a COVID relief package that seeks to provide direct aid to state and local governments, another round of stimulus checks, unemployment extension and funding for schools to increase on-site testing.
Katko has been a proud longtime member of the bipartisan caucus alongside the neighboring Rep. Tom Reed [NY-23].
Although the bill hasn’t passed yet, Katko still hopes to continue pursuing it after this election cycle even though his opponent claimed that the bill is “not good enough,” in his own words.
Balter has openly supported the Heroes Act, a bill that had been “poo pooed even by Democrats,” according to Katko.
“She points to the Heroes Act as her bellwether. The Heroes Act was poo pooed even by Democrats. In fact, 27 Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi saying stop with the messaging bills on COVID,” he recalled.
But beyond his own bill, however, Katko is proud of his bipartisanship efforts in the House when it comes to responding to the crippling impacts of COVID-19.
“I’ve worked across party lines again and again to deliver personal protective equipment, testing and aid to local hospitals as well as relief for local businesses and direct economic stimulus payments to families. I’m also leading bipartisan efforts to hold the [Trump] administration accountable, and ensure our nation is prepared, should we see renewed spikes on COVID-19,” Katko explained.
“That’s just not true. I voted for that bill.”
Health care has always been a key policy concern for Americans and Katko came under scrutiny from Balter for standing with Trump’s attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act following his vote in support of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which removed the individual mandate penalty.
At the same time, however, Katko also voted in favor of the Protecting Americans with Preexisting Conditions Act of 2019, which “would formally repeal the Trump Administration’s October guidance, halting the state-led expansion of health insurance which could discriminate or exclude coverage based on preexisting conditions,” as the bill reads.
“It said we want to protect people with preexisting conditions and it can’t, by law, do anything to denigrate that,” Katko elaborated.
In that vote, he was one of only four Republicans that supported the bill in the House, which passed 230-183 along a Democratic majority with 226 of their party members voting while eight others abstained.
In addition to that, Katko supported a Democratic rules package, the first time that Republicans reportedly supported one since the 1990s.
“Myself and two others did, and we did so because part of the rules package included allowing the House to seek litigation to protect people with preexisting conditions and that’s why I voted for the Democratic rules package. I caught a ton of hell for that, but I did it because I wanted to make sure that preexisting conditions were protected,” he elaborated.
If he’s reelected to a fourth term in Congress, Katko promises to keep defending the Affordable Care Act, but there is still a caveat too.
“I’m going to continue to fight against getting rid of the Affordable Care Act unless there’s a suitable replacement. That replacement can’t be Medicare for All, but it can be opening up a state competition for health care. It can and should be real true medical malpractice reform, and it should be real true prescription drug price reform,” he mentioned.
On top of that, Katko is interested in financially investing to try finding cure chronic diseases as a solution to drive down the costs for medical insurers, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.
“We’ve put in billions of dollars to the National Institutes of Health to try and find cures for the big cost drivers,” he shared.
“This is such a Democratic move. They constantly tried fear-mongering to scare the hell out of people.”
As the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett officially concluded just last night after a 52-48 vote in favor of her nomination to become an associate justice, Katko still speaks out against the critical pushback that she has received nationwide following the death of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“This is such a Democratic move. They constantly tried fear-mongering to scare the hell out of people,” Katko said.
A long list of Supreme Court justice nominees were subject to the same type of treatment that Amy Coney Barrett faced, in Katko’s eyes.
He mentioned names like Sandra Day O’Connor, Anton Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and John G. Roberts Jr. who were victims of that type of political onslaught while being nominated to the court.
Despite such pushback, the confirmation process still led to Justice Clarence Thomas swearing-in Barrett at the White House later that same Monday evening, only hours after the Senate vote passed along a Republican majority.
For Katko, these justices “have a tremendous respect” for stare decisis or precedent, claiming that lifetime appointments has them “completely free from political influence” and “it works wonderfully in the Supreme Court,” but also believes that this is a political contest that Balter shouldn’t prioritize during her bid for his seat.
“I think it’s a lot of fear-mongering and my opponent is, I think, taking part in that. I think going forward it’d be nice if she focused on things that unite us, not things that divide us,” he said.
In 2016, Katko dissented from his own party saying that Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland “should have his hearing,” claiming he “should at least have his day, and I feel the same way now” about Barrett and President Trump’s third nominee in just four years.
Katko, a fellow Catholic like Barrett, considers the nominee as “remarkably qualified” and earned the endorsement of 52 U.S. Senators, which comprises of Republican majority in the legislature.
With Barrett now officially serving on the Supreme Court, Trump has matched former President Ronald Reagan for the all-time record of Supreme Court picks while sitting in the Oval Office at three nominees each.
“I’m not a partisan flame thrower. I am the exact opposite, I’m a bridge builder.”
Katko hopes to keep representing the district for a fourth term, saying that he has kept his word to the people.
“I’ve kept my word. I’ve kept my word on things like the Affordable Care Act. I’ve stood up against my party time and time again. I’ve stood up against President Trump time and time again,” he said.
He believes that his record speaks to his public service and not just for Republican constituents, but the entire political spectrum of his diverse congressional district.
“I’m not a partisan flame thrower. I am the exact opposite, I’m a bridge builder. I’m the head of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, a key player in the Problem Solvers Caucus. I live, breathe and eat bipartisanship because I think that’s what we really need in this country,” Katko explained.
He even reinforced the assertion that he’s “absolutely, positively” “not in anyone’s back pocket.”
“I’m not in anyone’s back pocket, especially the president’s. I’m my own person and I understand profoundly that I have Democrats, Republicans and independents in my district, and I’m gonna represent all of them all the time. There’s no question about that,” Katko claimed.
Although he believes that Balter is trying to “portray him” as a pawn or puppet of Trump, the “indisputable” facts can “knock down those arguments,” in his own words.
As a designated ethics prosecutor in the House, Katko acts as a checks and balance even against his own party members like Rep. David Schweikert [R-AR], who’s campaign and office allegedly misspent funds in 2019.
Katko sat on the U.S. House Ethics Committee’s investigative subcommittee for that particular case just this year and stayed above partisan politics.
“I didn’t care if he’s from my own party. It was the right thing to do. So, for her to allege somehow that I’m influenced by anybody is reprehensible because Democrats have to accept me as a prosecutor as well, and they do because they know my reputation is stellar,” Katko explained.
Whenever his ethics are called into question as a candidate, Katko cannot accept that, claiming that these assertions only further distances the decision for voters between him and Balter in 2020.
“I have a high ethical standard, and she’s trying to attack those and it’s pretty reprehensible,” he concluded.