SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Nine days before Christmas, from near the border with Mexico in Arizona and some 2,300 miles from this city that is the seat of his district, Republican congressman John Katko beamed into the homes of the watchers of Fox Business. Through a patchy connection he delivered five minutes of red-meat rhetoric about immigrants and drugs “pouring” into the country — “drugs that are killing our kids,” Katko told show host Maria Bartiromo. “Every single American in this country,” he said, “could be killed seven times over with the fentanyl that we’ve seized at the border …”
“Congressman, look, it’s a great thing that you went all the way to the border,” Bartiromo said — before pivoting the interview to a less comfortable subject. “And yet you still voted for the infrastructure package. Congressman, do you regret it?”
“It’s going to help us with our water systems, help us with our roads,” Katko countered. “I think it’s going to be one of those great investments. I think the infrastructure package to me is like a good bottle of wine — it’s going to age very well.”
Bartiromo laughed. At what exactly, it was unclear. But her response came with more than a trace of mockery.
“Well, we’ll see about that,” she said.
Katko spent most of 2021 dealing in one way or another with the political ramifications of what he did in its first two weeks. Last Jan. 6, after dismissing the false notion that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from defeated president Donald Trump, the former federal prosecutor sheltered in his Capitol office behind barricaded doors. Listening to menacing steps in the halls, he called on Trump to “end this, now.” A week later, Katko wasn’t just one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump — he was the first to announce his intent. And he didn’t equivocate. “To allow the President of the United States to incite this attack without consequence is a direct threat to the future of our democracy,” he said. “He cannot be the standard-bearer of our party going forward,” he added.
Ever since, even as Katko has lost the support of local and state conservative leaders and taken flak from Trump, the four-term incumbent has put himself more and more at odds with most of his GOP colleagues. He was one of 13 Republicans to vote for Joe Biden’s $550 billion infrastructure bill, one of 11 to vote to censure incendiary Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of five to vote for the pro-union PRO Act and one of three to vote for additional protections for LGBTQ Americans in the Equality Act — all while also being a firm no on Democratic priorities like voting rights, abortion rights and Biden’s Build Back Better Act. He has discussed with the president in the Oval Office the importance of working together to fix bridges and roads — and gone on TV time after time to blast the president over his border policies. Katko’s tightrope of a year since the deadly pro-Trump riot at the Capitol was in some sense only an intensification of what he’s had to do since he first was elected to Congress in 2014.
In and around New York’s “Central City,” with its test-market tendencies and its affinity for politicians with a moderate mien, Katko, 59, has fostered a bipartisan reputation in this increasingly partisan time. Those to his right say he’s too far to the left. Those to his left say he’s too far to the right. It’s more than merely a feel; Katko consistently rates as one of Washington’s most willing and effective middle-of-the-road, across-the-aisle lawmakers. It’s positioning that’s worked: Katko was reelected in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won in his district. He was reelected in 2018 when dozens of similarly situated Republicans weren’t. And he was reelected in 2020 when he won his district by 10 points and Biden won it by nine — that 19-point swing the nation’s largest such spread.
And now — even still — Katko could win again.
In spite of the ire of Trump and the constituents in New York’s 24th congressional district most loyal to the ex-president — plus pending redistricting that will scramble the political calculus for Katko and everybody else — he has in what promises to be the most challenging election of his career an odds-on chance to pull through. That’s according to the most prominent, most powerful Republicans here — and a host of Democratic operatives, too, who have tried and failed to take him out in the past. Because Katko wasn’t just the first to announce that he was voting for impeachment — he was the last to get a primary challenger. At the moment, he has two — and the more serious of them is a political novice. Trump has pledged to back and help Katko’s challenger — although he conspicuously has not given one of his “Complete and Total” endorsements.
It is possible Trump’s been waiting for additional opponents to emerge, which could happen once New York finishes its fractious and lagging redistricting, but the pair of provisional maps the state’s independent redistricting commission unveiled earlier this week probably make that less likely. Democrats have a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature and could scrap both renderings in exchange for sharper, more Democrat-leaning lines, and legal wrangling looms. For now, though, either map would keep Katko in a Syracuse-based district that shoots east to Utica and south to Ithaca — and which would favor Democrats by as much as 12 points. That would make markedly more daunting a bid for anybody to Katko’s right — who would want to try to knock him off in June only to get clobbered in November? — and it might mean, too, say experts and analysts, that Katko is the one Republican with a chance to hold the seat. Even this ongoing uncertainty ultimately could be to Katko’s advantage, leaving less time for a rival to stand up an operation to topple a proven winner who seldom has raised more money and is on the cusp of becoming Homeland Security chair should the GOP take back the House.
Two of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment in 2021 are already done — Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois are not running for reelection — and the eight left are on the block. Their fates in this year’s midterms will be one of the most important and telling gauges of the durability of the power of Trump going into 2024. And of this group, Katko stands as one of Trump’s more vexing targets, a one-man, real-time rebuke to the idea that the insufficiently acquiescent cannot survive in a party ostensibly led by a man who has declared war on people like him.
Katko didn’t want to talk to me about any of this. Understandable — why draw undue attention?
But other area politicos have lots to say.
His foes insist he’s finished. “We will not be endorsing him,” Gerard Kassar, the chair of the state’s Conservative Party, told me. (In New York, the Conservative Party is not the same as the Republican Party.) “We’ve had enough,” said Tom Dadey, the former Onondaga County Republican boss who recently switched his registration to the Conservative Party partly on account of Katko. “He’s gotta go,” said Bernie Ment, the Onondaga Conservative chair who received in June a note from Trump with a Sharpie-scrawled threat — “Katko will never win again.”
Katko, of course, certainly could lose. And he hasn’t formally announced he’s running for reelection. Previously, though, he has said he wants to serve six terms in Congress, and his donors, allies, advisers and aides maintain that he absolutely can keep winning. A trio of top Republicans in the 24th district all but guaranteed it.
“He’s going to be a tough out in a primary,” Ryan McMahon, the Onondaga County executive, told me. “And he’s a harder out in a general.”
“John’s not gonna lose,” said Bill Fitzpatrick, the longtime Onondaga district attorney.
Benedicte Doran, the Onondaga Republican chair who is also a main fundraiser and his political director, sat across from me in a booth at a Panera Bread. Typically under the radar and soft-spoken, Doran sipped her coffee and addressed this with a matter-of-fact confidence.
“He will survive,” she said.
She namechecked her county GOP predecessor, dropping what sounded to me like the kind of Trump taunt Katko of late has been trying to avoid.
“Tom Dadey loves to talk,” Doran said. “I like to get people elected.”
Katko always had an uneven relationship with Trump.
He didn’t vote for him in 2016. He did support him in 2020 even though he dubbed him “a knucklehead.” At the beginning of 2021, though, Katko was adamant. Stop the Steal? No. The votes were counted. The courts heard the arguments. Biden was the winner. Trump was the loser. And Congress had to certify the results. “It is not the role of Congress to usurp the will of the people and the Electoral College,” Katko said in a statement heading into Jan. 6. “To do so would irrevocably alter our democracy and electoral process. We must certify our nation’s election results.”
It is not what the majority of his fellow House Republicans did that day. It is not what the majority of his fellow House Republicans did even after the Capitol was ransacked and people were killed. But it’s what Katko did. It’s what he did after he “holed up” in his office with the lights turned off, and after he saw in the wee hours in a cafeteria bruised and bloodied Capitol police, and after he walked past broken doors and over broken glass and back onto the House floor to log his vote. He called the attack on the Capitol “shameful” and “unacceptable” and “unlawful” and “unpatriotic.” And he said Trump was to blame. Trump “lit a match.” Trump “incited this violence.”
The next week, he drove back down from New York with a care package for Capitol police officer Josh Call, a former intern of his from the Syracuse area who had been hurt trying to protect the lawmakers from the horde. “We loaded that into his truck,” his mother, Kathleen Dobe-Call, told me. “Even more importantly, he said he’d give Josh a hug, because … I was desperate to give Josh a hug.” Katko told a reporter from Bloomberg he was “profoundly affected” by the connection to Call.
Katko’s statement about impeachment was the first from a Republican of its kind.
“It cannot be ignored that President Trump encouraged this insurrection — both on social media … and in his speech that day. By deliberately promoting baseless theories suggesting the election was somehow stolen, the president created a combustible environment of misinformation, disenfranchisement and division,” he said.
“We take oaths to defend the Constitution because at times it needs to be defended,” he continued. “To allow the President of the United States to incite this attack without consequence is a direct threat to the future of our democracy. For that reason, I cannot sit by without taking action. I will vote to impeach this President.”
The Conservative Party chair in Wayne County in Katko’s district sent him a text. “I really believe you should reconsider your decision,” Michael Garlock wrote Katko in a text exchange Garlock shared with me. “I understand,” Katko wrote back. He said he didn’t make the decision “lightly.” He said he was aware of the likelihood of blowback. But he didn’t reconsider.
“He understood the consequences,” McMahon, the Onondaga County executive, told me. “He still made the choice.”
Katko made it by going into “prosecutor mode,” he said the following week to the reporter Robert Harding of the Auburn Citizen in Cayuga County in his district. “You simply have to apply the law to the facts,” Katko explained. “Nothing else really should matter, and that’s what I did.”
Garlock’s group quickly announced it would never endorse Katko again, Katko’s family was the subject of what he termed “nastiness” and “vitriol,” and 40 or so former supporters gathered at the Syracuse restaurant Strada Mia to vent. As the fallout, though, on his right ramped up, Katko on this front didn’t waver.
“I can’t even describe to you what the Capitol Hill police officers, men and women, looked like,” he said in February in a meeting with the editorial board of the Syracuse Post-Standard. “They had bloody hands, scratches and bumps and bruises on their faces. They looked shell-shocked, like after a war. You can’t possibly adequately describe that. But I can tell you it was much worse than people realized.”
Even in September — long after other Republicans had eased up considerably on their condemnation, well after it was clear Trump’s hold on the party was fast — Katko didn’t give ground. “I don’t think he should be our leader going forward,” he told the Post-Standard. “It would have been a lot easier if I didn’t vote on the impeachment vote, but I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
All year long, in fact, he never stopped bucking his party. He voted against Greene. He voted for the Equality Act. He voted to make it easier for workers to form and join a union. He met at the White House with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to try to hash out a tenable infrastructure bill — leaning on a plan Katko had helped craft as the co-chair of the Infrastructure Working Group of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “This is why I came to Congress,” he said. He exchanged niceties with Biden, nodding to his Syracuse roots.
Bernie Ment, the Onondaga Conservative boss, was incredulous. “Where,” he said to me, “does it end with this guy?”
Not there. In May, working with House Homeland Security chair Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Katko brokered an agreement to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6 — an effort patterned after the 9/11 Commission. He didn’t ask his GOP colleagues to get on board. He pleaded. “Set aside politics just this once,” he said on the House floor. “Just this once. I beg you.” It fizzled due to lack of support from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Katko also, though, voted with his party plenty, too. He voted against Biden’s Covid-19 relief plan and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March. In May, he supported for GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik, his Trump-supporting New York caucus colleague who had voted against certification of the election results, after Cheney was pushed out of that role following her impeachment vote — prompting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to characterize Katko as a Trump “tool” after all. In June, after working to initiate an investigation into Jan. 6, he voted against Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Select Committee charged to do the same — albeit necessarily with more Democrats than Republicans — saying this one “would be a turbo-charged partisan exercise.” In August, Katko voted “no” on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and he lambasted the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. He voted “no” on the Women’s Health Protection Act in September. And in November, even as he voted “yes” on infrastructure, he voted “no” on Build Back Better.
Throughout 2021 as well, Katko harangued Biden about the border, taking a trip to Texas in March and another in April before his junket to Arizona in December. He mailed to donors a fundraising letter highlighting his focus. “I will continue to lead the Republican effort to push back against these dangerous policies,” Katko, sounding more like a right-wing firebrand than an anti-Trump apostate, wrote in the letter the Post-Standard obtained. “That is why I am asking for your support, to help fight back against the far-left radical agenda and ensure our borders are secure.”
On the posts on Katko’s social media accounts of his pre-Christmas Fox Business hit with Bartiromo — the question about his infrastructure vote and his answer about the “good bottle of wine” had been snipped from the clip — commenters pelted the congressman with epithets. He was called a base-pandering Republican. He was called a “RINO,” or a Republican in Name Only. One person even called him “a biden democrat.”
Of the more than 454,000 voters in Katko’s district current district, according to the latest statistics from the state’s board of elections, a little more than a third are Democrats or registered to the Working Families Party, a little less than a third are Republicans or registered to the Conservative Party, and a little less than that are not registered with any party.
Which is to say one might read the comments on Katko’s Facebook post and despair at the base state of our discourse. One might also, though, look at the wide range of the criticism and see a reason he wins.
Katko’s political prospects approaching the thick of 2022 are informed by this particular place and his particular path to this point.
One of seven children in an Irish Catholic family, Katko grew up in Camillus, a suburb on the west side of Syracuse — traditionally more blue-collar and conservative than the eastern towns that are more closely tied with Syracuse University’s higher-ed hub. Katko went to Bishop Ludden High School. He went to Niagara University, private and Catholic over near Buffalo, where he was a political science major and graduated cum laude. He went to Syracuse Law. He’s been married to his wife, who’s a nurse, for 35 years. They have three sons. Katko coached their hockey teams.
As a prosecutor, after stints in Washington, Texas and Puerto Rico, Katko came back to Syracuse — to Camillus — to raise his family and work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of New York. He prosecuted dirty cops and drug kingpins and gang leaders using organized crime laws. “It takes time to build cases. Some people may not like that, but that’s how we have to proceed in order to do things properly,” he once told a reporter from Albany. “The investigation is sacred.”
In 2014, when Katko announced his initial run for Congress in a crowded, eight-person primary, Democratic operatives who knew Central New York recognized quickly the potential potency of the pieces of his biography, not just the tough-on-crime central-casting image but the Irish, the Catholic, the hockey, Camillus and the west side — all markers that matter within the political topography of the area. Katko’s brother-in-law even was (and is) the owner of a well-known Irish bar in downtown Syracuse in Armory Square.
The incumbent, meanwhile, was Democrat Dan Maffei, who in 2012 had beaten conservative Republican Ann Marie Buerkle, who in 2010 had beaten … Dan Maffei. After the departure of moderate Republican Jim Walsh, who had held the Syracuse seat for 20 years, the district was ping-ponging in search of a representative who was a comparatively apt match. “We saw Katko on the scene, and we were, like, ‘Oh shit,’” one operative told me. “Everyone was worried from day one,” said another. “He’s just somebody that sort of fit the district extraordinarily well,” said a third.
Katko was asked by Harding from the Auburn Citizen in his first real interview of the race whether he considered himself a conservative or more of a moderate.
“I’m a conservative,” he said, “but a moderate at the same time.”
He beat Maffei by nearly 20 points.
On Election Day, he wore a purple tie — Niagara University’s main color, but there was another reason. “I wore a purple tie,” he said, “to signify my commitment to working in a bipartisan manner to represent Central New York in Congress. I believe that we need to work together — Democrats and Republicans.”
In 2016, he won by more than 20 points. In 2018, a cycle in which Democrats picked up 41 seats in the House, Katko had his only race that was remotely close — and he won by a little more than five points. In 2020, against the same general election opponent, the margin went back up into double digits. Katko was one of only nine House Republicans to win a district Biden won, and he’s one of only three (David Valadao of California, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania) to have won in a Clinton district, too.
After 2021, though, can Katko win again in 2022?
“The tightrope that he’s walking gets thinner and thinner,” New York Democratic strategist Evan Stavisky told me, “and every couple of weeks another strand of the rope starts to pop off.”
“He doesn’t represent the Conservative Party and our principles,” Dadey told me. “He just doesn’t.”
“He’s going to have a very, very tough uphill climb to win reelection,” said Ment, “without the Conservative endorsement.”
“In a primary, if it’s the right candidate, if it’s a semi-known person,” said Jim Quinn, a state Conservative Party vice chair, “I think he can be beaten.”
Katko has the two pro-Trump primary challengers — John Murtari, a software engineer who gave $70 to Bernie Sanders in 2016 but says Katko’s impeachment vote for him was a “trigger” and who’s raised next to no money for his run, and Tim Ko, a neurosurgery physician’s assistant who launched two months ago what is his first bid for public office of any kind. He hasn’t filed a fundraising report.
Quinn had made 100 anti-Katko yard signs. They have his name in a circle with a red strike of a line through it. “NOT A CONSERVATIVE,” they say. “NOT EVEN A REPUBLICAN.” Quinn sent me a picture of one of them. Zigzagging around the district one recent afternoon, I saw none of them. I also saw vanishingly few Trump signs or flags or anything else. Where I live, in North Carolina in the suburbs of Charlotte, I see more Trump stuff in the not-four-mile drive to my daughter’s elementary school than I saw in four days in New York’s 24th district. “Syracuse,” former Post-Standard executive editor Mike Connor told me, “is not Trumpworld.”
But the loss of the support of Conservative Party leaders is nonetheless a complicator for Katko. There are 142,894 registered Republicans in the 24th district and only 9,185 registered Conservatives, but in New York’s fusion voting the combination of Republican and Conservative support helps Republicans win, and the Conservatives could run a candidate in the general no matter what happens in the primary. “We’ll have a candidate on the line for sure,” said Kassar, the state chair. That candidate almost certainly wouldn’t win but could shave away enough of Katko’s vote to effectively make him lose — and the Democrat win. Ment says he’s fine with that. “We’ve given up on believing that he is in any way, shape or form a Republican,” he told me. “As the Conservative Party, we don’t want him in Congress anymore.”
“So much so,” I said, “that you want a Democrat in Congress?”
“We’ll take the Democrat,” Ment said. He believes Republicans with or without Katko will win back the House with ease.
“So your gambit,” I said, “is you don’t need John Katko to have a majority … so f— him?”
“I wouldn’t put it in quite those words, because I don’t want to offend anybody,” Ment said with a laugh, “but yeah.”
The three Democrats that have declared here are all military veterans — Sarah Klee Hood (Air Force), Steven Holden (Army) and Francis Conole (Navy). Conole in an interview pointed to Katko’s district as “a very important pickup opportunity for Democrats.” A fourth-generation Central New Yorker and Iraq War veteran, he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary in 2020. Of the three, Conole, 43, was the clear fundraising leader coming out of last year’s third quarter — with $237,363.43.
Katko, meanwhile, raised $436,921 in last year’s first quarter, the most he has raised in a first quarter of any year since he first ran in 2014. In the second quarter, he raised more than half a million, his second-best second quarter ever. In the third quarter, he raised almost half a million again, with money coming from PACs associated with House GOP leaders — including McCarthy.
“Whoever decides to run against John Katko better be pretty good,” said Walsh, the moderate Republican who had the Syracuse seat for two decades and whose son is now the Syracuse mayor. “Because Katko is good.”
“He’s never lost a race in his life,” said Bob Honold, a GOP consultant who works for Katko. “He’s never really had a race end up close.”
“The only chance of holding the seat is with John. And when he leaves, we probably lose the seat,” said Steve Wells, a Katko donor and fundraiser.
“I’m a conservative, but I’m also pragmatic,” said Gary Lavine, an attorney in Syracuse who has been active in Republican politics for more than 50 years. “We will have a Democrat for the foreseeable future in the Syracuse-Ithaca district unless Katko runs and wins, and I predict he will run and he will win.”
“Is he conservative? Is he liberal?” Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga DA, said of Katko. “He’s conscientious. He votes the way he thinks is right.”
“There’s a level of independence there that I think is attractive to a moderate district,” said McMahon, the Republican county executive. “And it drives the far right and the far left nuts.”
“I see a lot of people,” said Doran, the Onondaga GOP chair and Katko’s political director, “making decisions based on personal feelings and emotion and staying in an echo chamber where they only hear themselves talk.”
It’s 2022. It’s a year after the Capitol insurrection. It’s a year after John Katko voted for impeachment. Where, Doran wondered at the Panera, is the person who’s going to punish him by beating him in a primary?
Where is Donald Trump’s endorsement?
“Nobody wants to back a guy who’s not going to win,” she told me. “My opinion is nobody has come forward and they’re making excuses because they know they can’t beat him.”