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Katko credits different thought process and voter angst in victory

Ellen Abbott
WRVO News File Photo
Rep. John Katko says Republicans, who are in control of Congress, need to take advantage of the situation.

How does a political newcomer take on a two-term congressman and win a seat in Congress? That’s what happened in central New York this week, as Republican John Katko defeated Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei by 20 points.

Katko analyzed his winning campaign during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters yesterday.

Katko says probably one of the biggest days of his campaign was Sept. 24. That’s the day he went to Washington for an award that recognized his work as a federal prosecutor. But that’s not the only stop he made. He visited the National Republican Committee, which controls national campaign dollars.

“On that same day I found out the NRC was going to start helping us out quite a bit," Katko said. "So I came home. I don’t even know if I needed a plane to come home I was so high, I was so happy. I knew we were going to be in the race, and I remember saying to them that day, I looked them in the eye, those folks, and said we’re going to win this race now, because all I need is a remotely level playing field."

Before then the Maffei team, which had substantially more money, had gone on a six to eight week television ad barrage that Katko’s team couldn’t afford to answer. But Katko did notice jumps in the polling numbers, as more voters knew who he was. And while a late September Siena College poll showed that a third of the electorate still didn’t know his name, it also showed Maffei had reached his saturation point with voters.

“It seemed like, if we could just get our name ID out there, that I think we were going to be okay, cause we had a pretty good message," Katko explained. "And I think that’s what happened. I think our name ID got up, and as it got up we got going.”  

Ultimately, Maffei’s campaign outspent Katko’s three-to-one, but more of those Katko ads came later in the campaign, when more NRC cash fueled advertising buys.

By late October, Katko says he felt the momentum shifting.

"I made hundreds of calls and knocked on thousands of doors and we weren’t knocking on doors of just Republicans, but Independents and Democrats and we were getting a resoundingly favorable opinion of things," Katko said. "So I felt that something good was going to happen.”

By the time election night rolled around, it didn’t take long for him to find out he won.

“It was pretty quick. I was like, are you kidding me already?" Katko said. "And they came in to get me, we had separate hotel rooms for my family, because my family is gigantic as you know, and we were relaxing and they were having fun and I was drinking water. And they came in and said we have to talk to you, and they were smiling and I knew it was good. And it was 9:30 or quarter to ten and we knew it was done.”

Soon after that, Maffei called to concede.

"It was courteous, it was," Katko said. "He was obviously not the happiest man on Earth to make that call, and I feel for him in that regard, but he said what he had to say and it was courteous, pleasant and short."

So was name recognition and meeting voters the only things that gave Katko 60 percent of the vote in the seat that stretches along parts or all of four counties? He admits there were other factors at play.

“People are upset," Katko said. "Hey, I got in the race for that very reason. I thought Congress was broken, and I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and bellyache about it and not do anything about it. But I’m a realist, some of it was a backlash against the way the campaign was conducted by the other side.”

Katko credits much of his success to help from old campaign hands of former Rep. Jim Walsh, who represented central New York in Congress before the recent stretch of party flip-flop elections. He says they taught him how think like a politician and not a prosecutor.

“I had to think differently. It’s a different thought process," Katko explained. "You have 15, 20 minutes. I’ve had closing arguments that took two hours. You can’t do that in this realm. It’s a different mindset when you're going into debates, you don’t have the luxury of fully explaining everything, so you have to learn to think differently in that regard.”

Things have now started moving quickly. Katko is getting congratulatory calls, and he’s getting ready for freshman orientation in Washington next week.

“Basically it’s soup to nuts," Katko said. "Go in, here’s what it’s like, everything from discussing your budget for your office, to your staff. I think there’s also discussion on leadership posts and you’ll start talking about committees and things like that.”

Katko says he doesn’t know what committees he’ll ask to be on, but does say he will keep in mind the upcoming project to rebuild Interstate 81 through Syracuse.

And in the world of House congressional politics, where the next political season begins as soon as the day after Election Day, he admits a Republican sweep doesn’t necessarily mean long-term success.

"We have no more excuses," Katko said. "We have to do things and get things done. It’s a wonderful opportunity, but it’s also a significant responsibility. And we have to be up for it, because in two years, people are going to say you’ve had the House and Senate and what have you got done. And we’ve got to get some things done."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.