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Kristi Andersen and Luke Perry on the Campbell Conversations

Kristi Andersen and Luke Perry unpack the results of the recent primaries in New York and elsewhere.

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My two guests today on the program are going to help me unpack the primary election results in New York and elsewhere, and we'll also look ahead to the midterm elections in November. Kristi Anderson is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Syracuse University. And Luke Perry is a Professor and Director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs, and Election Research Both of them are regular panelists on WCNY’s, “Ivory Tower”. Kristi, Luke, welcome back to the program.

Kristi Andersen: Thanks, Grant.

Luke Perry: Pleasure.

GR: It's great to have you. So let me start with the results and this are and then what we'll do is we'll work our way out from there and then we'll look forward to November. So first of all, and Kristi, I’ll come to you first on this, what local primary results did you find notable?

KA: Well, I'm now in the new Congressional district 22, which is Madison County, Onondaga County and Oneida County primarily, so I was interested in that, both the Republican and the Democratic primaries. The Republican primary I was surprised by, and the media has been surprised, that Brandon Williams beat Steve Wells. Steve Wells lives in Madison County, he had lots of money coming from big donors from himself and from Republican congressional campaign group. Williams was pretty self-funded as well. But it seemed like, and Steve Wells had been endorsed by the Republican Party and so on, that was very surprising that Brandon Williams won. But I think in part, as Williams says, it was an odd choice by Wells to not really participate, to not answer questions, to not be in debates. He apparently didn't do a lot of door to door campaigning, which Brandon Williams claims he did and was optimistic, maybe optimistic by that. So that was surprising to me.

GR: Luke, what about you?

LP: Other regional races of note for me include the special elections. NY-19 is getting a lot of national attention because Pat Ryan narrowly defeated Marc Molinaro and reproductive rights seemed to be a galvanizing issue there. But I think what's getting overshadowed a bit by that is the other special election, NY-23. Now the Republican candidate won there, Joseph Sempolinski, but it was close. He only won by seven points. And this was a district that Tom Reed the Republican had won four times and won by 16 points in 2020. So I thought that was quite interesting as well.

KA: Well in that district, Max Della Pia, the Democrat, ran for this. I mean, Sempolinski says, I just wanted to kind of honor Tom Reed. I'm not going to do anything else. But Della Pia, the democrat wants to run in the 23rd district and so the notion was that he would get his name out there, win or lose in the special election and he would have a slightly better chance to win in November in the 23rd district.

GR: Just for our listeners on this, it's a bit curious because you've got these two special elections where the winner is only going to serve for a few months, and then there's going to be a whole, you know, a whole other election that there are already primaries with these two new districts, so it's a bit confusing. Well let me ask the two of you though, on those special elections, and then I have kind of a reverse version of the same question for Brandon Williams’ upset over Steven Wells. So the Democrats in those special elections, but Luke, what you're basically saying is they over performed relative to expectations. And a lot of people are attributing that to the abortion issue in particular. So does that, what does that bode for general elections here in New York, do you think? Does that say anything about what might happen, for example, to Brandon Williams?

LP: I think it's a good sign for the Democrats. I mean, I look at this upcoming midterm, similar to what Donald Trump faced in his first midterm and the Republicans in Congress. 2018 was a tough year for incumbent Republicans because it was Trump's first midterm and political scientists know that the party in power tends to lose seats then. And so Democrats are expecting to lose seats this fall. And the challenge for them is how to mobilize their voters under a Democratic presidency that has relatively low favorability ratings. And overturning Roe is a major development that can potentially change the dynamics of this campaign.

GR: Kristi, thoughts on that?

KA: No, I think that's absolutely right. I mean, I think pundits have kind of perhaps overreached. Like E.J. Dionne had an op ed in the Washington Post just saying, about the Pat Ryan / Molinaro contest, talking about how important this was and how this really did indicate - I can't remember the phrase he used, but that something good was going to happen for Democrats. I think he made may have been a little overreacting to that. But yes, I agree with Luke that it's interesting and I haven't you know, I spent more time looking at the results around here, so I can't say, maybe Luke can, if this maybe Democratic advantage appeared in other places.

GR: Well, I want to come back to that a little bit later in the conversation. But I want to stick with this just for one minute. I noted this, too and the thing that I couldn't unravel as a puzzle in my head was how to interpret this, because I think for most people, the turnout would be kind of a primary turnout rather than a midterm / general election turnout. And so, on the one hand, the Democrats over perform. But on the other hand, I'm wondering, how weird were these elections for the voters in these districts? Do either of you have thoughts about that? (crosstalk) I mean, I just wonder what the voters were thinking. I mean, thinking a lot of people are like, OK, I'm electing someone that's going to be in office for three months. And I got a completely different election in November. What do I do with this?

LP: Well, I think it's hard, as Kristi referenced earlier, to extrapolate too much from special elections. There's only been four since Roe was overturned, Democrats have won most of those. So you don't want to extrapolate too much that that's going to be a game changer across the board for the midterm elections. But I do think it hints to a potential crosswind that could complicate Republican efforts to retake the House. Now I have no doubt they're still going to do that nationally. And I do think you're right, Grant, that voters in these particular districts are trying to make sense of an odd, complicated primary system. This is the second round of primaries, it’s the end of summer, it's a low turnout race because people are on vacation. So that, I also think is a complicating factor. But when you talk about NY-19, I mean, we can't discount that's a Democratic district I mean since John Faso in 2016 the landscape has changed. Antonio Delgado held that seat for several cycles and so Pat Ryan won but he won narrowly in a Democratic district, so I wouldn’t overstate that as well.

GR: So let me come back to Syracuse where we started with Kristi's first comment and think about both the Republican and Democratic primaries there. Let's stick with the Republican one that you found notable Kristi, where Brandon Williams had this upset over Steven Wells. And you noted Brandon Williams talking about Steven Wells not participating and things. And that was true with the reporters that I spoke to. And it was true for me and this program. He opted not to participate in a program I invited him to do with Brandon Williams. I ended up just interviewing Brandon Williams by himself. I thought that his avoidance of the Post-Standard's editorial board meeting was kind of jaw dropping, really, when you think about it. So there's that, but then I did talk to a prominent Republican whom I won't name, who chalked this up in two words, (they) said, “This was about Trump and abortion, period.” Kristi did you have any reactions to that analysis of the outcome for that primary?

KA: I'm not sure it's about Trump and abortion. You know, they each tried to label each other negatively, but neither of them, I mean, and I think Williams is a more openly pro-Trump Republican. Wells had a difficult time because he, you know, he didn't want to say he was anti-Trump, but he didn't want to come out completely, he wanted to still be portrayed or portray himself as a moderate or normal Republican. I think that was difficult. And you throw in Roe v. Wade, the Dodd's decision, I think that was hard too. There was some point, Williams accused him of being pro-choice so he must have said something that sort of, and I didn't trace that back to what he actually said, but there must have been something that somehow allowed his opponent to say that.

LP: I think it's a mix of a few things here that explains what happened. Steve Wells is an effective party operative behind the scenes, particularly in terms of finance. He’s well experienced at the state and regional level. But he's not a strong campaigner. I think most people would concede that. And I think what compounded that problem for him was that he inflated his standing in the campaign, you know, by not engaging media, not engaging Williams, not doing debates, that's the strategic approach to somebody who thinks they're up and they're up big. And I think that was a miscalculation because the Conservative Party, regionally, wants a candidate who unwaveringly supports Donald Trump. Steve Wells had this awkward clip where there is a back and forth where he wouldn't say that he would unconditionally support Donald Trump and Brandon Williams didn't either but he went closer to that. He talked about how he voted for him twice and the last mitigating factor is John Katko in all of this, right? So particularly on the right the Conservative Party as well as Republicans, they don't want, in a primary election where you have the most enthusiastic ones turning out, they don't want another John Katko. So I think Brandon Williams portrayed, you know, called Wells, “Katko 2.0”. And I think the confluence of all those help explain what happened there.

KA: I think that's a really good point that they didn't want John Katko. John Katko has betrayed them by voting to impeach.

LP: But I do think the problem, and this is the interesting dynamic between primary elections and general elections, the problem for Republicans is that this is going to be a nationally watched seat. And they just nominated somebody who's a political novice who doesn't live in the district. He raised just over $200,000 who has just over 200, 200 social media followers. Now, all that's going to change but in a Democratic district like NY-22 now is, I think they've all but handed the election over to Francis Conole.

KA: Oh, that's… you're going out on a little limb there.

GR: (laughter) Well, yeah, that was where I was going to go with this. We still need to look at the Democratic Party side and think about the other candidates in that race. But I would put an even stronger version of that question out there to you, which is, you've got Brandon Williams who was pretty vocal and in his interview with me, pretty vocal in his support of Donald Trump. He does say that Joe Biden won the election, so he doesn't go all the way in for election denial. But nonetheless, he's about as vocal as you can be without officially endorsing him. So I would think that in a district that this district is now, that you very succinctly defined geographically before Kristi, and Luke, you mentioned that it's a democratically favored district. And you've got now relatively, you know, given the spectrum of the Democratic Party somewhat who's more to the center. But he did hit a lot of the main Democratic talking points in his primary. It just seems like this is going to be a super steep hill for Brandon Williams to climb, given that he's on record as supporting Trump in this way, Kristi. I mean, do you think that's almost like makes him disqualified for a general election?

KA: I don't think it makes him disqualified and if he's a good campaigner, he may, you know. People there, there are plenty of Republicans and conservatives in the area. My sense is Conole is not loved. I mean, I think he's a good candidate. He's kind of, you can argue what this district will most likely elect that is a Democrat or a Republican who's pretty moderate and not out on the wings. And you're saying that Williams is kind of out on one edge and that may ideologically and in terms of Trump support. So yeah, I just don't want us to say yeah sure, Conole, it's a slam dunk. I wouldn't like to take that position.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm discussing Tuesday's primary election results with Syracuse University professor Kristi Andersen and Utica College professor Luke Perry. Luke, you wanted to get in on this issue of the electability of Brandon Williams in the general, go ahead.

LP: I certainly don't want to discount what Brandon Williams did in the primary. It was a remarkable victory. He deserves credit for that. I think ideologically he's similar to current incumbent Claudia Tenney, and a lot of ways but not always, but importantly, he's different rhetorically. He strikes me to be more like Ronald Reagan or George Bush in terms of how he communicates his viewpoints and less like Donald Trump. And I do think that could be something that helps him moving forward. And I don't want to suggest that the Democrats are just going to coast to victory necessarily. I mean, I think Kristi is right some things have to happen. And most importantly, I think the other candidates in the Democratic primary need to coalesce quickly behind Conole, and they need to work to mobilize their coalitions on his behalf. Look at Sarah Klee Hood, her work in the eastern part of the new district in the Utica area. Her emphasis on climate and reproductive rights, I think reproductive rights is going to be a big issue here because Democrats can draw a sharp contrast to Williams and that. And then to have Sam Roberts and Chol Majok to help turn out urban voters, particularly people of color. If all of those things come together as they should from a Democratic perspective, then I think the Democrats are in good shape. But of course, nothing can be taken for granted.

GR: So let me ask you a question about that. And by the way, I think the Williams campaign is going to love your Ronald Reagan comparison. (laughter) That was high praise. But, we had this Democratic primary where you had four candidates, as Francis Conole said when he won, you know, I ran against three other great Americans. They were very similar on policy positions. It was pretty hard to distinguish them. They emphasized different things, but I wanted in particular to ask you about Sarah Klee Hood and reproductive rights, whether that was a factor. Because I thought she over performed relative to the spending differential there. I mean Conole spent ten times more than anybody else. And Sam Roberts is a well-established name, but he didn't have a terribly active campaign. Chol Majok had a very active campaign but it was pretty focused on certain communities. And so, Kristi what do you make of Sarah Klee Hood? I mean, she came relatively close.

KA: Yeah, I was very impressed with her. I mean, I've known her for a while because she went through the Maxwell program for veterans who want to run for public office. So maybe two years ago she was in that program. And I thought, oh, great, she won the DeWitt Town Council seat. And I was surprised that she did so soon run for Congress. But I think that she, as Luke said, just basically emphasized that she really, really cared about climate change. And she works somehow in that area, I don't remember exactly what she does, but she's part of somebody that's doing climate stuff. And that she's a mother and she is really supportive of abortion rights. And she just, she stuck to that. She also grew up in Madison County, worked in Cazenovia during her high school years. So she, I think the fact that she won in both Oneida and Madison County is partly due to that, partly due to the fact that she campaigned well I think.

LP: And connected with progressive organizations, particularly in the Mohawk Valley area.

KA: Yes, right.

GR: All right so let's look a little bit more outward now. There were some other primaries on Tuesday outside of New York State. Luke, were there any results in any of those other ones that struck you at all?

LP: Well, you know, I think obviously Florida is an interesting state in regards to what's going to happen there. And Ron DeSantis is lining himself up to be a presidential candidate. And the Democrats nominated Charlie Crist, the former Republican, to take them on. So I think it'll be interesting to see if that's actually a competitive race or DeSantis is able to coast to victory.

KA: What's your thought about that? Look, I was interested in that, and I really liked the other candidate, Nikki Fried, who is the agricultural commissioner in Texas (Florida). But I have to think that Charlie Crist is a better, more likely to defeat DeSantis, if that's possible.

LP: I think Florida has moved to the right. I mean, in presidential elections it used to be a swing state and now it's solidly Republican. So I think trying to take a more moderate approach on the left side probably increases the prospects for victory for Democrats.

GR: So let's look at now, all of the primaries that we've seen up to this point. And Luke had suggested that there were, you know, some tea leaves in these results that might suggest that things are not going to be as disastrous for Democrats as it was thought a couple months ago. Kristi, when you look at the whole picture, what kinds of trends are you seeing?

KA: I don't know, because one measure that I've kind of tried to look at occasionally, and the New York Times has done a good job recently of sort of in the Republican primaries in various places, who won kind of the rational people or the deniers, the people who believe in the big lie, the people who are totally Trumpists. And I don't have a clearer picture of that coming out. And I don't have a clear picture of whether, you know, as a Democrat, I should want those crazy people, those Republicans to win because they will be easier for Democrats to defeat. And, you know, there's been some controversy about Democrats actually giving money to the Trump endorsed Republicans in primaries too. And I don't feel good about that. But I guess I'm, I don't know what I think about the primaries kind of telling us something about what's going to happen in the midterm. I'm not going to go there.

LP: I think earlier this year, you know, the Republicans were feeling bullish about retaking both the House and the Senate. And empirical data suggests that their chances are still really good to take the House. But the Senate is less clear. Obviously, it's evenly divided now. But the primary season on the Senate side, it's produced less than stellar candidates. The Republicans, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia. You've even got Mitch McConnell kind of downplaying what might happen to republicans in the Senate. That's not a good sign. So I think, you know, Republicans coming out of this primary season, it's good time to reflect on the types of candidates that they're putting forth. I understand the primary process, you're going to get more ideological candidates that may move forward. But that doesn't look like it's going to serve them that well heading into this general election in the fall.

KA: No, and if you use the example of Herschel Walker and Dr. Oz, that's, the issue is not that they're so ideologically extreme, it’s that they're picked by Donald Trump and that they're terrible candidates in many, many ways. It's just that they were picked because, you know, he likes them. And to the extent that's how the Republicans are choosing their Senate candidates. Yeah, Mitch McConnell has a right to be worried.

LP: That's a good point. And it's less ideology and more what's better for the party? Someone who's experienced and worked their way up and knows how to campaign or the celebrity. And you can't replicate Donald Trump's celebrity with other candidates. They're just they're not going to do it to the same degree of effectiveness.

GR: Well maybe it depends on how many Dallas Cowboys fans there are in Georgia. But so, we've got about 4 minutes left. And I want to try to squeeze in sort of a lightning type of round at the very end. So let me take only 3 minutes here, if I can, to put a bigger question to you. And it needs more time, but this is the time we'll have. It really strikes me, and the conversation that the two of you have had have just sort of deepened my concern about this, is in a time of deep polarization, you combine that with the dynamic that we see in these primaries, which as you guys have already shown, you get some weird outcomes. And you also get outcomes that tend to be more at the extremes because those are the most motivated voters. Exhibit A, Brandon Williams relative to Steven Wells, although there were other factors involved, is this a good way for us to be making the… because voters in the general election that are going to be left with some strange choices in a lot of these races between one extreme and the other extreme, or someone further out on the axis and another one further out on how does this serve us well? I guess what I want to know, and Luke I'll start with you, A, is this a problem? And B, is there a better way, is there a way to deal with this that we might want to try to implement?

LP: Problem? Yes. Better way? No. I mean, political party scholars in American politics kind of lament the progress of reforms of the early 20th century, where citizens, party members in particular at large, were able to select candidates. I think that's good. I think people at large should have input on who their candidates are in general elections and not just be the job of party bosses and predominantly old affluent men in machine politics to make those choices. Now, the downside of that is that in a time when democracy is backsliding, you want political party elites to make sure that not only candidates are advancing who can help win for the party, but also adhere to basic democratic norms. So unfortunately, party elites don't have that power now. And I do think that's a problem with the current system.

GR: I wonder Kristi, before we get to you though, and I'm just going to make the comment, so, is what you said, though, about old affluent white men might it may be true for the Republican Party, but I'm not so sure that's true for the Democratic Party anymore in terms of the elites who control it. But anyway, Kristi help me out on this. What about ranked choice voting? Is that something that might make this a little better?

KA: Yeah, ranked choice voting in some instances, I think is interesting. Alaska just had a ranked choice, you know they have ranked choice voting now. And somebody got more votes than Sarah Palin, I believe, who's going to run for senator. Is that right, in Alaska?

GR: I've lost track of her career.

KA: Ranked choice voting really only works in a situation like we had in the mayoral election in New York City, where you have a lot of candidates. I think it makes sense. But I think we're stuck with primaries. And I don't think it's always the people at the extremes who win. If you look at the New York City districts, a lot more moderate people beat the more left wing ones.

GR: All right, you're not going to get out of the lightning round by talking. So let me get to the lightning round now, Kristi. Yes or no? Well, Joe Biden run for reelection?

KA: Yes.

GR: If he does will he be the nominee?

KA: I don't know.

GR: Luke, will Joe Biden run for reelection?

LP: If Trump runs, he will. If Trump does not run, he won't.

GR: If he does, will he be the nominee?

LP: Hard to say.

GR: All right, Kristi, will Trump be the Republican nominee?

KA: I believe so.

GR: Luke?

LP: Tough call, but I'm going go no.

GR: Kristi, the odds that the House flips Republican in the midterms?

KA: 55% Republican.

GR: Wow. Okay, optimistic for the Democrats. Luke?

LP: 85% it’ll flip.

GR: Okay, I'll stick with you. Odds that the Senate flips to Republican?

LP: 45%.

GR: Kristi?

KA: Yeah, that's about right. Yeah.

GR: OK, we'll leave it there. That was fun. Interesting choices at the end. That was Kristi Andersen and Luke Perry. Luke, Kristi, it's always good to speak with you. Thanks so much for it.

LP: Thank you.

KA: Thanks.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.