When gearing up for her second shot at unseating Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Tracy Mitrano J.D. ’95 made two predictions: That the failures of President Donald Trump’s administration would lead to the election of a Democratic president, and that down-ballot candidates would ride the presidential candidate’s coattails to state legislative and congressional victories.
Mitrano was half right — Joe Biden won the presidency, but the anticipated blue wave Democrats hoped for didn’t come to fruition. Republicans picked up at least 10 seats in the House of Representatives and came out on top in several key Senate races. High Republican turnout didn’t help Mitrano in her ambitious bid to unseat Reed in the solidly red 23rd Congressional District.
Jim Gustafson, chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, led voter outreach efforts for Mitrano in 2018. He said the composition of the district — which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 before being subject to redistricting in 2012 — makes it impossible for Democrats to compete.
“The bottom line is, under current circumstances the [23rd] District isn’t winnable,” he said.
Mitrano blasts DCCC, state party: ‘They have abandoned down-ballot candidates’
Despite the uphill battle she faced, Mitrano, like a lot of Democrats, is frustrated with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which she said failed to deliver campaign support.
“This is not a personal phenomenon,” she said. “This was a national phenomenon.”
Mitrano — a cybersecurity expert who will teach a 4000-level course in the Cornell information science department in the spring — believes that the demographics of the district (there are 20,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats), her opponent’s fundraising advantage and the COVID-19 pandemic combined to create a situation where she couldn’t change the outcome.
But she said the DCCC “totally failed” its congressional candidates and that the New York Democratic Party has long ignored Upstate candidates.
“From about Central New York to Lake Erie, they have abandoned down-ballot candidates,” Mitrano said. “That is just not how you’re going to maintain your party over the long run.”
New York Democrats didn’t do especially well in Congressional races this cycle — their incumbent, Max Rose, lost in the 11th District and Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) is locked in a razor-thin race in the 22nd District. However, the 2020 cycle was a good one for New York Democrats in state contests — they won 43 out of the 63 seats in the state Senate, setting the party up with a powerful supermajority.
But Mitrano said that in some counties in central and western New York, the party doesn’t have the infrastructure or leadership necessary to compete.
Susan Ottenweller, chair of the Democratic committee in Seneca County, northwest of Tompkins, agreed that the state party is hyper-focused on New York City and Long Island. She said the state committee did “essentially nothing” for Upstate.
“And I understand that [New York City is] where the voting base is, but that does nothing to assist our down balloting or our local candidates at all,” Ottenweller said.
Trump and Reed’s strong showing was proof that the president remains popular in rural parts of New York, and that these communities mirror the rest of rural America, where many communities voted for Obama before flipping to Trump.
“It doesn’t matter what the state committees or the national parties would have done,” Gustafson said. “Those folks that were coming out to vote for Trump in 2020 were not going to vote for Tracy Mitrano.”
Democrats hopeful that redistricting will give them additional safe seat in Congress
On Dec. 7, in a presentation to Democratic Party leaders in the 11 counties that make up the 23rd District, Mitrano went through the challenges facing Democrats in the area, including the uphill battle in a red region, lack of media scrutiny and campaign finance. She also urged patience — with districts set to be redrawn, it is likely that the 23rd and surrounding districts will see their partisan tendencies altered.
Like Mitrano, Gustafson hopes Tompkins gets moved to the 22nd District. This would likely help turn a swing district — the 2020 election between Brindisi and his Republican challenger Claudia Tenney is in a near-tie and was host to a partial recount Monday — into a Democratic stronghold.
Some Democrats in rural counties like Seneca worry that the upcoming reapportionment and redistricting — based on the 2020 Census — will mean their districts might become bright-red Republican strongholds written off as unwinnable by Democrats. A comparatively slow population growth means New York State is expected to lose one or two seats in Congress.
“Unless we get tied in with Tompkins County, which is what we would prefer, of course, [we worry] that we’re just going to end up with Yates and Steuben and they’re just going to write off these rural communities in terms of just being Republican and nothing really that can be done,” Ottenweller said.
Ottenweller also said she doesn’t want to recruit candidates to pour time and money into unwinnable races.
“It’s a real moral issue about what do we do if we conclude … that it’s not possible [for a candidate to win in our district]?” Ottenweller said. “I’m not going to continue to try to talk people into being candidates … because these candidates put a tremendous amount of work and themselves and their resources into this, as we all do too, and if it’s just not possible, I don’t know what a committee like mine is going to do in that case.”
For the first time since the measure was approved in 2014, a nonpartisan commission will draw districts in New York. But the commission’s proposed maps are not binding, and Democrats — who will control both legislative chambers and are hoping for new solidly blue districts — will have control over the process if the commission isn’t able to come up with maps.
Local leaders weigh in on national debates on party messaging
With redistricting on the horizon, and post-election disappointment still ripe, Democrats are engaged in some soul-searching on how to make their party relevant in rural communities that have shifted toward Republicans.
Earlier this month, still reeling from a disappointing set of down-ballot elections, Democrats elected Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) to lead the DCCC after Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) stepped down as chair of the committee. The selection of Maloney, who represents a swing district in the Hudson Valley, is a win for moderate Democrats, who criticized progressive candidates for promoting an agenda that didn’t play well in conservative and battleground districts.
“It is time to get some bread and butter issues addressed for farmers for the working class, and it is also time to stop talking down to people who follow Trump and the Trump phenomenon,” Mitrano said.
Gustafson said that calls from some members of the party to forget about Trump supporters and focus on progressive policy and turnout won’t work in rural areas.
“You can’t write them all off in my opinion — it’s just politically foolish to do that,” he said. “They’re not all hardcore racists, they’re just not. And [if] you know these people, you know they’re not.”
Ottenweller said the already uphill climb — there are around 9,500 registered Republicans in Seneca County compared to around 6,500 Democrats — was further complicated this election cycle by Republican messaging that linked Democrats with socialism and calls to defund police.
“We don’t do as good [of] a job about trying to correct [Republican messaging] or trying to get in front of that and to make our message as positive,” Ottenweller said.
Progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), however, say finger-pointing at causes like the Black Lives Matter movement ignores the fact that many Democrats simply haven’t run strong campaigns — Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times last month that Democrats need to do “a real post-mortem” to think about why they lost seats.
“Our party isn’t even online, not in a real way that exhibits competence,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And so, yeah, [moderate Democrats] were vulnerable to [Republican] messages, because they weren’t even on the mediums where these messages were most potent.”
Another Republican strategy that Mitrano identified as particularly effective is their ability to “play on people’s fears,” instead of engaging in policy-oriented debate. She cited Reed’s rhetoric in the weeks leading up to the election, noting that, after Reed saud a brick and an animal with his daughter’s name was left near his home in Corning, Reed’s campaign blamed the acts on her supporters. Reed ran campaign ads that said Mitrano wanted to defund the police and a senior advisor said Mitrano had “close association with radicals.”
Mitrano said she thinks meeting people one-on-one helped her connect with voters and make clear that she wasn’t the “demonic character” that Reed made her out to be. But when the pandemic forced her to end in-person meetings, the primary battlefield shifted to paid advertising. Reed’s well-juiced campaign dominated this area.
“It was working — and then COVID hit. And it was like just driving into a brick wall,” Mitrano said.
Mitrano’s 16-point loss is double the eight-point margin she lost by in 2018, when she rode a wave of anti-Trump enthusiasm and high fundraising numbers to a decent showing, and the same margin by which the Democratic challenger in the 23rd District lost in 2016.
The path forward for central N.Y. Democrats
Progressive messages that work in a liberal city like Ithaca — the anchor of Tompkins County, the 23rd District’s only Democratic stronghold — won’t be effective in battleground and Republican-leaning districts, some Democrats argue. And after the election saw Reed cruise to victory, it’s clear that voters aren’t swinging back to the Democrats. Had she known Trump’s coattails remained so strong, Mitrano said she would have approached the race differently.
“I am not sure I would have run a campaign to win against Reed as much as I would have run a slightly different campaign,” Mitrano said. Instead, she said she would have run more as a check on a shoe-in Republican candidate.
For a candidate in a district like the 23rd, Mitrano said key issues include jobs, infrastructure, health care and broadband internet.
“We just need to show [more] of our neighbors that we are not a fringe party,” Ottenweller said. “And do I think that this is very likely or easy in my lifetime? I’m really not sure about that at all.”
In places where Trump is popular and Republicans have stirred up fear of liberal policies, ignoring right-leaning voters isn’t going to work, central New York Democrats say. But Gustafson believes that a meaningful chunk of the more than 74 million Americans who voted for Trump can be brought into the Democratic party.
“There’s no doubt that a fairly large chunk of those Trump voters, particularly the hardcore, are motivated in particular by racism. I don’t disagree with that at all,” Gustafson said. “However, the Constitution sets up the United States Senate and the Electoral College in a way that you cannot afford to ignore all the rural areas in the country.”
Trump won the 23rd District by about 15 percent in 2016, and repeated that margin in 2020. Mitrano’s loss — she got 41.1 percent of the vote to Reed’s 57.7 — means she ran a point behind Biden.
For Mitrano, this second loss to Reed marks the end of a bid for Congress that was more than three years in the making. She doesn’t plan to try again.
“I think that I gave Reed and the Republicans a really good run for their money, as much as we could under the circumstances,” Mitrano said, adding that her campaign deserves credit for pressuring Reed to lean into promoting bipartisanship. “I do think that it’s critical that an opposing party, even in an uphill battle, still shows up and runs somebody.”