How Maffei ended up losing re-election in "stunning" fashion

Nov 6, 2014

It became clear early on election night that Dan Maffei was going to lose his re-election effort to Congress, but the scope of the loss left many surprised.

“Stunning” is a word more than one political analyst used Wednesday morning to describe Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei’s nearly 20 point loss to Republican John Katko. Not in that he lost, but by how much.

Maffei’s campaign, which was steered largely by the national Democratic Party, failed to energize voters during an election cycle where there was a national momentum for Republicans already. Maffei went negative early this year, in an effort to shade Katko, a former federal prosecutor, in dim light.

"The irony here is that he may have ended up defining himself more than his opponent through the negativity," said Grant Reeher, host of WRVO’s Campbell Conversations and a political scientist at Syracuse University.

The Maffei campaigns over the past decade have left many Democrats frustrated with his inability to excite the party loyalty. Perhaps that was visible in his concession speech Tuesday. Maffei walked up to the podium alone, gave brief remarks and then vanished.

"It had the sense to me that, ‘I’m getting this over with, then I’m gone, I’m leaving,'" Reeher said. 

It was likely several dings in Maffei’s campaign, such as the negativity and Republican’s momentum, which ended up compounding his losses, according to Reeher.

Maffei took on a persona of being combative and argumentative rather than an energetic representative who enjoys campaigning. With no presidential contest and an uninteresting race for governor this year, few Democratic voters came out to the polls. 

Unofficial voter turnout averaged 43 percent in the district, which includes all or part of four central New York counties.

Democrats seemed disappointed that renewed get out the vote efforts failed them. Support for Maffei was the lowest he’s ever seen. His third loss in five runs for Congress was by far his worst.

In his first campaign eight years ago, he drew 107,108 votes. This year, His unofficial tally is 75,315, without counting absentee ballots. Even in 2010, when he lost in a midterm election, he drew 28,000 more votes than that.

This was the first time Maffei failed to win even the liberal heart of the district, Onondaga County.

A policy wonk and self-proclaimed nerd, Maffei never connected well with central New Yorkers. In the end, he always needed a more popular Democrat at the top of the ticket to tow him to victory.

"He never got a grip on the district, in large part, I think, because he lacked the essential personal, people skills to connect with his broad constituency," said political science professor emeritus Robert McClure in an email.

Syracuse University political scientist Kristi Anderson said a more charismatic Democrat likely could have held onto the 24th Congressional District better after former Rep. Jim Walsh retired in 2008.

"It’s not a slam dunk, but I think it’s certainly possible," she said.

So now this central New York congressional district switches back to a Republican. It’s essentially the fourth straight time the district has been represented by a freshman lawmaker. That’s after twenty years of Walsh.

Anderson said it’s hard to know if this back and forth will become a long-term pattern.

"This has been such a volatile time, between 2008 and now, which is when these flips have happened," she said. "It seems possible that we would get somebody from one or other parties in there who established himself or herself. What they would have to do is acquire some of the benefits that accrue to an incumbent."

Maffei was never able to win re-election and establish seniority in the House. That will now be Katko’s challenge in a difficult district.