On Tuesday, President Trump offered his endorsement, by way of Twitter, for Rep. John Faso, a freshman lawmaker representing a pivotal district in upstate New York. "Strong on Crime, Borders and our 2nd Amendment, John is respected by all," the president declared. "Vote for John."
The endorsement comes a day after a Spectrum News/Siena College poll found that the race is essentially a toss-up, with Faso leading his Democratic opponent Antonio Delgado by just one point. “Barnburner. Nail biter. Photo finish. Pick your phrase and buckle up because this race is going right down to the wire," said Sienna College pollster Steven Greenberg, noting that each candidate has overwhelming support from their own party, with independents essentially split down the middle.
Congressman John Faso of New York has worked hard and smart. Strong on Crime, Borders and our 2nd Amendment, John is respected by all. Vote for John. He has my complete and total Endorsement!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2018
The sprawling district—located in the Hudson Valley and Catskills regions—voted for Obama by 6 points in 2012, before decisively flipping for Trump in the last election. It is 84 percent white and notably older than a standard New York district, with a median household income hovering slightly above the national average. Immigration ranks as the top concern for Faso voters, according to a Monmouth poll released last month, despite the fact that less than 7 percent of the district's population was born outside the United States.
Like Democrats across the country, Delgado voters say they are primarily concerned with health care. The challenger, a Harvard-educated attorney and former Rhodes Scholar, has made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign, repeatedly knocking Faso over his support for the failed GOP health care bill. On the whole, Faso has voted in line with President Trump's position nearly 90 percent of the time.
Though Delgado has stopped short of endorsing single-payer, he's touted his support for a public-option allowing people under 65 to opt into Medicare, along with legislation to lower deductibles and premiums. "We’re the only developed country in the world without some form of universal health care," he said during a debate last week, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal.
Delgado has also directed attention to a secret recording from last year that showed Faso pleading with fellow GOP lawmakers not to include a provision defunding Planned Parenthood in the bill because it was a "political minefield." Republicans ultimately kept the controversial amendment in the bill, and Faso voted for it anyway.
While Faso was once considered a leading voice of moderate Republicans, observers say that he's embraced a Trump-style campaign of white racial resentment. Earlier this summer, Faso was widely accused of race-baiting, after he released a statement condemning Delgado's brief foray into rap music as "troubling and inconsistent with the views of the people of the 19th District and America."
Campaign ads released by Faso's allies in the National Republican Congressional Committee were even less subtle. In one, present day photos of Delgado are interspersed with images from a music video he released in 2006, which took aim at poverty, the war in Iraq, and racism. Our own local tabloid has also seized on the image of Delgado as an urban delinquent, as has celebrated SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, who questioned whether someone who made rap music (not "real music") could accurately reflect the views of "people like us."
As a strategy, thinly-veiled racism seems to be fairly effective in mobilizing an older, whiter electorate, experts say. "The ads play up this idea of the carpetbagger New York City liberal—it's an old trope that works upstate," Gina Keel, an associate professor of political science at SUNY Oneonta, told Gothamist. The fact that Faso was born in Long Island and attended a private school in Queens, while Delgado actually grew up in the region, is not relevant, Keel noted, because "clearly the underlying thing is the issue of race."
"When you have a district that's something like 85 percent white, they're trying to use that to divide people," she added. (Faso did not respond to repeated requests for comment; a spokesperson for the Delgado campaign said the campaign was only doing media located within the district).
As for whether or not Trump's endorsement will give Faso much of a boost in next month's contest, both pollsters and political scientists say it's hard to know for certain. Most basically, the race will hinge on Democrats vastly improving turnout compared to the last midterms—an outcome that some feel confident about, following a "remarkable" jump in turnout in the primaries.
Still, that's far from certain. "Everyone seems to believe that turnout is going to be higher this year than four years ago," noted Greenberg. "This is a district that in terms of enrollment is dead even—if you're anti-Trump, you'll be voting for Delgado. If you're pro, you'll be voting for Faso. Right now, it's a 50/50 coin toss."