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SYRACUSE.COM: CNY race for Congress: Steve Wells ducks Trump talk while opponent embraces ex-prez

Steve Wells, left, faces Brandon Williams in the Republican primary election for the 22nd Congressional District seat in Central New York.

After Steve Wells spent more than an hour being questioned about his loyalty to Donald Trump, Valerie Lutz had run out of patience.

Wells, a Republican candidate for Congress in Central New York, was asked five times at a GOP caucus meeting whether he supported Trump and the former president’s policies.

“You’re kind of skirting a lot of the issues,” Lutz, of Utica, said before asking Wells the fourth question about Trump. “You’re answering but not really answering. Would you support Donald Trump 100 percent?”

Wells became defensive.

“I’m not going to skirt the answer,” Wells said. “I’m going to give you my answer. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry. My answer is, I’m going to support whoever the Republican nominee is for president. Period. I don’t know if he’s going to run or not run.”

Dave Gresack of Holland Patent followed up, his voice rising in anger as he demanded to know if Wells is loyal to Trump.

“Are you behind Donald Trump 100 percent in 2024?” Gresack said. “I want to know. Are you behind Donald Trump 100 percent? Straight up: Yes or no? Yes or no?”

Wells stood firm, refusing to say if he wants Trump to lead the party’s ticket again in 2024. “If he runs and he’s the nominee, the answer is yes,” Wells said.

The tense exchange demonstrates how Donald Trump looms over Republican primary elections here and nationwide. GOP candidates now have to navigate Trump and his supporters, among the most motivated to vote in primary elections.

Some, like those at the Utica meeting, demand that candidates show 100 percent fealty to Trump to gain their support.

There’s stark differences between the GOP candidates in the new 22nd Congressional District, a region now represented by two Republicans – Reps. John Katko and Claudia Tenney.

Wells, 58, of Cazenovia, has mostly avoided talking about Trump, according to 10 Republican and Conservative Party leaders interviewed for this story.

The other candidate in the GOP primary election – Brandon Williams – has taken the opposite approach, openly embracing Trump.

At the caucus meeting in Utica last month, Wells did not respond to a question about Trump and the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Wells and his campaign did not respond to at least a dozen requests from | The Post-Standard for comment about Trump. His campaign manager said Wells is “unavailable” and would not elaborate.

Williams, 54, a tech executive from Cayuga County, said he supports Trump, would not have voted to impeach him in 2019 or 2021, and views him as the leader of the Republican Party.

Williams has Trump issues he won’t touch, either. He did not answer when asked by if he believes Trump incited the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol or whether Mike Pence acted appropriately in certifying the election.

Williams, who won the Conservative Party’s line in the redrawn 22nd District, breaks with Trump only when it comes to his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

“The Electoral College rules were followed,” Williams said. “Joe Biden is our president.”

Williams said he believes legitimate questions have been raised about election rules, which tend to vary from state to state. He wants those issues to be addressed. But he won’t make it a priority of his campaign.

“If the 2022 midterms are a readjudication of 2020, Republicans will lose,” Williams said. “And I’m not in this race to lose.”

Williams is making his first bid for elected office and has portrayed himself as a political outsider looking to make change in Washington. He said that was a big reason why he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

He gave direct answers to questions about Trump last month when he appeared before the Republican Constitutional Caucus, a conservative offshoot of the Oneida County Republican Committee.

It’s the same group whose members expressed frustration with Wells June 16 in Utica.

The different approaches are an early indication of how the two GOP candidates will handle the issue of Trump with Republicans before the Aug. 23 primary election.

The district spans Onondaga, Madison and Oneida counties, and a small slice of Oswego County. Democrats have an enrollment advantage in the new district, where Biden outpolled Trump by 7 percentage points in 2020.

Wells appears to be trying to avoid inflaming the Trump Republicans enough to survive the primary but not in a way that hurts him in November’s general election in a moderate district.

Bernie Ment, chairman of the Onondaga County Conservative Party, puts it this way.

“Steve doesn’t directly answer questions, and you’re left speculating what he will do when he gets to Washington,” said Ment, a Trump supporter. “I think he figures he’ll coast to a victory if nobody knows who he is.”

Ment said he plans to ask Trump to back Williams, an endorsement that has had mixed results nationwide.

Trump’s future as the leader of the Republican Party is being tested in primaries across the nation.

The issue has spilled into more than 100 GOP primary elections nationwide, for Congress and state offices, where candidates have pledged loyalty to Trump and repeated the former president’s lies about the 2020 election, according to a Washington Post analysis.

In New York state, the four Republican candidates for governor sparred over Trump and the Jan. 6 attack last month. Rob Astorino, who lost in the June primary, stood out as the only candidate to say Trump “bears some responsibility” for the violence.

In Central New York, Wells and Williams made their pitches to Trump’s base of support when they addressed the Republican Constitutional Caucus in Utica on different nights last month.

Wells and Williams told the caucus they were Trump supporters in 2016 and 2020, voted for him both times, and would vote for him again.

Wells said he can’t think of any Trump policies he disagreed with during his four years in office.

And he said Vladimir Putin probably would not have ordered Russian soldiers to invade Ukraine if Trump were still in the White House.

But it’s what Wells didn’t say that concerned Jim Zecca, one of the caucus members and a founder of the group Mohawk Valley/Central New York for Trump.

“As far as I’m concerned, we didn’t get a clear answer from him on whether he supports President Trump,” Zecca said in an interview. “Being a strong Trump supporter, I want to know.”

After the Utica meeting, the Constitution Caucus posted video recordings of the meetings with both candidates on its website and asked its members to submit their choice for the group’s endorsement.

As of last week, the votes were running about 90 percent in favor of Williams, said Steve Piacentino, the caucus chairman.

Piacentino said he received a text message from Dan Kranz, the campaign manager for Wells, asking him to remove the video of Wells from the website. Piacentino refused.

“I think they were trying to bury something that they found embarrassing,” Piacentino said.

Kranz did not respond to a request for comment.

When Wells was pressed at the meeting about Trump, he repeatedly made references to the need for Republicans to be a “big tent” party in order to succeed.

Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, a Republican who endorsed Wells in the primary election, said it doesn’t make sense to judge candidates simply based on their preference for president.

“This caucus is a lot like what we’re seeing across the country,” Picente said of the Constitutional Caucus. “They say, ‘Either you support Donald Trump or you’re not a Republican,’ which is nonsense.”

He added, “If that’s the litmus test here, it’s not fair. It doesn’t mean you’re not a loyal Republican or someone who doesn’t believe in the party’s principles.”

When Picente and Wells met over lunch June 20 at Ventura’s Restaurant in Utica, Trump and his future in the party didn’t come up in nearly two hours, Picente said.

Likewise, Wells didn’t discuss Trump when he met with members of the town of Salina Republican Committee in late May, said Bill Sanford, the former chairman of the Onondaga County Legislature.

Sanford, who attended the meeting, said he has known Wells for years and has a sense of how he feels about Trump.

“I do know the thing that’s so impressive to me about Steve is that he’s a man of character,” Sanford said. “Like a lot of us, I know he was upset at times with Trump over his character, but he liked his policies.”

Wells, co-founder of American Food and Vending Corp., a Liverpool-based national food service company, is a longtime Republican Party leader who has served as treasurer of the state Republican Committee.

Wells launched his campaign in mid-May only after a judge settled a redistricting lawsuit by including Madison County in the new 22nd District. Wells lives in Cazenovia. He immediately became the favorite in the race after picking up key endorsements from Republican committee leaders in Onondaga, Madison, Oneida and Oswego counties.

Until now, Wells worked mostly behind the scenes with the exception of one previous campaign for Congress.

He has a complicated history with Trump’s base, dating to his 2016 GOP primary campaign to succeed retiring Rep. Richard Hanna, a Republican from Oneida County.

Wells lost to Tenney, R-New Hartford, in a three-person race even though he had received the endorsement of Hanna.

Before the primary election, Hanna told that he would never vote for Trump, saying he was embarrassed by his pandering to extreme factions of the party.

After Trump won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Hanna became the only House Republican to say he would vote for Hillary Clinton for president.

Tenney was among Trump’s earliest supporters. She declined to comment about the primary election between Wells and Williams.

Wells has also been a confidante and donor to Katko, R-Camillus, one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 mob attack.

Wells co-chaired Katko’s campaign finance committee before the congressman announced in January that he would retire from Congress.

Kranz, who served as Katko’s communications director until May, left to run Wells’ campaign.

Wells, who pledged he will spend at least $400,000 from his personal fortune on the campaign, has been a frequent donor to House Republicans from New York.

He has donated more than $50,000 to Republican candidates and party committees since 2003, including to Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, chair of the House Republican Conference, according to federal campaign finance records.

Wells did not donate to either of Trump’s presidential campaigns in 2016 or 2020, nor did Williams, the records show.

Wells previously contributed $1,000 apiece to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush in 2003 and Mitt Romney in 2012, according to Federal Election Commission records. Williams did not give to any presidential candidates.

Stefanik, one of Trump’s most prominent backers in the House, supported Wells on June 30 in the first major endorsement in the primary campaign.

Stefanik called Wells an “America First leader,” using Trump’s slogan to promote his foreign policy and efforts to withdraw the United States from international organizations.

Stefanik did not elaborate, and her spokesman did not respond to a request for an interview.

Williams countered on Monday with his own endorsement from a figure in Trump’s orbit. David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016 and president of Citizens United Political Victory Fund, called Williams the only “America First conservative for Congress in NY-22.”

Wells has not said publicly if he is seeking Trump’s endorsement.

Ment, chairman of the Onondaga County Conservative Party, said he’s going to do his best to make sure any Trump endorsement goes to Williams. Williams said he would welcome Trump’s support.

“What worries me is that Elise Stefanik is going to coordinate with Steve Wells to get him Trump’s endorsement,” Ment said. “I don’t want Wells to have any edge here. He doesn’t deserve Trump’s support. I see him as Katko 2.0″

Williams won the designation for the New York Conservative Party’s ballot line and could choose to stay on that line in November even if he loses the Republican primary election.

Before that designation, Trump sent a handwritten note to Ment offering to help back a local candidate who would challenge Katko in a primary election.

Trump wrote his letter over a story that detailed the Conservative Party’s decision to abandon Katko over his impeachment vote.

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