(Editor’s note - This is the first part of a two part story exploring how the candidates for the north country’s seat in congress could win. This part focuses on Elise Stefanik. The next part, Thursday, will focus on Tedra Cobb.)
WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - As she runs for a fourth term in congress, Elise Stefanik is in an enviable position - she has money, a share of the national political spotlight and close ties to President Trump.
Her campaign is, to put it mildly, confident.
“Congresswoman Stefanik has never been in a stronger position for a decisive re-election victory due to her wide support from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents,” Alex DeGrasse, senior campaign strategist said in an emailed statement to 7 News.
Stefanik, a Republican, is opposed by Democrat Tedra Cobb, who also ran against her in 2018.
They are competing to represent NY-21, the state’s largest congressional district. It takes in all of 10 counties, part of two others, and stretches from the Watertown area in the west to Plattsburgh in the north and close to Albany in the east.
The district itself is one of Stefanik’s most potent weapons - there are 46,000 more registered Republicans than there are Democrats. In 2016, the district gave President Trump a lopsided 12 point win over Hillary Clinton.
“It has swung very much to the right and it is a conservative Republican place,” said Alexander Cohen, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Clarkson University.
“That’s a place where someone like Representative Stefanik can be very much at home.”
Stefanik is strong throughout the district - she won 10 of 12 counties against Cobb in 2018 - but particularly so in the west, in Jefferson and Lewis counties, which delivered some of the largest Republican votes in 2018.
“We’re very strong Elise supporters in this county. Absolutely,” said Don Coon, Jefferson County’s Republican Party chairman. Jefferson County cast 8,000 more votes for Stefanik than Cobb in 2018, and Coon believes that number will grow this year.
“I think people this year are very motivated to vote, particularly on the Republican side,” he said.
Stefannik came to congress in 2014 as - at the time - the youngest woman ever elected to congress, which gave her national visibility that new members of congress just don’t get. And she has worked since then to improve her position.
She’s on both the House intelligence and Armed Services committees, both of which get a lot of attention from the national press, and played a very public role in defending President Trump during last fall’s impeachment hearings.
While Stefanik’s campaign still takes pains to argue she’s one of the most bipartisan members of congress, she’s also made the political calculation that being allied with President Trump is to her benefit.
“She’s a nationally recognized political figure and in many ways, a female face of the pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party,” said Cohen from Clarkson University.
That, in turn, has further bolstered Stefanik’s national standing. She gave a prime time speech during the Republican convention last month when President Trump was renominated. President Trump singled her out for thanks in helping him withstand his impeachment, and Trump came to Fort Drum in 2018.
All that has enabled Stefanik to raise millions to spend on her own re-election effort, and money for a political action committee she set up to support Republican women running for congress.
While burnishing her national identity as a politician, Stefanik has also been careful to deliver money and other help to a wide range of north country institutions - everything from hospitals during the pandemic to projects on Fort Drum. During the early days of the pandemic, Stefanik worked the phones every day, reaching out to various groups across the congressional district to find out what they need, and what she could do to help.
Her campaign points to “nearly 700 endorsements from elected officials across party lines” as proof of her effectiveness.
“Incumbents don’t lose,” said Clarkson University’s Cohen. And if Stefanik was in trouble, “at this point in the race we would see some data that would suggest she is soft somewhere. I’m not seeing anything like that.”
Thursday: how Tedra Cobb can win.