hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues April 2021


Even in victory, Stefanik raises ire

Stances on Trump loss, Capitol riot fuel criticism as redistricting looms


A billboard along Route 149 in Fort Ann, N.Y., calls on U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, to resign. The message was bankrolled by a group of anti-Trump conservatives. Joan K. Lentini photo


A billboard along Route 149 in Fort Ann, N.Y., calls on U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, to resign. The message was bankrolled by a group of anti-Trump conservatives. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik handily won a fourth term in office in November, but voters in New York’s northernmost congressional district could be forgiven for wondering if the campaign season ever ended.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by supporters of Donald Trump – and Stefanik’s persistence in questioning the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory in the November election – have sparked a new wave of campaign-style criticism of the congresswoman, and not just from Democrats.

The Lincoln Project, a political action committee founded by anti-Trump Republicans, mounted an online advertising campaign calling her “another sad Trump apologist.” Another organization founded by conservatives, the Republican Accountability Project, paid for billboards in Queensbury and Fort Ann calling on Stefanik to resign – on grounds she had encouraged the Capitol attacks by backing Trump’s claims of election fraud even after courts had repeatedly found they had no merit.

The Greater Capital Region Building and Trades Council took the symbolic step of rescinding its 2020 endorsement of Stefanik. The coalition of labor unions said her refusal to denounce Trump after the Jan. 6 invasion outweighed her support of issues – such as use of project labor agreements and paying of prevailing wages -- that had won the organization’s support last year.
And the congresswoman’s critics have continued to write letters to the editors of area newspapers at a campaign-season pace.

But local Republican leaders say Stefanik, 36, is in no danger politically, because she is well versed in local issues and has a good sense of the predominant political philosophy in northern New York.

Essex County Republican Chairman John Gereau said Stefanik won in November with the largest margin of any Republican House candidate in the Northeast. She captured 58 percent of the vote, defeating Democratic candidate Tedra Cobb, a former St. Lawrence County legislator, by more than 17 percentage points.

“This is not just a win,” Gereau said. “This is a blowout.”
Actually, another New York Republican – Rep. Chris Jacobs of the Buffalo area – won re-election in November by a larger margin of more than 20 percentage points. But Stefanik’s lopsided victory was still significant in a presidential election year with heavy Democratic turnout statewide.

Gereau, who is a regional vice chairman of the Republican State Committee, played down the criticism of Stefanik’s ties with Trump.

“While the media loves to view everything through the Trump-or-anti-Trump lens, the reality is that most importantly, Elise Stefanik kept her promises to the North Country going back to when she first ran, and she has a good read on the pulse of the district including regional nuances,” he said.

Stefanik also outpolled Trump, who carried New York’s 21st Congressional District with 54.2 percent of the vote, according to an analysis by the liberal blog Daily Kos.

Warren County Democratic Chairwoman Lynne Boecher said that to be competitive against Stefanik next year, Democrats will need to field a candidate who is more moderate and more focused on regional issues than Cobb, who lost consecutive races to Stefanik in 2018 and 2020.
“They have to be conscious of a changing world and conscious of the growth and culture here,” Boecher said.

The ideal candidate, she said, would be sensitive to the region’s fiscal conservatism and who appreciates that gun rights are important to the region’s many hunters and sportsmen.
“So, it’s got to be a candidate that understands that community,” she said.
No potential Democratic challengers had surfaced as of late March.


Abandoning moderation?
Much of the political reporting on Stefanik over the past couple of years has focused on her conversion into an enthusiastic supporter of Trump -- after initially keeping her political distance from him. At the same time, her political rhetoric has become more sharply partisan – in contrast to the image of bipartisanship she cultivated from the beginning of her congressional career.
Back in 2016, Stefanik backed John Kasich, the moderate Ohio governor, in the Republican presidential primary. After Trump won the nomination, Stefanik often avoided mentioning him by name, at one point explaining after a debate that she was “supporting my party’s nominee” but was mainly focusing her own campaign on being “an independent voice” for her district.
By August 2018, though, she had warmed to Trump enough that she shared a stage with him when he visited her district to sign a defense spending bill at Fort Drum.

And in the fall of 2019, Stefanik, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, emerged as one of the chief defenders of Trump in hearings leading up to his first impeachment trial. She campaigned for him in Iowa in the run-up to that state’s presidential caucuses, and last June she attended a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., that was his first such event after many weeks of coronavirus-related shutdowns that halted live campaigning.

Stefanik’s journey toward hard-core Trumpism partly reflects the changing nature of the House Republican caucus, in which moderates became ever more scarce over the course of the former president’s term in office.

In 2017, for example, Stefanik set a moderate tone when she sponsored a resolution, joined by 23 Republican colleagues, that acknowledged the reality of climate change and called for action to address its causes and effects. Although the measure was largely symbolic, it drew praise from some environmental groups who touted it as a sign of an emerging bipartisan consensus on the issue.

But of the 23 Republicans who joined Stefanik in backing the resolution, only eight are still serving in the House. Eight lost re-election bids in 2018, four did not seek re-election that year, and one resigned. Two more opted to retire in 2020.

Closer to home, since Antonio Delgado defeated one-term Rep. John Faso in the 19th district in 2018, Stefanik is now the only remaining Republican in the region’s congressional delegation.
As House Republicans faced a net loss of six seats in 2016 and another 33 seats in 2018, those who survived tended to be more conservative and more fiercely loyal to Trump. Some political observers have suggested that Stefanik needed to find more common ground with these members to advance her own legislative priorities – and to move up in the Republican leadership.


Fund-raising powerhouse
Before Jan. 6 at least, Stefanik’s embrace of Trump seemed to be boosting her national standing within the Republican Party, and her defense of the former president helped her to become a prolific fundraiser.

Stefanik was the tenth biggest recipient of campaign donations among House candidates in the 2019-20 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance data. She raised about $13.35 million, or more than seven times the average of $1.845 million for House candidates.

And E-PAC, the political action committee she organized to recruit and support the campaigns of GOP women, backed a series of winning candidates in 2020 – including 11 who are now freshmen House members, six of whom defeated incumbent Democrats.

But events like the Capitol riot have forced Stefanik to walk a fine line as she tries to balance her message of a more inclusive GOP against her support for Trump and others who’ve pushed the party toward more extreme rhetoric and policy positions. Some critics say that given her past claims of bipartisanship, she has crossed the line into hypocrisy.

So although she condemned the violence of the Capitol invasion, Stefanik voted against the second impeachment of Trump and has continued to question the validity of the November presidential election results in some states.

Similarly, Stefanik branded as “inexcusable” the statements of freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory who has claimed school shootings were staged for the sake of eroding gun rights – and who at one point endorsed violence against leading Democratic politicians. But when the House voted in February to strip Greene of her committee assignments, Stefanik voted no, saying the move violated the will of the Georgia voters who elected Greene.

Stefanik’s political action committee also supported the election of another QAnon subscriber, freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who has been the target of ethics complaints alleging she tweeted information about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s movements on Jan. 6 while the Capitol invasion was under way.


Redistricting ahead
Whether any of this makes Stefanik vulnerable in 2022 is far from clear. In its current configuration, the 21st Congressional District has about 50,000 more enrolled Republicans than Democrats among its 452,000 voters, and Stefanik won re-election in November by nearly 57,000 votes. So a substantial chunk of her 2020 voters would have to desert her before she’d be in any jeopardy.

But the district’s boundaries are all but certain to be redrawn next year, and given that Stefanik has become something of a lightning rod for Democratic activists, any opponent would have the potential to draw substantial campaign cash from national donors.

Stefanik already has a head start on any would-be opponent, with nearly $2 million left in her campaign fund from the 2020 cycle as of Dec. 31.

Although final 2020 census figures were not yet available in March, New York is expected to lose at least one, and possibly two, of its 27 congressional districts. The remaining districts will increase in geographic size.

Depending on how the boundaries are redrawn, Stefanik could find her home in Schuylerville, at the southern end of the 21st district, merged into one of two districts to the south that are currently represented by Democrats Antonio Delgado of Rhinebeck and Paul Tonko of Amsterdam.

At the same time, there has been speculation in some Republican circles that Stefanik is weighing a bid for governor in 2022. She was a persistent critic of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo even before he was engulfed by accusations of sexual harassment over the past two months, and she lately has taken to selling anti-Cuomo merchandise – such as posters proclaiming him the “worst governor in America” – on her campaign website.

Talk of a gubernatorial run also was fueled by a mid-February Zogby Analytics poll that showed her garnering 37 percent of the vote in a hypothetical matchup against Cuomo. Though the governor received 49 percent support in the poll, Stefanik’s share of support was the highest among a half-dozen potential challengers.


Tending to local politics
Although her support for Trump and her attacks on Cuomo have made headlines and added to a growing reputation for hyper-partisanship, Stefanik has continued to pursue some bipartisan initiatives, particularly on issues of strong local interest.

Among other bills Stefanik has sponsored or co-sponsored so far this year, for example, is legislation to repeal a law that requires the U.S. Postal Service to pre-fund retirement benefits for 75 years – a provision Trump opposed changing during his administration. Other co-sponsors of that change include Delgado, Tonko and Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Richard Neal, D-Mass., and John Katko, a Syracuse-area Republican.

Stefanik also partnered with Delgado to introduce legislation to extend a program that provides more favorable Medicare rates to rural hospitals with a “critical access” designation, and she and Delgado joined as co-sponsors of legislation to streamline the visa process for foreign agricultural workers.

And Stefanik co-sponsored separate bills with Welch and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., to reduce the spread of invasive species in lakes.

Local political observers say that, regardless of her support for Trump, many Republicans have stayed loyal to Stefanik because of her party-building efforts, both nationally and locally.
Boecher, the Warren County Democratic chairwoman, said Stefanik showed better organization and discipline in coordinating her campaign with down-ballot state legislative races – at campaign rallies and in activities like door knocking and distributing lawn signs.

“I really feel that Stefanik’s organization did that well, and we did not have that cohesiveness,” Boecher said.