By Mark Frost, Chronicle Editor
Two years ago Congresswoman Elise Stefanik trounced Democratic challenger Mike Derrick, 177,886-82,161, to win a second term. Green Party nominee Matt Funiciello drew 12,452 votes.
So is there any reason to believe that Ms. Stefanik can be beaten this November? I believe there are lots of reasons to bolster both sides of the argument.
Democrats are roused for the fight as perhaps they’ve never been before. They’re organized, passionate and determined.
Republicans were tone deaf in Queensbury last November and actually lost control of the town board. If they’re as oblivious more broadly, they’ll be sitting ducks.
And while the region is predominantly Republican, the independent-turned-Democrat Bill Owens of Plattsburgh narrowly won the seat three times.
He decided not to run a fourth time, which is when Elise Stefanik won her first term four years ago. So we’ll never know who would have prevailed in an Owens-Stefanik showdown.
6 counties swung: Obama to Trump
Stefanik won her first term in 2014 much more narrowly than her second term. She beat Aaron Woolf, 96,226 to 59,063 (53 percent to 32.5 percent). Green nominee Mr. Funiciello garnered 10.6 percent (19,238 votes).
That was an “off-year” non-Presidential election when turnout was characteristically lower — 181,558 votes were cast in the 2014 Congressional race, compared to 272,499 when Trump won the Presidency and carried the Congressional District.
I expect Democrats here and elsewhere are so fired up now that this November they’ll vote in far greater numbers than usual in an off-year. New voter enrollment efforts are already in overdrive.
Will Republican turnout decrease, increase or remain the same? Are Republican voters as motivated as the Democrats?
Or will the pendulum swing yet again?
Realize the district has six counties that voted for Trump two years ago that voted for Obama in both 2012 and 2008. Those counties include Warren, Washington and Saratoga. And Clinton County, where Plattsburgh is located, stayed Democratic in all three elections.
Can Democrats broaden appeal?
Yet, Ms. Stefanik’s nearly 100,000 vote victory margin two years ago is no small mountain to climb. I doubt you overcome it strictly by getting hordes of previous non-voters to back the Democratic nominee while persuading and/or hoping many past Stefanik voters opt to sit this one out.
My hunch is that many of Ms. Stefanik’s most vociferous critics — like those who protest loudly in front of her office — probably voted against her in prior elections.
They’ll need to greatly expand that base.
How successful will Democrats be in wooing voters who may not agree with them on one or more hot button issues?
The opposition has built a narrative that seems to put Ms. Stefanik on the defensive with voters the Democrats seek — that she’s ducked town hall meetings and isn’t accessible; that she endorsed President Trump; that she stands with the NRA in these gun-fraught times. And as the incumbent, her past votes and political contributions can be cited and hammered on.
The ‘not from here’ concern
For several reasons I think Ms. Stefanik erred in not conducting many more and bigger town hall forums.
One, it gave her opposition an easy topic to hit her with again and again and again.
Two, because Ms. Stefanik comes from the Albany area and used her family’s Adirondack summer place as her roots in the district, the contention that “she’s not from here” is still a battle cry raised by her foes.
She’s not a State Senator Betty Little or Assemblyman Dan Stec, natives who worked their way up from local elective office. There rootedness is unassailable. Ms. Stefanik is still earning it. (It factors in to Dylan Ratigan’s entry, too. See below.)
Three, Ms. Stefanik is good in a public forum — intelligent, warm, informed. With open-minded voters, she gains.
Hard questions loom for both sides
Right now Ms. Stefanik is the target of all the incoming artillery, but as the election unfolds, the other parties’ nominees will come under intense scrutiny, too.
For instance, they’ll be asked exactly what gun control legislation they plan to vote for. Depending on what the answer is, it may turn out to incense and/or propel Second Amendment advocates.
Not for nothing that the Democrats Mr. Owens and Kirsten Gillibrand were gun advocates and NRA defenders when they represented this region in Congress.
Candidates urging universal single-payer health care will be asked specifically how they’re going to pay for it. Whose taxes will be going up? Will just saying “the millionaires and billionaires” suffice?
Environmental advocates will likely be asked if they favor a “carbon tax” that would, for instance, drive up the price of gasoline to get people to burn less of it.
What do they propose to do about U.S. involvement in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and about military spending in general? Be mindful that Fort Drum is a colossal presence in the district’s northwest part.
Ms. Stefanik’s foes will depict her as being in the suit pocket of Donald Trump, Republicans will portray the Democrat as walking in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi.
Why I think Democrats will unify
Then there is the impact of the many candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Even with drop-outs, seven still vie for the nod — Don Boyajian, Tedra Cobb, Emily Martz, David Mastrianni Patrick Nelson, Katie Wilson and Dylan Ratigan.
It’s democracy in action, but does it lead to post-primary strife?
A friend notes that the primary will eat up a lot of campaign cash that could instead have gone to fighting Ms. Stefanik.
Through March Ms. Stefanik reports having $1.3-million in her war chest. (A Stefanik foe labels 80 percent of that big money from outside the district; in this race many factors will cut both ways.)
Mr. Boyajian leads the Democratic money count, with $298,312 on hand right now — reports the Watertown Daily Times.
This year, I don’t think lasting damage will come from the many-headed primary — with one exception. The Democrats are so united in their desire to defeat Ms. Stefanik they’ll likely put differences aside.
Nor I do think Dems will be short of funds. If the race is deemed competitive, money will flood in for both the Republican and Democratic candidates, and I expect grass roots contributions will add to the Democratic haul, too.
Get ready for full-scale attack ads running not-stop on TV. Some already have.
I’m not expecting third-party candidacies to greatly impact the outcome. Green Party choice Lynn Kahn has a long way to go just to rival Matt Funiciello’s notoriety.
Democratic hopeful Katie Wilson has the Working Families Party endorsement. If she doesn’t win the Democratic primary, will she persist on the Working Families line? That would risk a Democratic split, but as I say, I doubt it will come to that.
The Dylan Ratigan question
But Dylan Ratigan’s candidacy, I think, is the fly in the unity ointment. Other Democratic candidates have sniped at the late entry of this presumably rich, somewhat famous, entitled-seeming male who never even voted before and hasn’t lived here year-round. And it’s the year of the woman.
If Mr. Ratigan wins the primary, I could see some lasting in-party resentment playing out in the general election.
But then again, I can be entirely wrong.
I’ve written before about my friend the Trump supporter who in 2016 never wavered in his certainty that Trump would win the election. I ridiculed him for months about how wrong he was.
In this year’s Congressional race, as the Democratic hopefuls one by one declared, my friend was just as definitive that none posed a threat to Ms. Stefanik — UNTIL Mr. Ratigan tossed his hat into the ring.
Interestingly Saratoga County Democratic Chairman Todd Kerner agrees with him. Politico reporter/Chronicle alum Jimmy Vielkind quoted Mr. Kerner as saying, “I think at the end of the day, he’s going to be the Democratic candidate because he can elevate the issues and possesses an ability to discuss them that nobody else possesses at this time.”
While we’re on the subject of my Trump-believing friend, he thinks the Donald is on his way to reelection — UNLESS Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee.
“Biden would beat him,” my friend said.
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