Stefanik looks tough to beat in November

Elise Stefanik’s big Republican primary win Tuesday gives her a great deal of momentum for the Nov. 4 general election. Watertown investor Matt Doheny spent hundreds of thousands of his own dollars on the race and says he personally knocked on 2,200 voters’ doors, yet she – boosted by advertising funded by super PACs – took 61 percent of the primary vote to his 39 percent.

She did it even though Mr. Doheny was endorsed by the Watertown and Glens Falls daily newspapers, state Senators Patty Ritchie of Watertown and Joe Griffo of Utica, and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey of Peru. She did it even though critics cried she has closer ties to Washington, D.C., than to her newfound hometown of Willsboro.

She took every county except Herkimer – there are 12 in New York’s 21st Congressional District. She even edged out Mr. Doheny in Jefferson County, where he grew up and now lives.

She did best of all in our own Franklin County, taking a whopping 72 percent of the votes. For that, her local supporters can be proud. That includes county Republican Chairman Ray Scollin of Saranac Lake, his predecessor Jim Ellis of Tupper Lake, local Conservative Party Chairman Bob White of Saranac Lake, former candidate Doug Hoffman of Lake Placid and Joe and Sally Spadaro of Saranac Lake, who accompanied Ms. Stefanik to many events and meetings throughout the area. Whatever they did to get out the vote apparently worked.

Few people voted, though. Turnout of registered Republicans, broken down by county, ranged from 21.9 percent (Jefferson) to 10.3 percent (Saratoga), according to the Watertown Daily Times. Franklin County was on the low end at 12.5 percent; that’s only 1 out of every 8 Republicans. In Essex County, 14.8 percent of Republicans voted, about 1 in 7.

Around mid-afternoon Tuesday at the North Elba Town House in Saranac Lake, a poll worker told us they hadn’t yet hit 20 voters. When polls closed at 9 p.m., only 41 had cast ballots there.

Essex County’s Board of Elections broke down the voting town by town. Mr. Doheny spent a long day campaigning hard in Lake Placid, seat of the county’s biggest town – 9,000-person North Elba – and the region’s economic hotspot. He knocked on doors, met with local officials and even promised to seek federal funds for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which manages the Olympic venues – a huge driver of the tourism economy. Yet Ms. Stefanik crushed him in North Elba, 78 percent to 22 percent. In Wilmington, home of the ORDA-run Whiteface Mountain, she took 79 percent.

In Willsboro she took 81 percent, even though she only moved there last year after being a summer visitor since she was 3. North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann reported in May that when he talked to 15 local residents on the street there, “Not one of them knew her or had ever met her. Most didn’t even recognize her name.” Yet 120 of them voted for her Tuesday, and only 29 for Mr. Doheny.

We hadn’t known what to expect before the results rolled in, but we guessed it would be close. We guessed wrong.

The candidates, too, wouldn’t have bet on Ms. Stefanik’s easy victory, at least not if their public statements are taken at face value. In our editorial board interviews, Ms. Stefanik seemed anxious about the outcome while Mr. Doheny was brimming with confidence. He cited polls – hired by him – that showed him way ahead, and he said he’d probably run away with Franklin County.

Maybe he was bluffing, hoping people would believe his prophecy and help it come true, but we got the sense that he sincerely believed his door-to-door campaigning was worth more than Ms. Stefanik’s backing by GOP county committees and national super PACs. In his concession speech Tuesday night, he said it’s unprecedented for national donors to spend so much money to sway the outcome of a primary between two middle-of-the-road Republicans. Clearly, his faith in person-to-person politics had just been pummeled.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, he said he was shocked by Ms. Stefanik’s margin of victory and said it wasn’t because her team worked harder than his.

“This election marks a new phase of American politics, a phase that will impact elections at every level with the advent of SuperPACs that may get involved in anything political – even a local Congressional primary race,” he wrote. “The role of local people, local supporters, and local advocacy are at risk of being greatly compromised going forward and that is troubling.”

He’s probably right that super PACs had a huge influence, but there were other reasons Ms. Stefanik won. We think he bet wrongly that voters would favor a former Wall Streeter like him over a Washington insider like her. He also underestimated her ability to overcome the cries of “She’s not from here!” Many North Country Republicans, like their county committees, felt drawn to Ms. Stefanik’s youth, freshness and mostly positive campaign style.

Granted, she let super PACs do her TV attack ads for her, but Mr. Doheny responded in kind. Unlike her ads, which came from PACs rather than her, he got his own hands dirty by adding at the end of each blast, “I’m Matt Doheny, and I support this message.” Plus, his ads mixed up facts, such as attributing an Enterprise blogger’s comments to the paper as a whole. Negative campaigning turns voters off, and he wasted an opportunity to be the clean candidate.

He still has a guaranteed place on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Independence Party line, but at this point we can’t see much chance for him to win. Ms. Stefanik looks strong after Tuesday, and she has the Conservative Party line as well.

She will face a Democratic opponent, Aaron Woolf, who’s beset with many challenges. Like her, he recently claimed a family seasonal home in the district as his primary residence, but he takes that a step further by maintaining a wife, daughter, home and grocery store in New York City. Like her, he’s never run for office, but he doesn’t have her behind-the-scenes political experience. He’s also flanked on the left by Matt Funiciello, a strong Green Party candidate who will appeal to many voters. So far Mr. Funiciello hasn’t taken much time off from his Glens Falls bakery to campaign, but he’ll be in Lake Placid Friday for a public forum from 6 to 8 p.m. at Green Goddess Natural Market, 2051 Saranac Ave.

Rep. Bill Owens, a Plattsburgh Democrat, had none of Mr. Woolf’s disadvantages when he squeaked out wins in 2009 and 2010, and a slightly wider victory in 2012, in this Republican-dominated district. Rather, Mr. Owens’ Republican opponents lost votes to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in those first two contests, and by 2012 he had established himself as a reliable, amiable, business-friendly moderate. He’s opted not to seek re-election.

Ms. Stefanik has to be seen as the favorite at this point. Nevertheless, these primary voters are a small slice of this district, which is generally moderate and independent. She, meanwhile, is closely aligned with national Republican leaders whose policies often favor the richest Americans. She has a lot of work to do if she is to convince voters she would choose 21st District interests over those of her partisan allies.