Stefanik cruises to a win, as Doheny blames Rove
GLENS FALLS—Elise Stefanik cruised to a Republican primary win in the state's 21st Congressional District, besting Matt Doheny in a race to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Bill Owens.
The mood was jubilant among Stefanik's supporters, who watched her notch wins in each of the district's 12 counties. With 84 percent of precincts reporting, Stefanik led Doheny by slightly better than 20 points. She now faces Democrat Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker, and Matt Funicello, a bakery owner who is the candidate of the Green Party, in the general election.
“Washington is in desperate need of new ideas and a new generation of leadership,” she told a cheering crowd.
In picking Stefanik, voters rejected Doheny, an investor from Watertown who lost races for Congress in 2010 and 2012. He was a late entrant into this year's contest, and announced his intention to run only after incumbent Rep. Bill Owens said he wouldn't seek another term. Stefanik had wrapped up the support of the Republican county organizations in the district, and they mostly stayed with her even as Doheny won the endorsements of elected leaders like Sen. Patty Ritchie and Warren County Sheriff Bud York.
With major agreement on the issues, the race mostly boiled down to a question of personality. Doheny was bogged down by his previous runs and a $1 million ad blitz from American Crossroads that reminded voters of a past boating while intoxicated conviction. Doheny tried to pivot as best he could, with campaign imagery of him holding his one-year-old son and attacks on Stefanik as a creature of Washington D.C., where she's spent her career so far as a political aide to the Bush White House and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Doheny lives in the district, while Stefanik's ties—high school in Albany and a summer residence in Willsboro—are more tenuous.
“The issue is not policy. It's, do you want a businessman or do you want a political operative?” Doheny said Monday before sitting down at Poopie's, the iconic lunch spot on this city's west side. “Do you want someone who knows and grew up in the district and lives here versus someone who just came here, and do you want someone who's independent or someone who's going to be controlled by Karl Rove? Those are the three choices—it's really not about policy.”
Stefanik, walking door-to-door in Fort Edward, repeatedly framed her candidacy as one of “fresh energy and new leadership.” Accompanied by one volunteer and clad in a light salmon blazer and bright Nikes, she knocked on doors throughout this village, the home of a tissue plant and a shuttering General Electric plant.
“I think voters are looking for a new direction. They're looking for fresh leadership, they're looking for fresh energy. I haven't run and lost before, and I think this is why we are the candidate that will have the opportunity to win in November,” she said.
At just 29, Stefanik's win certainly is a signal of a generational shift for the G.O.P. in New York State. Democrats have tried to paint the G.O.P. as anti-women, highlighting party planks against abortion rights. For Republicans seeking a re-branding, Stefanik's victory is a welcome sign.
But more than anything, it's a demonstration of a well-run campaign molding high-level support in Washington—in addition to Rove, super donor Paul Singer maxed out to her campaign—with a solid ground game.
“She's really got all the technology and people working on it, as opposed to just robocalls,” said Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham, an Independent who was backing Stefanik.
He also dismissed the carpetbagger charges pushed by Doheny.
“This is a massive congressional district. To get into this sort of birther argument that's been going on is a bit unseemly,” he said. “All of the major candidates have had to go elsewhere to make their mark in the world, and then they've come back. It doesn't bother me.”
Brendan Quinn, a former executive director of the Republican State Committee, said that the 21st District—which covers the entire Adirondack Park as well as the Champlain and St. Lawrence valleys—is one of the few parts of the state where local party committees still move voters.
And Stefanik worked dutifully for months before Doheny even entered the race. Local and party officials who gathered at her election party in the hotel ballroom said they were hesitant to even consider backing Doheny when he called because they had already committed to Stefanik. He had had his turn, many said, and was willing to do the work.
Doheny conceded the race around 10:30 p.m. from a bar in Watertown. He blamed Rove's spending, saying, “When you're running for office at this level, it's not good enough to talk to your local county chairman. It's just not.”
Doheny remains on the ballot as the Independence Party's candidate, but as an attorney he could be removed from the ballot if he is nominated for a judgeship.