For people who’d watched Stefanik’s political rise, her combativeness came as a surprise, a sharp pivot from her understated demeanor in most public appearances (and, according to reporting, very different from her own behavior in impeachment proceedings without network cameras present). To hear pundits tell it, she had transformed overnight from one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress and a young, fresh-faced symbol of a new GOP to President Donald Trump’s attack dog and a symbol of the party’s most retrograde and divisive tendencies.
So what happened to Stefanik?
According to her, nothing at all. “I ask good questions with every hearing for every committee on which I serve, and this just happened to be a committee that had bright spotlights at the national level,” she said by phone in a late November interview.
Whether it was opportunism or just business as usual, it earned her a kind of attention she’d never had before. “A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik,” Trump tweeted on November 17. On November 22, he called into “Fox & Friends” to praise her style. “Her mannerism, her way of talking … no it’s just the whole thing, it just works,” he said. “I got to say, phenomenal job and thank you for all you’ve done,” Sean Hannity told a beaming Stefanik on November 21. “We have known for a long time how strong she is, how steel her spine is and how hard she works,” New York Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy told me in late November. “Now the whole country got to see that. Sometimes, you pick these moments, and sometimes the moments pick you, and she has risen to that occasion. And you know, she’s becoming a household name.”
It also triggered national opposition, which Stefanik’s previous races never attracted. Her 2020 opponent, Tedra Cobb, soon announced that she had raked in $1 million in donations from Democrats across the nation in the three days after the first week of hearings wrapped. As a result, a district whose largest city is Watertown, population 25,290, is on the national political radar.
Despite the enthusiasm of those Democratic donors, it still looks unlikely Stefanik will face a serious challenge in 2020: For one thing, she trounced Cobb by 14 percentage points in 2018. In a Republican-leaning district, she also has the advantages of an affectionate base and a president at the top of the 2020 ticket. And for another, it’s possible to see Stefanik’s breakout performance not as alienating to local voters, but rather as an adjustment to an electorate that has been signaling for years now, like voters in many districts across the country, that all politics are national now.
To most people I talked to in this district over the weekend, Stefanik’s turn toward the Trumpian in recent weeks hasn’t been all that surprising. Critics and supporters alike call the 35-year-old Harvard University grad adroit and ambitious, and her recent performance in the hearing—which local Republican leaders and constituents say played well at home—showed it.
What it also showed was a typically sharp assessment of how shifts in national polarization over the past decade are affecting a rural, mostly moderately Republican district. Residents describe this part of upstate New York as everything from “moderately conservative” to “small government and socially libertarian”; it elected a Democrat as recently as 2012 and likes to think its Republican politics are separate from those inside the Beltway, and certainly from those of New York City, from which upstate New Yorkers love to distinguish themselves.
Stefanik’s impeachment pivot is a story not just about her, but about how broader national forces—capped by Trump and impeachment—are sweeping away the the distinct politics of districts like New York’s 21st. And how a district, which like most of America isn’t solid red or blue, has ended up with its own mini-Trump—and people here mostly like it that way.
Residents of New York’s 21st were bundled up in Carhartt jackets at a coffee shop where one can often hear snippets of conversation about county politics. A group of regulars, grinning and grumbling about the subpar selection of eggnog on offer, held the door for me as I walked in. But no one wanted to talk when I asked them to comment for a political story for a Washington publication.
Fifteen thousand square, partly mountainous miles, the 21st District has a population of 700,000 and is home to avid hunters, more veterans than any other district in New York, blue-collar workers and aging small towns that much of the country forgets exist in a blue state home to a progressive powerhouse like New York City. The district’s largest population centers, which include Glens Falls, Watertown and Plattsburgh, count fewer than 30,000 residents each.
The district’s politics have never fit neatly into either party. Rural, blue-collar, and still reeling from the decline of the manufacturing industry, the district is mostly Republican on issues like taxes and tapering regulations for family-owned businesses. The Second Amendment is a key element of the region’s conservatism, and the state’s strict gun control laws are particularly unpopular here. Despite the SAFE Act’s passage six years ago, residents still post yard signs and bumper stickers calling on the Legislature to repeal it. Cobb ignited a local scandal during her 2018 campaign when she was secretly filmed acknowledging that while she’d like to ban assault rifles in Congress, it’s not a position she could take publicly because “I won’t win.”
But, splitting with Republican orthodoxy, the district also has an environmentalist streak. The massive Adirondack Park is the district’s central ecosystem and tourism engine, and any candidate for office must pledge to safeguard resources, the park’s air and water quality, and the delicate forests from overuse.
Stefanik, for instance, pushed back against cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency proposed by the administration to protect programs like funding for acid rain data collection in the Adirondacks in 2017. And while environmental advocates remain critical of her hesitancy to go full “Green New Deal,” the League of Conservation Voters has marked her environmental record as moving toward more moderate pro-environment votes since 2015.
Former Representative Bill Owens, a Democrat who held the seat before Stefanik, says he viewed the district as more unpredictable than other classically conservative districts. “This is a group of people who swing back and forth around the center—Rockefeller Republicans and Reagan Democrats, I call them,” he said. Owens won the seat in a special election in 2009, largely because of fissures within the Republican Party and by appealing to voters with talk of job creation and the need for more federal support for Fort Drum and farmers. The district also went for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Trump won it by 14 points in 2016.
Owens remembers a constituent couple telling him that one of them was a member of the state’s typically pro-Democrat New York State United Teachers, but they only cared about one issue: easing up the state’s strict gun control laws. “They had a foot in both camps, literally,” Owens said.
The unique political topography of the district seemed to be a good fit for the nimble Stefanik, a young out-of-towner who was able to quickly build local connections and lean into local issues when necessary, like when she started thinking about running for office. She came up in politics through the establishment—as a White House staffer for former President George W. Bush and then as a staffer on former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s vice presidential campaign.
But after the 2012 elections, she saw an opening close to home. She moved into a vacation home her parents owned in Willsboro and started crisscrossing the district in an F-150 to build a base of relationships among local party leaders. When Owens decided to not run in 2014, flipping the seat became more feasible.
Stefanik initially ran as a solution to the Republican Party’s internal struggles at the time, pledging to create jobs and stand with small-business owners and billing herself as part of a new generation of lawmakers in Washington.
When her age became a liability, she showed herself to be an astute strategist. During the general election, campaign polling showed a particular weakness with seniors the district. When her Democratic opponent said he would make no changes to Social Security, Stefanik attacked, saying such a position would lead to deep cuts. It worked and won her back some crucial senior support. At 30, Stefanik became the youngest woman elected to Congress.
But lately, since the election of Trump, folks in this region of New York aren’t only talking about the topics that directly affect the 21st District. The tone of political debate here has been changing, too. And, as her impeachment performance showed, Stefanik is following.
Take the protesters who have begun spending time on Warren Street just outside Stefanik’s Glens Falls office. The small band of liberal activists has been out for years in various upstate districts and has been against Stefanik since her election. It gained numbers this summer to protest migrant detention centers on the border and, in general, adjusts its cause of the day to whichever Trump administration policy is making news. When I visited in late November, the protesters held signs calling the administration’s interactions with Ukraine treason.
After months of growing protests and counter demonstrations that some fear will become violent, the town’s Common Council was supposed to vote on legislation on November 26 that would require protest groups to give at least 15 days’ advance notice. Instead, the council postponed the vote that day to allow the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to review the wording. The organization recently warned that the provision could have unwanted effects, and so the council has tabled it for now.
“This isn’t just a matter of liberal vs. conservative policies on health care or taxation,” Joe Seeman, a longtime protester outside Stefanik’s office, said when I visited on November 26. He and a handful of activists were joined by a truck with an electronic billboard “MoveOn and Need to Impeach” outside Stefanik’s Glens Falls office. “This is a level of corruption that we’ve never seen in American history before.”
Or take the group of pro-Trump activists on the traffic circle that same day, united under a American Patriots Express banner, a Glens Falls-based group whose members say they’re hoping Stefanik can sail all the way to state leadership or a role in the Trump administration with her rhetoric. They’ve supported her from the start, but say they’re motivated by her recent national attention and support from celebrity Democrats—a long way from the kinds of issues that typically motivate the blue-collar workers and hunters here.
“We love her and she’s got more support now,” said Hugh Phillips, 52, a Glens Falls-based technician. “The only thing dirty now is the one [Cobb] running against her getting the Hollywood money. So now Elise needs the support. I said to everybody, ‘We’ll kick up donations for Elise, $20 per person and send ‘em into her office.’”
The blaze that impeachment has lit here might explain why Cobb is staying out of the debate at all, even when asked by media in recent weeks. Stefanik’s campaign recently sent out a news release calling attention to Cobb’s refusal to answer questions on the issue when asked by North Country Public Radio and the Washington Post.
“Politics here aren’t usually like this,” said Brian Mann, a reporter for North Country Public Radio who has covered the district for more than two decades. “As recently as 2014, when a Democrat represented the district, we’d have rough and tumble elections and then everyone would get back to getting along.”
“I’ll tell you a lot of the biggest problems are social media,” Glens Falls Mayor Dan Hall said. “You see neighbors that are protesting just because they see they’re against each other on Facebook.”
Indeed, social media has played a major role in intensifying Stefanik’s 2020 race. Even before the impeachment hearing, she had begun peppering her campaign statements with Trump-inspired insults, such as “Taxin’ Tedra.” She earned her own after the impeachment hearings, in the form of the hashtag #TrashyStefanik, coined by George Conway when he solicited donations for Cobb last month on Twitter and called Stefanik “lying trash.” Cobb, in her formal campaign kickoff on November 19, denounced the use of that nickname, but plenty of others were happy to continue making it trend, online and off.
Jack McGuire, a professor of political science at State University of New York, Potsdam, said he hasn’t seen that level of name-calling in local politics in his nearly 15 years living there. “Unfortunately, I think the public is becoming inured to Trumpian/Stefanik-style of political behaviors that are uncommon in the 21st,” he added, referring to the district.
But not everyone is OK with seeing their district’s local politics erased and replaced with the tone and substance of national politics.
While Stefanik was once able to strike a delicate balance between her Republican identity and her positions on issues like climate change, some think those earlier convictions are gone, like Phillip Paige, a former Stefanik backer and a member of SUNY Potsdam’s College Republicans. A native of the 21st District’s Madrid, Paige said he started to lose faith in Stefanik when she began supporting Trump as the party’s nominee in 2016. Paige supported John Kasich’s candidacy in that election.
“A lot of her boots-on-the-ground young Republican crowd has really become quite disillusioned,” he said. “We saw her as what we thought the future of the Republican Party was and that really has been disproven. Unless, maybe the future of the Republican Party is Donald Trump.”
He said he has since seen her slide into a Washington style of partisanship that he’d hoped a new generation of Congress could avoid and fail to take action on causes that he believes should be important for young people—the country’s ballooning deficit, for example.
Paige, like many of Stefanik’s observers, noted that the congresswoman is very poll-driven, and said it appeared to him that Stefanik’s stronger support for the president began sometime around the time he visited her district to sign a defense bill at Fort Drum in August 2018. “She did still have some degree of independence up until recently, but I would say this was the cherry on top,” he said, referring to her performance at the impeachment hearings.
While voters in Louisiana and Kentucky may have rejected Trump’s efforts to bolster state leaders with his support in recent gubernatorial races, few are ready to predict Stefanik’s warm embrace of Trump will hurt her in her district.
Siena College Research Institute, a statewide leader in political public research, hasn’t polled the district since Stefanik’s first election in 2014, “largely because she was perceived, accurately, as safe and there were lots of competitive districts in New York,” said Steven Greenberg, a spokesman for Siena’s polling arm. They’re not ruling it out for 2020, he said, but would rank it far behind other races set to be close, such as those of Reps. Max Rose, Antonio Delgado and Anthony Brindisi, all of whom are Democrats who narrowly flipped red districts in New York last year.
Still, McGuire and Paige both point out that Cobb is not the same opponent she was in 2018. She weathered a bitter primary to make the 2018 ticket and continued with a campaign despite several local Democrats who said “over my dead body” would they offer their support, according to Paige. Paige also worked in St. Lawrence County government, where Cobb was a county legislator from 2003 to 2010.)
Cobb now has hired more staff than she had during her previous campaign, McGuire said, has $1.5 million in the bank and a lot of people listening as she portrays Stefanik’s impeachment outburst as a Washington insider out of touch with the district. And, after talking with some locals here, it’s easy to see such an attack sticking.
“Honestly, what she’s been doing [in the hearings] has nothing to do with our constituents here,” said Jason Cramer, a State Farm insurance agent who moved into an office just across the street from Stefanik’s in the downtown business district earlier this year. He’s irked by the local noise, which has disrupted meetings with clients and which he sees as unnecessary drama.
Cramer wouldn’t say who he plans to vote for next year, but he acknowledged Stefanik has been active in trying to eliminate red tape for businesses, and that’s allowed smaller operations like his to get off the ground. “I’m appreciative of that, but by the same token, being a business owner across the street from somebody that’s in the national spotlight right now kind of sucks.”