With Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik stumping hard in the final week of the Republican primary, this has once again shaped up as an epic political season, a far cry from the snoozy campaigns that used to define North Country congressional races.
The general election awaits, with Democrat Aaron Woolf and Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello waiting in the wings. But for now all eyes are on what has developed as a brutal slugfest between two significantly flawed candidates.
Here are how things stand as of today.
Two flawed, passionate candidates
For her part, Elise Stefanik has locked down significant support from Republican and Conservative party leaders, which in a low-turnout election could be a huge factor if county chairs can turn out the vote in her favor.
Set against this momentum — and the early successes she enjoyed winning over and unifying many party leaders — is the simple fact that her name recognition remains low. Stefanik is brand new to the North Country, with little history in the region, and that could hurt her.
Matt Doheny, meanwhile, has already garnered a strong endorsement from the Glens Falls Post Star and the Watertown Daily Times, two of the most important editorial voices in the district. He has the credentials as a businessman who grew up, has lived, and worked for a significant period in the North Country. He has higher name recognition due to past campaigns that were big and raucous. Doheny is the guy who went head to head with Doug Hoffman and nearly toppled Democrat Bill Owens.
But those roots, and his history as a guy who has carried the Republican banner in the past, haven’t erased what NCPR reporter David Sommerstein described as a significant “likeability” issue. A lot of people who deal with Doheny, including many activists on the right, just don’t seem to warm to the guy. That appears to be his Achilles heel.
So far, not a race about North Country issues
These “horserace” issues matter because the two candidates are so close on the issues and they have both resisted offering specific, detailed ideas about the North Country’s unique challenges. Instead, they’ve read closely from the national conservative playbook, talking about guns, the Affordable Care Act, income taxes, and other hot button issues.
That’s disappointing, but the truth is that it’s not a bad strategy. As we saw in Eric Cantor’s primary loss in Virginia, landing on the wrong side of hardcore activists on the right can be a death sentence for Republic candidates. One stumble on the SAFE Act or Obamacare would probably have been disqualifying for Doheny or Stefanik.
Still, it will be interesting to see how effective the winner will be pivoting to concerns more salient to the 21st district, and to general election voters: from the struggles of small school districts to the fraying of road and bridge infrastructure, to preserving Fort Drum’s future, to preparing the region for the growing impacts of climate change.
Can Republicans and Conservatives unify?
One other big question — perhaps the biggest question for Republican leaders — is what happens after primary day. Both of these candidates are already established on other party lines on the November ballot, with Stefanik on the Conservative line and Doheny on the Independence Party line.
Will the loser of the GOP primary stay in the race? Especially if the final tally is close, that temptation will be strong. We could very easily wind up with a four-person ballot in November, with the Democrats and the Greens competing for votes on the left, and Republicans, Conservatives and Independents competing for votes on the right.
Republican leaders will work hard to avoid that kind of muddle. Intraparty bickering has cost them this seat repeatedly in recent years and there is a very real danger of a repeat. That said, a big plus for the GOP is that neither of these candidates have landed the kind of body blows that might really cripple the Republican Party’s chances in November.
If a solid candidate emerges after next week’s primary, someone capable of rallying everyone together behind one banner, Republicans have a real shot at retaking a seat that was once a safe hold for them. They’ll have plenty of time to refill their war chests and fine-tune their message for the very different general election campaign that will ramp up during the summer and really accelerate in the fall.
One of the most interesting questions in this primary will be the regional breakdown of the race and the possibility that one region of the 21st District could really decide the outcome.
I’ll be paying particularly close attention to the southeastern corner of the district. Saratoga, Warren, and Washington counties represent just three out of 12 counties in the district, but they’re home to 36 percent of Republican voters. If one of these candidates catch fire there it could define the outcome.
On the other hand, it could also be decisive if Matt Doheny can carve out significant gains in his home turf in the northwestern corner of NY21, particularly in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties.
Finally, if this does turn out to be a low-turnout primary, this could be an election decided by the Republican Party committees and their get-out-the-vote networks. Right now, it appears that those “boots on the ground” will be mostly stumping for Elise Stefanik.
After years of struggle and disarray — and some embarrassing losses to insurgent Democrats — this could be a test of the GOP leadership and its ability to choose and then rally around a standard-bearer.