Where things stand in the last week before NY21 GOP primary

stefanik-doheny_375With 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.

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26 Comments on “Where things stand in the last week before NY21 GOP primary”

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  1. Mervel says:

    “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 – See more at: http://blogs.northcountrypublicradio.org/inbox/2014/06/18/where-things-stand-the-final-week-of-the-ny-21-republican-primary/#respond

    Brian do you think from your reporting and coverage that the North Country has a significant minority of hardcore activists on the Right, that could actually make an impact in an election, including an primary?

    I am just not sure? My experience is almost entirely from St. Lawrence and Jefferson Counties so it is limited in that sense, but the very conservative people I know here who are involved would still not be considered anything like the hardcore Right wing/tea party types that Cantor faced. They are middle of the road conservatives.

    But that is from my limited vantage point.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    Mervel –

    In a low turn-out primary that is expected to be reasonably close, getting on the wrong side of one of these activist groups would probably be fatal. If all those people with “repeal the SAFE Act” signs in their yards turned en masse against one or the other of these candidates, that would probably be game over.

    Remember, too, that oftentimes the hammer falls from outside the district. There is already a lot of outside money shaping campaign ads and coverage. If one or the other Republican candidates suddenly faces an onslaught of attack ads from, say, the NRA or the Koch brothers, that would be painful, if not deadly. (To be clear, in this case, both Republicans have received the highest possible NRA rating.)

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. Jim Bullard says:

    I agree that both candidates in the Republican primary are flawed but for a different reason than you Brian. They are both running attack ads that take media statements out of context to make it appear that the respective sources are endorsing them. Worse they continue to run those ads even after demands from those quoted that the quotes be removed. That is flat out dishonest IMO and I don’t believe Stephanik when she says she has no control over that. Dishonesty is a turn off for me.

    As for the “Repeal the SAFE Act”, I would hope that Republican primary voters would be smart enough to realize that is an issue for the state legislature and courts, not one for congress. The person who wins the 21st congressional seat will not be voting on state law so debate over repealing the SAFE Act is merely a distraction from the issues they should be debating.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    So far, Doheny is winning the signs on the lawn war in Hamilton County.

  5. Candid says:

    I agree with your assessment of the two candidates and their respective flaws (although I think the list of flaws for Doheny goes much deeper than just likability…adultery, poor employee relations and high attrition rates among staff, a history of not paying his bills or even staff wages, accusations of sexism, etc.). One other point – I wouldn’t call the Post Star’s endorsement “strong”, quite the opposite actually. The editor even said the vote among their staff was split 50/50 at first. It really seemed like they weren’t thrilled with either candidate and they will almost surely endorse Woolf in the general election, even if Doheny wins the primary.

    I think the bottom line is that I’m just not convinced Doheny can win the general if he wins the primary. And that’s where the likability issue really comes into play. SO many people strongly dislike him and even seem to dislike his wife, who has played an even bigger role in this campaign than in 2012. Doheny is very aggressive and abrasive. And sometimes dismissive, especially if you cross him. While that may be standard practice in NYC, that doesn’t play very well with a lot of north country voters. He seems unelectable. I feel like Doheny had all the star aligned in 2012 with all three party lines, millions in outside funding and a huge anti-Obamacare sentiment and he still couldn’t win. This year, even if he wins the R, he won’t have the C line. And Woolf, who appears very personable and “likable” doesn’t have the Obamacare vote to overcome. If Doheny couldn’t win 2 years ago when the path was easier, how could he ever win in 2014? Stefanik, while flawed, doesn’t have even close to the same amount of baggage as Doheny and is the only hope the Republicans have of regaining the seat. But the Republicans have a history of not being able to get out of their own way so I have a feeling we will be calling Aaron “Congressman Woolf” in 6 months.

  6. Paul says:

    “Instead, they’ve read closely from the national conservative playbook, talking about guns, the Affordable Care Act, income taxes, and other hot button issues.”

    These really are local issues so they are discussing North Country “challenges”, at least in the eye of their target voters.

    It sounds like here that you are defining their “flaws” (even quoting one of your own fellow NCPR reporters) which may or may not exist. Maybe this is why the media and the pollsters got it so wrong in VA for Cantor.

    As far as the anti-safe act people. They could just as easily be a constitutional activist as a gun rights activist type person if you ask me. Like someone says above this will be decided by the courts at this point. I would be proud to put a “repeal whatever law that made abortions illegal again” sign in my yard and I am basically opposed to the idea of abortion.

    The folks that oppose the safe act have really gotten an unfair shake in the media. The name of the act doesn’t help either!

    As far as I can tell opposition to the safe act is really a constitutional thing not a gun thing. Candidates should talk about important things like that. It will have an important bearing on other decision they have to make.

  7. Given that the two candidates are virtually identical on the issues, it’s no surprise their focus has been on personalities, fake origin stories and other trivia. Ultimately, I think will benefit from being the darling of the GOP establishment. She can let Karl Rove do the vile pitbull work that voters all despise and pretend to be above the fray herself. Doheny, lacking that backing, gets down and dirty directly and that harms his “likability” numbers despite it being more honest. North Country types are conservative-minded but independent and often thumb their noses at the grand pooh-bahs. The tricky part is that both of the GOPers have been the anointed ones of the pooh-bahs at various points. Funiciello’s the only independent-minded person in the race.

  8. CJ says:

    Long time no blog Brian, we’ve missed you! Are you back?

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    In the last few days a concealed carry guy gets killed trying to be a hero in Vegas, a priest gets shot with his own gun and Bears QB Jim McMahon says he is thankful he didn’t own a gun or he might have killed himself with it because of depression. The anti-safe act folks are laying low on these stories, could it be they are fading just before the election?

  10. seszoo says:

    Too much big money ,which whomever wins the primary will get a lot from national groups whose agendas and favors will have nothing to do with helping our North Country , Mr Woolfe seems like a decent enough guy but still too NYC to represent us very well , Matt Funiciello is the one we’ll stick with ,works his own small business and knows what it takes to get by and survive in the North country. I think he’s our best chance at not falling into the big Washington politics and business as usual ,which these days we need the change ,small as it might be .

  11. SLCLibertarian says:

    I’ll tell you what – I won’t be voting for Stefanik in November if she wins the primary. Anyone who is that deep in DC/Karl Rove’s pockets is not a friend of the north country. Listen up GOP Leaders, I will vote for Woolf before I vote for Stefanik. Plain and simple.

  12. SLCL: Funiciello has more libertarian tendencies than Woolf. Well at least as far as I know, given how invisible Woolf has been.

  13. Paul says:

    “no surprise their focus has been on personalities”

    Personalities should matter to voters. If you don’t have the right personality you won’t get anything done in Washington. You might not get anything done if you do either, but certainly not if you don’t.

  14. Personalities do matter but they don’t trump substance. If someone has an awful agenda, I don’t want him/her to get things done in Washington.

  15. Paul says:

    True they are both important. And I really do think that substance should be measured by what a person has done. Not necessarily politically but what they have actually done. It can be in their work and family background and other things they have done. That makes it tough for a 29 year old. Hard to even measure if they don’t have substance to judge.

    But in the end you could have the best background and record out there and if you don’t have the right personality politics is something you should avoid.

    So yes it is both, my point above was simply that personality is very important to voters and I think it should be.

    I think that Hillary Clinton is and example of someone who has substance (you may not like her substance but she has it) but her personality is just a big turn off for me. I did vote for he when she ran for Senate here but later when I saw what her personality was she just lost it for me. She comes across as very defensive and combative quite the opposite of her husband.

  16. Mervel says:

    Thanks Brian M.

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, I have “met” Hillary at a public function and she seemed very personable. When you say she comes off as defensive and combative unlike Bill are you forgetting some stuff that Bill did, like what the definition of is is?
    You seem intelligent and thoughtful but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of chauvinism in your perception. If a man was combative, aggressive, confident, virile we would think well of him, but a woman? not ladylike. Ever notice all the references to pant suits attached to Hillary? what is that about? Do her pantsuits make her bossy? Why is it men can be bosses while women are bossy? Why is it that it is good for men to be aggressive but not women?
    Tell the truth now, are you perpetuating a double standard?

  18. Paul says:

    No I don’t think it is that. I have met her also (very briefly) and she did seem personable face to face. Here I am talking more about how she comes across in general. No I do remember the stuff that Bill did but here I am just talking about his personality. In fact I think it helped him muddle through all that.

    Aggressive is fine, man or woman. Confident, same there. Combative, I just don’t like it, man or woman.

    But I can concede that my opinion could be tempered by that fact that I am a man judging a woman. Nobody is perfect. I work for a woman and she is aggressive and confident but never comes across as combative. I would vote for her if she wanted to run for president. But I think she is too smart to go there!

    I know here that many folks don’t like Mitt Romney but he is aggressive and confident and he never seems combative, same goes for the president. John McCain for example is a guy who comes across to me as combative. I just don’r like it and I don’t think it.

    If Hillary runs and does a good job campaigning I could vote for her. The point you raise here is a good one. I wonder if a woman could yet win the presidency? I hope it’s possible.

  19. Paul says:

    “I just don’r like it and I don’t think it.”

    Just ignore that! Not sure where I was going there. That certainly calls into question any claim I could make to intelligence!!

  20. Given that all three major party candidates accept (legalized) bribes from corporations and unions, I don’t think personality matters nearly as much as figuring out what sponsors they’re taking orders from. Funiciello’s the only one who isn’t doing this, which is the decisive factor in my vote.

  21. Mervel says:

    The only thing with wolf will be simply name recognition. People just don’t know who he is. If he can really get out there and yes spend some money on media he will be fine. I was kind of surprised I didn’t see him or stefenik at for example the diary princess parade; Doheny was there. Already I have a gut reaction against people I see as not really caring about issues I care about or understanding even where I live. I mean come on it just takes a Saturday, you have to be willing to press the flesh. Owens was always there. Just things like that, give me a bad vibe for the two outsiders. Maybe I missed them? But right now I think the two republicans have a higher name recognition.

    If you want to win you have to show up, that is job one.

  22. Mervel says:

    I think old fashioned grass roots politics still works in this district. Its small enough that if you really get out there and pretty much go to everything, and knock on doors etc. You have a shot.

    I remember Aubertine came to our neighbors house for a block meeting, she was not friends with him either she just invited him and he came, and Canton is not that large of a place. It made a big difference for me.

    To me that is more important than getting Rove or machine type people on your side.

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, I think you aren’t considering the size of the district. I agree that person to person interaction is really important but (I know I have said this before but it bears repeating) this district is about the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Hawaii combined. on top of that are 3 or 4 major population centers at the corners of the district and no good way to go straight between them. Most people in Plattsburgh never go to Watertown, or Watertown to Glens Falls or Glens Falls to Malone or Massena. There are 12 counties in the district probably 8 or 10 county fairs to get to, parades in dozens of towns many weekends, it is simply impossible for any candidate to get to all of them. Doheny and Stefanik are running hard for the primary so they are more of the focus in the media but Woolf has been getting around the district. This will be a very difficult problem for Matt Funiciello in particular because he simply doesn’t have the money or time to get around as he probably would like to.

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, good answer, especially since I’m your boss…. Kidding.
    Can a woman win the presidency? Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that it is even a question when women have already been president or prime minister of countries like Pakistan, Israel, Argentina, Indonesia, Turkey, Gabon, Costa Rica,Sri Lanka, Mongolia…
    Sad that several Predominantly Islamic countries have had women leaders before we have even had a woman VP.

  25. Mr. Wakiki says:

    I am so frustrated with the political system right now.. it seems the choice is voting for which team the octopi picks

    Or which candidate Karl Rove does NOT suport (this year)

  26. Mervel says:

    Its a big district I agree Knuckle.

    But it also a relatively small district from a population standpoint. So if you really look at the major events and are willing to do some driving you can certainly hit the major things going on.

    In some ways it is a good place for an underfunded candidate who can’t spend hundreds of thousands on media, if they are willing to get in the car and drive and really work at it they can make an impact. I would have a tendency in this race to vote against whatever candidate is drawing the most out of district money.

    I am looking for someone who actually cares about this district and is not building his or her resume.

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