From Washington DC to Willsboro: Elise Stefanik’s political timeline

Elise Stefanik moved to Willsboro, in Essex County, last year after nearly a decade of operating at the highest level of power in Washington DC.  Photo:  Stefanik campaign

Elise Stefanik moved to Willsboro, in Essex County, last year after nearly a decade of operating at the highest level of power in Washington DC. Photo: Stefanik campaign

Introduction: A campaign narrative that clashes with a long Washington DC resume

Over the last year, while campaigning for the North Country’s House seat, Elise Stefanik has introduced herself to voters as a “new voice” in the Republican Party.  She has argued that her views have been shaped significantly by her experiences in Essex County and her time working in the lumber and plywood business operated by her parents in New York’s Capital District.

NCPR has found that the facts of Stefanik’s record and career appear to contradict significant parts of that narrative.

Our in-depth reporting found that Stefanik worked for nearly a decade as a political operative, journalist, policy adviser, and communications expert in Washington DC.  (See the full Timeline below.)  In those roles, she helped to shape and advance many of the ideas that define the modern conservative movement.

It’s important to note that our reporting found nothing scandalous or unsettling about Stefanik’s career prior to moving to the North Country last year.  Indeed, her record suggests a remarkable level of competence as she moved quickly into the highest levels of Republican policy-making.  There is strong evidence to suggest that if elected, Stefanik will arrive in Washington with more influence and more experience navigating a complex political world than most freshman lawmakers can boast.

But we could also find little evidence to support Stefanik’s claims that prior to the campaign she demonstrated a record of bipartisanship, questioned core conservative policies, or created a track record advocating new ideas.  On the contrary: We found that in many cases, Stefanik took jobs supporting and advising politicians who were architects of some of the GOP’s most fiercely debated policies.

Nor could we find evidence that she spent significant amounts of time establishing roots in the North Country or working as for her parents’ lumber and plywood company prior to moving to the North Country last year.  In an effort to be as fair and accurate as possible, NCPR sent the Stefanik campaign a list of questions about her political views, her work history, and the apparent contradictions between her campaign narrative and her eight-year track record in Washington.

Stefanik’s communications director declined to answer questions or to arrange an interview and instead sent a brief statement.  In that statement, Stefanik says she is “proud of my experience in public service, and of my work with my small family plywood business.”

Stefanik’s Timeline

BEFORE THE WHITE HOUSE (2002-2006)

2002- 2006  Harvard University: Stefanik studies at Harvard University.  According to statements, she has already been politically active for some time and “worked on numerous political campaigns growing up.”  She becomes a staff writer and editor of the Harvard Crimson where she writes articles encouraging students to show support  for the U.S. Military and become more politically involved.

“Supporting U.S. troops who protect America is not about the war in Iraq, it is not about whether one agrees with President

Stefanik says one of her earliest projects in Washington DC was supporting the confirmation of John Roberts, now the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court:  Photo:  SCOTUS

Stefanik says one of her earliest projects in Washington DC was supporting the confirmation of John Roberts, now the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court: Photo: SCOTUS

Bush’s policies, it is not about agreeing with the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, it is about respect for our peers and countrymen,” she wrote in 2005.

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2005, August Hurricane Katrina:  The super-storm devastates New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast.  The White House’s handling of the aftermath damages President George W. Bush’s popularity and weakens public confidence in his administration.

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2005 Senate Judiciary Committee: According to her bio, Stefanik works with the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation of the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Her exact role in that process is unclear. She would have been 21 years old at the time.

Stefanik took an internship with a foreign policy think-tank formed in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.  Photo:  Robert via Wikipedia

Stefanik took an internship with a foreign policy think-tank formed in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Photo: Robert via Wikipedia

2005-2006 Foundation for Defense of Democracies: During Stefanik’s senior year at Harvard, she becomes an undergraduate fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C. Widely viewed as a neo-conservative think-tank, FDD was formed by Reagan-era foreign policy expert Jeane Kirkpatrick and former Rep. Jack Kemp following the 9/11 terror attacks. She spends January of 2006 in D.C.,  attending a series of educational lectures by academics, diplomats, and military officers on the threat of terrorism to democracy.

During this time Stefanik writes a NYTimes Letter To the Editor strongly disagreeing  with Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph Ellis’s views on the 9/11 terror attacks. Ellis has written an essay in the Times arguing that “it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.”

Stefanik responds:  “Joseph J. Ellis’s ethnocentric view doesn’t take into account that 9/11 is part of a broader string of deadly events in the international arena; unlike the War of Independence and the Civil War, 9/11 is part of a string of bombings around the world ranging from Bali, Northern Africa and Central Asia to London and Madrid. Sept. 11 does not signify a national threat; it is a globalized one.”

THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS (2006-2009)

President Bush's team hired Stefanik out of college in 2006. Photo: White House via Wikipedia

President Bush’s team hired Stefanik out of college in 2006. Photo: White House via Wikipedia

2006 Bush administration, White House: After graduating from Harvard, Stefanik returns to Washington D.C. where she is hired as a staff assistant with the Domestic policy council withint he White House and works closely with Karl Zinsmeister, who has just been appointed chief domestic policy adviser to President Bush.  Zinmeister is a controversial pick.  As editor and writer for American Enterprise, a journal published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Zinmeister is a strong supporter of the Iraq War, now in its third year.

Foreclosure_Trend

Stefanik arrived in Washinton at a time when trouble signs, including growing numbers of home foreclosures, were building. Image: Farcaster via Wikipedia

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2006 US Housing market bubble bursts: Economic experts begin to see evidence that a massive overvaluation of real estate in the US has skewed the investment strategies of banks, corporations, and private borrowers. Much of the bubble has been caused by improper lending practices and by the growing, unregulated strategy of “bundling” home loans and selling them to buyers with no clear understanding of their worth. By 2007, the number of real estate loan defaults will begin to skyrocket.

2006 Bush administration faces growing criticism of Iraq War: During a trip to Cleveland, Bush says “I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken.” He adds, “They wonder how I can remain so optimistic.”

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2007 Bush administration, West Wing: Stefanik moves to the West Wing to help oversee and coordinate the economic policy development process with Joel Kaplan, deputy chief of staff of policy. Kaplan is now vice president of public policy at Facebook. Stefanik, who was 23-years-old, apparently introduced Kaplan to Facebook.
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2007 January Iraq surge: President Bush announces a controversial “surge” of forces in Iraq designed to quell militancy and sectarian violence. Troops, including forces from Fort Drum near Watertown, are sent to Baghdad and Anbar province.

A car bombing in Baghdad, part of the violence that prompted the "Surge" in 2007.  Photo:  Jim Gordon via Wikipedia

A car bombing in Baghdad, part of the violence that prompted the “Surge” in 2007. Photo: Jim Gordon via Wikipedia

2007 Economic downturn deepens: There are growing signs of a looming economic disruption. Even major investment firms such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns struggle as their subprime mortgage holdings lose value. By 2008 a growing number of Wall Street firms will be bankrupt, bailed out by taxpayers or bought by other companies.

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2008 Bush administration, West Wing:  Stefanik begins working as executive assistant to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten where she dives deep into domestic economic policy just as the Great Recession is becoming evident.
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2008 Great Recession begins:  Job losses begin to mount, with hundreds of thousands of positions shed each month as the economy goes into shock. The crisis is so dire that in September, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) briefly suspends his presidential campaign, citing a “historic crisis in our financial system.” Unemployment will eventually double, rising from 5% to roughly 10% nationally.

2008 October, TARP program signed by President Bush: The President signs TARP, a controversial measure designed to “stabilize the U.S. financial system, restart economic growth, and prevent avoidable foreclosures” that will eventually cost taxpayers roughly $475 billion.

2008 November Barack Obama elected presidentBarack Obama wins roughly 51% of the popular vote.  His administration prepares to take office, confronting on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a worsening economic crisis.

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A TURN TO CONSERVATIVE JOURNALISM (2009-2011)

Elise Stefanik launched "American Maggie" in 2009, featuring the writing of authors ranging from Christie Whitman to Sarah Palin.

Elise Stefanik launched “American Maggie” in 2009, featuring the writing of authors ranging from Christie Whitman to Sarah Palin.

2009 American Maggie: In 2009 Stefanik leaves the White House, remaining in D.C. where she invests in a townhouse in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and works to build a new company and website, AmericanMaggie.com, which launches in September 2009.

Named after former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the journal publishes or reproduces articles from a wide range of conservative women, from moderates such as former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman to conservatives including Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman.

Her new project’s advisory board includes a prominent list of conservatives, including Mary Matalin, long-time aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, former White House communications director Dana Perino and Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican National Committee and one-time counsel to President Bush.

Much of American Maggie’s content has been scrubbed from the internet. Among the articles we were able to locate, one called North Country Republicans to task for failing to support strong conservative candidates. Another, written by contributor Rachel Wagley, offered strong support for former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

“In the 2008 election cycle, Sarah Palin spoke to the people in a way Americans could resonate with; she spoke about jobs, she spoke about values, and spoke about personal liberties.  In true populist fashion, Palin promised relief for the lower classes.”

NCPR’s scrutiny of the articles still available from American Maggie could find no instances where Stefanik or her authors differed with the policies or ideas of top Republican leaders, except to argue that more conservative women should be included in the GOP’s future.

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2010 December, Arab spring:  Uprisings and civil protests spread across Middle East and Arab world, with dictators and regimes toppled in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

2010 August, US combat operations end in Iraq:  The last combat troops leave Iraq ahead of President Obama’s timeline, leaving roughly 56,000 troops behind to conduct training and support operations.

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THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN & FOREIGN POLICY (2011-2012)

Tim Pawlenty a day before pulling out of the 2012 presidential race.  Photo:  Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia.

Tim Pawlenty a day before pulling out of the 2012 presidential race. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia.

2011 Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor, presidential candidate: With American Maggie still occasionally publishing articles, Stefanik begins working as the Director of New Media and Deputy Policy Director for then Tim Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC, a political action committee designed to boost his presidential bid.

Stefanik earns the title “economic think-tanker.” Pawlenty has long supported privatizing part of Social Security, arguing that younger workers should be aloud to divert some of their social security taxes to “personal accounts.”  Pawlenty argued in 2004 that people should “have some discretion, some choice. I think that’s a reasonable and fair thing.” During the presidential campaign, Pawlenty argued that the US should pursue “regime change” in Syria.

Pawlenty drops out of the race in August 2011 after finishing a distant third in Iowa.

William Kristol was a founder of FPI and remains a board member at the think tank where Stefanik worked as communications director.  Image:  FPI website

William Kristol was a founder of FPI and remains a board member at the think tank where Stefanik worked as communications director. Image: FPI website

2011: Foreign Policy Initiative: Six years after interning at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Stefanik becomes Director of Communications and External Affairs at a second neo-conservative think tank called The Foreign Policy Initiative. FPI was co-founded by William Kristol, one of the chief advocates for the Iraq War.  While serving at the Initiative, Stefanik promotes the ideas of many of the thinkers, activists and academics who support a forceful U.S. foreign policy and military presence overseas.

During her time at FPI, Stefanik writes that more aggressive measures should be considered in Syria, including new “sanctions on the Assad regime, providing assistance to Syrian opposition groups, examining options related to limited retaliatory airstrikes against select Syrian military targets, and imposing a no-fly or no-go zones to protect Syria’s population.”

“They are clearly not taking a forward leaning role in Syria and influencing the outcome in Syria,” Stefanik says during a podcast that she hosted, referring to the Obama administration.  “What are some of the options that they should be considering that they are not?”

Stefanik is also critical of Mr. Obama’s failure to secure an agreement to keep US troops in Iraq:  “One of the things I find really interesting in this week’s news cycle,” she says, “was that President Obama did not have any direct contact with Iraqi Prime Minister between February 13th where there was a phone call and last Friday when he called the Prime Minister to inform him of this decision to withdraw troops.”

The 2012 Republican National Committee policy staff lists Stefanik as second in command, with the title of "policy director."  Image:  Republican National Comittee policy book

The 2012 Republican National Committee policy staff lists Stefanik as second in command, with the title of “policy director.” Image: Republican National Comittee policy book

2012 Republican National Convention, Policy Director:  In July 2012, ahead of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, Stefanik is hired by RNC chair Reince Priebus to serve as policy director.  According to the RNC’s policy book, she is second in command on a team that eventually supports a number of controversial ideas.  The platform includes a total ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother.  Also, the partial privatization of Social Security and Medicare.

Stefanik worked with Paul Ryan in 2012 as he prepared to debate Vice President Joe Biden. Ryan has continued to be a strong Stefanik supporter.  Photo:  US Congress

Stefanik worked with Paul Ryan in 2012 as he prepared to debate Vice President Joe Biden. Ryan has continued to be a strong Stefanik supporter. Photo: US Congress

Stefanik has distanced herself from these ideas, arguing that she supports legal abortions in rare cases.  But NCPR’s investigation could find no evidence that Stefanik objected to, or opposed, any of these ideas in 2012.   Stefanik describes Social Security and Medicare as important programs, but also favors establishing some kind of private component for Social Security for workers under the age of 50.

UPDATE:  According to Roll Call magazine, from a 2012 report, one of Stefanik’s duties on the platform staff is to serve as a liaison between the GOP and Washington lobbyists who are seeking to influence Republican policies.  “The sessions are coordinated by RNC staff, in particular Elise Stefanik, policy director for the party’s platform. Stefanik declined comment through Kukowski, who said there would be more such meetings but noted they are closed to the press,” Roll Call reports.

2012 Paul Ryan Team, Debate Prep: Following the Republican convention in Tampa, Stefanik is hired by the Romney-Ryan ticket to take on the role of debate prep coach for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin).  Ryan has become a major architect of a new conservative vision for the Federal government, one which includes deep cuts to social service programs, healthcare subsidies, and other “entitlements” that help poor and working class Americans, while also cutting income taxes.

Many of those ideas are embedded in the platform crafted in Tampa by the team Stefanik joined.  In her new role on the campaign, Stefanik is charged with preparing Ryan to articulate and defend those ideas in debates with Vice President Joe Biden.

On the campaign trail, Stefanik has distanced herself from many of Ryan’s ideas, suggesting that she would have voted against his budget plan, a version of which passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in April of 2014.  Despite those assertions, Ryan has continued to be a supporter of Stefanik.  He attended a private fundraiser in Watertown to rally support for Stefanik’s campaign, though he declined to speak with the media or make a public appearance.

THE CAMPAIGN:  A “NEW VOICE” IN THE NORTH COUNTRY (2013-2014)

2013 Stefanik leaves D.C. and moves into her parent’s home in Willsboro, NY: According to her statements, she plans to live in the region while working in “sales, marketing and management” for her parents’ wholesale lumber business, Premium Plywood Products.  But reports by NCPR and NPR find that few local residents in her adopted home town know Stefanik or have met her.  “Everyone in Willsboro was saying, ‘Who is she?” Willsboro resident Arlene Bigelow, 84, told NPR. “And she was purporting to be from Willsboro.”

Stefanik defeated Matt Doheny in the GOP primary, despite the fact that Doheny has lived in the district much longer.  Doheny blamed the loss on Stefanik's Washington DC supporters.

Stefanik defeated Matt Doheny in the GOP primary, despite Doheny having lived in the district much longer. Doheny blamed the loss on Stefanik’s Washington DC supporters.

Meanwhile, Stefanik’s outreach efforts to Republican county chairs across the North Country begin almost immediately

2013 August The Campaign Begins:  In August 2013, Stefanik declares her candidacy, telling the Adirondack Daily Enterprise that voters want a change.

“I think we’ve seen six years of Barack Obama’s leadership, almost as long as Bill Owens being in office, and things haven’t gotten better,” she argues.

2013-2014 Washington connections shape North Country’s NY-21 GOP Primary:  As the NY 21 House race heats up, Stefanik draws strong support from county chairs in the district.  Her Washington DC connections also define the race in significant ways.  In May 2014, she is endorsed by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  While Stefanik is locked in primary battle with Watertown businessman Matt Doheny, the “super PAC” operated by former White House adviser and Stefanik colleague Karl Rove, called American Crossroads, spends $772,000 attacking Doheny.

Doheny attempts to make Stefanik’s Washington DC history a campaign issue, broadcasting his own (sometimes misleading) attack ads and raising the “carpetbagger” issue on the campaign trail.  Some editorials, including those in the Watertown Daily Times, echo his concerns.  In its endorsement of Doheny, the Times concludes that it is “offensive” that a “PAC run by people with no local ties should try to decide who will better represent the north country.”  Despite these concerns, Stefanik wins the primary by sweeping margins.  In his concession speech, Doheny says, “We were outspent in total ads six or seven to one, and it obviously made the difference. It just did. The reality is my opponent had a good night, and Karl Rove had a good night.”

House Speaker John Boehner is only the highest profile national Republican to boost Stefanik's campaign. Photo: US House

House Speaker John Boehner is only the highest profile national Republican to boost Stefanik’s campaign. Photo: US House

2014 Washington ties boost Stefanik in general election: Following the GOP primary, Stefanik continues to describe herself as a “new” voice in the GOP.  As examples of independent thinking, Stefanik cites her support for the Violence Against Women Act (a measure once widely supported by Republicans, but now opposed by many conservatives), and her support for equal pay for women (though Stefanik has declined to say whether she would support Federal legislation to mandate that employers pay female employees the same wage as their male counterparts). She also now says that she would not have voted for the Paul Ryan-crafted budget which passed the House in April 2014.  Again, NCPR could find no record of Stefanik articulating those views, during her time as a policy adviser, or her time as a journalist, prior to the current campaign.

Meanwhile, top Republican leaders around the US maintain a remarkable level of support for Stefanik’s campaign. In September 2014, House Speaker John Boehner, the most powerful Republican in the country, visits Glens Falls to appear at a Stefanik fundraiser.  Stefanik is also tapped to give the national Republican address in response to President Barack Obama’s weekly radio broadcast.

On October 18, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) makes a stop in Glens Falls to rally Stefanik supporters. Stefanik’s campaign war chest, meanwhile, draws significant support from some of the most influential conservative activists and PACs in the US, including a $1,000 contribution from the PAC operated by neo-conservative leader John Bolton, $5,000 from the Koch Brothers, and an additional $4,000 donation from a Koch-funded PAC called Making a Responsible Stand for Households in America.  Stefanik has also drawn attention from national conservative media, with a recent appearance on the Fox News program “Fox and Friends,” which described her as a “fresh face.”

 

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14 Comments on “From Washington DC to Willsboro: Elise Stefanik’s political timeline”

  1. Kevin Kleffmann says:

    While Ms. Stefanik is obviously a bright, hard working young woman I find her lack of maturity to be disquieting. Many of the ideas she supports today are the same ones I supported when I was her age. Ideas that I have come to realize at the age of 62 are those of a person who hasn’t yet experienced enough of life to make a good Representative to the U.S House of Representatives. Perhaps after she’s faced some adversity, had to pick herself up and start over again from scratch, then she’ll be ready. The sharp edges of her thinking need to be smoothed with time and understanding. For the moment, I’m deciding between Funiciello and Woolf and wishing that Bill Owens will change his mind in 2016 and run again.

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  2. The Original Larry says:

    Now who is it that Elise Stefanik reminds me of? Who is the other Washington insider who moved to New York to run for office after a long and intimate association with a failed (arguably) Presidential administration? Funny how that profile only counts against conservative candidates.

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  3. Peter Hahn says:

    This is just straight info

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  4. The Original Larry says:

    Straight info? Hardly. It’s a thinly disguised hatchet job, relying on tired “blame Bush” methodology. The Republicans are in great shape if this is all the opposition has.

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  5. Jim Bullard says:

    It all looked pretty straight to me. There’s nothing there that an informed voter didn’t already know including Stefanik’s lack of response to straight questions. The only error I spotted was the reference to Sarah Palin as a former presidential candidate. She ran for vice-president, not president, although she did a great job of upstaging McCain.

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  6. Brian Mann says:

    The Palin reference is corrected.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  7. Terence says:

    This is good reporting! Thoroughly fact-checked, fair-minded, and aware of the power of ‘narratives’ in a politician’s bio. And you make it clear right at the top of the article that you found nothing scandalous or unsettling.

    In contrast to this straightforward approach, the Stefanik campaign’s refusal to answer questions about her timeline seems evasive and even a bit disrespectful to voters.

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  8. Even a boring analysis of her resume irritates her supporters. They really are a thin skinned lot.

    OLarry: Think the “Blame Bush” thing the Dems use is lame? The “Blame Nader” thing is even lamer.

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  9. Peter Hahn says:

    Brian – this is a pretty impressive resume. You could have included her in your recent homage to impressive young people of her generation. It doesn’t change the fact that she is grossly mis-representing herself to the people of the North Country. She is not a small business person who will be an independent voice for the North Country. She is in fact a professional Republican ideologue from Washington DC.

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  10. The Original Larry says:

    How is Hurricane Katrina part of “Elise Stefanik’s political timeline”? That’s not good reporting or straight info. It’s meant to associate Stefanik with a negative situation she had nothing to do with, as are several other timeline entries.

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  11. Perry White says:

    This is an exhaustive and top-notch piece of reporting by Brian Mann. NCPR should be commended for absorbing the cost of this exceptional journalism. It is a service to voters in the 21st Congressional District. My hat’s off to you, Brian.

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  12. pirateedwardlow says:

    With all these ties (bonds) to the Grand Old Party, hard to see her as ‘fresh voice’ or ‘independent voice’

    I am really trying to wrap my head around her being bi-partisan and reaching across the aisle, is that what all the republican pack money wants her to do…? And why has no one in the media pressed her about what she owes Karl Rove?

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  13. Two Cents says:

    mary louise parker, circa “weeds”

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  14. marcus says:

    Funny you see a conservative and I see another leftist Bush supporter

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