GANSEVOORT — At a North Country campaign rally for U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik and other local Republicans on Sept. 26, the line for voters to grab President Donald Trump signs was longer than the queues for all the other candidates’ merchandise combined.
When Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, was elected in 2014, she made headlines as the youngest woman at that time elected to Congress and branded herself as a political moderate, joining several moderate and bipartisan legislative groups. She won her 2014 race by more than 20 percentage points despite the district going blue in the six presidential races before then.
Then in 2016, the district went for Trump by 14 points; two years later, despite Democrats sweeping many elections across the country, Stefanik won again by just under 14 points. Since then, Stefanik has veered closer to the president, while continuing her often bipartisan work on issues like agriculture, veterans, and trade policy. She has also elevated her national profile, defending the president during his impeachment trial, joining Trump at his indoor Tulsa rally during the height of the COVID-19 crisis and speaking at the Republican National Convention.
Cobb — Stefanik’s opponent in 2018 and this year — positions herself as the health care-defending alternative. She is the founder of a community health agency and a former St. Lawrence County legislator. The top line of her pitch is knocking Stefanik and House Republicans’ efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act in Trump’s first term.
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In an interview with the Times Union, Cobb said elimination of the ACA would kick 64,000 people in the district off insurance. She said she supports allowing people to buy into a Medicare public option, her position throughout the 2020 campaign, although in 2018 she backed Medicare for All.
Stefanik, noting her support for “bipartisan fixes to healthcare,” is confident she can repeat her 2018 victory.
“You can see the energy. We’re going to win this race,” Stefanik said. “We’re going to win it by the largest margin in the northeast, just like we did against Tedra last time.”
Data from the state Board of Elections shows the 21st district had 45,582 more active registered Republicans than Democrats on Feb. 21, the most recent date available, with about 110,000 independent voters in the district.
The Times Union obtained election data from 11 of the district’s 13 counties September, and it showed Republicans continue to have an edge of 42,150 active voters.
The race is deeply vitriolic with no shortage of potent attacks and name-calling exchanged by Stefanik’s and Cobb’s supporters. Millions of dollars have flooded the race, allowing both candidates to advertise heavily, but that doesn’t seem to change the facts on the ground: The 21st District is now a red district.
Last Saturday, Stefanik’s crowd of supporters looked like those you might see at a Trump rally.
Several hundred people attended, with about 20 standing in the back of the crowd next to their motorcycles, clad in leather vests with brightly colored red, white and blue patches. Uniformed police officers stood around the periphery. A young girl was holding a red Trump sign. One man in a Trump hat and a royal-blue T-shirt with a sexually aggressive pun on the front stood around after the event with a camera. Stefanik posed for a picture with him.
It also sounded like a Trump rally.
During her speech, the crowd booed mildly when Stefanik said Cobb was a crony of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — Stefanik is a vocal critic of Cuomo’s COVID-19 nursing home policies — but then booed raucously when she said Cobb would vote along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi if elected.
A Harvard University graduate who cut her teeth in politics in the President George W. Bush White House, Stefanik nicknamed her opponent, “Taxin’ Tedra,” and uses the name constantly — a move out of the Trump playbook.
“The name-calling that Elise Stefanik brings every two years is the worst of Washington,” Cobb said. “She will take an opportunity to score a cheap, partisan, political point, but she can’t seem to find the time to stand up for our troops or fix our healthcare system or stand up to this president when he is wrong on the issues that we are facing in northern New York.”
At the rally, the more Stefanik embraced Trump, the more her crowd loved her.
She trumpeted her defense of the president throughout his impeachment and Senate trial, saying: “That attack on President Trump was not just an attack on the president, that was an attack on the American people and their vote.” She closed her speech by engaging the audience in a “four more years” chant for Trump.
The event underscored the degree to which Stefanik has embraced the president and his personal brand of aggressive, confrontational politics.
Stefanik’s fierce defense of Trump’s actions toward Ukraine during the House impeachment inquiry exploded her national profile. Trump called her a “new Republican star” and has since tapped her to work as his surrogate and to attend briefings with top Republicans.
After her House impeachment performance, Stefanik raised more than $3.2 million in 2019’s fourth quarter, the largest haul on record for any candidate in that congressional seat, her campaign said.
But the attention also drew support to her challenger: Cobb raised more than $2 million that quarter, including $1 million over three days during the impeachment hearings.
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Stefanik closed June with more than $7.7 million to Cobb’s $3.9 million, campaign filings show. Cobb had raised slightly more money in New York than Stefanik at the end of June, but both candidates have raised more money from outside the state.
Cobb is betting her campaign on the fact that she believes Stefanik’s close ties to Trump won’t help her. Cobb said she thinks the district is “fiercely independent” and will also go for Biden in this year’s presidential election.
The second time around, Cobb predicts, she will be able to beat Stefanik because voters have had longer to see what the congresswoman is all about.
“I think that the people in this district can see once again that Elise Stefanik has one priority: And that is Elise Stefanik,” Cobb said. “She has put her career first, she does not show up to her job. She’s on Twitter or goes to Tulsa or the RNC, and she brings the worst of the divisiveness of Washington. She’s not here helping our families.”
Nik Steg, of Saratoga Springs, stood by himself near the back of the crowd at Stefanik’s rally.
He said he went to the event hoping to talk to Stefanik and thank her because he felt it was “disgusting what they did to her during the impeachment.” He supports the president’s re-election because Trump reminds him of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch — a little rough around the edges, but he gets stuff done.
A few years ago, Steg said, he didn’t even know who Stefanik was, even though she was his congresswoman. But last week, he was all smiles, even looking a little shy, when he got a chance to chat with Stefanik after her speech.
John Bailey, of North Creek, the man in the giant foam MAGA hat, said he noticed Stefanik has become more outspoken in her support for the president over the last few years, and he appreciates it.
“I want someone who has Donald Trump’s back,” Bailey said.