"Our health care coverage was canceled as a result of Obamacare. Our premiums have increased 30 percent. We have higher deductibles and less choice.” It’s a story that could be told by millions of Americans and a story that surely will be told in hundreds of campaign ads this fall. What makes these words remarkable is that they aren’t spoken by an average voter, but by a candidate for the House of Representatives.
Elise Stefanik hopes the story of how her family’s plywood distribution business lost their insurance because of Obamacare—and her desire to repeal and replace the law—will help propel her to victory in New York’s 21st Congressional District. The House seat was held by Republicans for decades, but since Obama picked the district’s GOP congressman John McHugh to serve as his Army secretary in 2009, Democrats have won three consecutive elections as Republicans fought among themselves.
Stefanik is running as the contender who can break the curse. “I’m the only candidate who can unite the Republican and Conservative parties, which is the only way we’re going to win back this district,” she says. The 29-year-old, who would be the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress if elected, has already won a spot on the November ballot on the Conservative party line. But to present a united front, she’ll need to win the Republican nomination in the June 24 primary against multimillionaire investor Matt Doheny, the moderate Republican nominee who narrowly lost in 2010 and 2012 to Democrat Bill Owens. Doheny declared his latest campaign after Owens announced his retirement this spring.
Stefanik is a rare candidate who garners support from both the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. “I think she’s a terrific candidate,” said Doug Hoffman, the district’s Conservative party congressional nominee in 2009 and 2010. Hoffman’s endorsement carries weight among conservatives because his 2009 race against liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens marked the first electoral contest pitting the Tea Party against the GOP establishment. Hoffman narrowly lost after the Republican dropped out and endorsed the Democrat. But his campaign sent a powerful message to the Republican establishment that conservatives could only be pushed so far.
Now, Hoffman is trying to use his clout to rally supporters behind Stefanik. “She’s a commonsense conservative Reagan Republican. I think she’s going to be a candidate that can unify the Republicans, the conservatives, and the independents,” Hoffman told me. “I think her confidence and her poise are very compelling, and at the same time she’s a very personable person.”
What Stefanik lacks is her Republican opponent’s name recognition and millions of dollars. But she’s been able to compensate by relying on a number of prominent Republicans at the national level to help boost her profile and fill her campaign coffers. In May, Mitt Romney endorsed her candidacy, and Paul Ryan attended a fundraiser in the district in June. Meanwhile, American Crossroads, the super-PAC founded by Karl Rove, aired a television ad tagging her primary opponent Doheny as a loser who was charged twice for boating under the influence.
There’s little doubt that national Republicans have taken a keen interest in Stefanik because she spent several years working in politics and public policy. After graduating from Harvard, Stefanik worked in the George W. Bush White House and then at the Foreign Policy Initiative (a think tank on whose board the editor of this magazine serves). She later worked on the presidential campaigns of first Tim Pawlenty and then Mitt Romney, where she was in charge of debate preparation for vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. In a way, Stefanik is following in Ryan’s footsteps. Ryan worked at a series of jobs at Washington think tanks and on Capitol Hill before returning home to Wisconsin to run for Congress at the age of 28.
Stefanik embraces her experience in Washington as an asset and says it will help her “hit the ground running on day one.” But Doheny is working hard to turn her time in the capital into a liability. Doheny has attacked her as a “D.C. insider” who grew up outside of the district, in nearby Albany. Doheny even blamed Stefanik in a campaign mailer for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, aka the Wall Street bailout, because she worked at the White House at the time. “I oppose government bailouts in general,” she says. “I think it’s a mistake for my primary opponent, who was on Wall Street at the time, to point fingers at me for causing the financial crisis and being responsible for the federal government’s response to the financial crisis.”
Stefanik has also distanced herself from some legislation sponsored by Paul Ryan. Though she supports the kinds of entitlement reforms Ryan has proposed, she opposes Ryan’s budget in its current form and has attacked Doheny for saying he’d vote for the 2013 Ryan-Murray budget compromise. “That budget deal cuts benefits for military veterans,” she said at the May 27 debate. (The 21st District is home to Fort Drum.)
Few other substantive disagreements emerged at the debate. When asked about abortion, Stefanik highlighted the fact that she’s the “only pro-life candidate” in the race. Doheny said he’s pro-choice, but would have a “100 percent pro-life voting record in Congress.” On taxes, both candidates pledged they would not vote to raise them, but Doheny attacked Stefanik for refusing to sign a specific tax pledge written by Americans for Tax Reform.
Stefanik has incorporated her youth as a selling point of her campaign. “My generation’s going to have to foot the bill, whether it’s cleaning up the debt, whether it’s absorbing the increased costs resulting from Obamacare. I’ve put forth solutions to preserve and protect Medicare and Social Security for future generations,” she tells me. “I think people are looking for a new generation of leadership.” It’s not a bad message for a party that has struggled badly to win the votes of young people and women. Whether it’s a winning message is something we’ll find out on June 24.
John McCormack is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.