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New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik—The Same Old, Same Old Reactionary Future of the GOP January 19, 2020

Too much of the national media is always looking for the slightest hint of “moderation” in the extreme right-wing reactionary GOP. Anything will do. Look at how media outlets have repeatedly gushed over U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) whenever she utters that she is “disturbed/perturbed” over some right- wing stance by her party. Never mind that on the major crucial votes where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) needs her, including confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court bench or the top 1% budget-busting tax cut, Collins votes “AYE.” Pundits and reporters similarly prowl around for House GOP “moderate stars.” These “moderates” (NOT) sometimes talk a good game but end up voting “Team Red’s” extremist party line almost all of the time. Lately, such chatter about discovering the elusive “moderate” House GOPer has revolved around NY Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. Stefanik has recently drawn much favorable publicity. In fact, CBS News featured her with an online story headlined, “Is Elise Stefanik the future of the GOP (Cohen & Cook 2020 Political Almanac)?” Don’t believe one word of this. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik is the “same old, same old reactionary future of the GOP,” no “moderate” rising star. Here’s a look at Cong. Stefanik and her real right-wing record.

Third-term Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (35) currently represents NY’s 21st Congressional District, CD. The 21st is the Empire State’s largest district and one of the biggest in the Eastern U.S. The 21st covers most of NY’s North Country, starting at Lake Champlain. It runs westward along the St. Lawrence Seaway and over the Adirondacks Forest Preserve to Lake Ontario and borders VT to the east and Canada to the north. The 21st is a rural district with only a few population centers. These include Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, Watertown near Lake Ontario, and Gloversville and Glens Falls in the southern part of the 21st. Each of these cities contain less than 30,000 residents. Lake Placid lies in the 21st. Lake Placid was the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics upset victory by an American hockey team over the heavily favored Russian one. Warren County, has been nicknamed “catheter valley” because of its many medical-device companies that make such products. The Army’s Fort Drum, near Watertown, has been the home since 1985 of the 10th Mountain Division’s 10,000-person light infantry. This unit performed valiantly in Afghanistan and Iraq (See Cohen & Cook, 2020 Political Almanac).

Politically, the 21st is ancestrally GOP. The 21st is more inclined toward moderate than conservative GOPers and is increasingly divided in its partisan loyalties. Clinton, Franklin, and St. Lawrence Counties in the northeast part of the 21st near the VT border have been solidly Democratic since the 1990’s. The southwestern counties are more heavily GOP. With a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of R+4, the 21st is competitive. In 2012, Obama beat Romney by 6 percentage points. However, in 2016, Donald, claiming to be not your “typical” GOPer, won the 21st by 14 points, well ahead of his national performance (See Cohen & Cook 2020 Almanac).

Albany, NY native Elise Stefanik (stef-AH-nick) grew up in that city where her parents ran a wholesale plywood business. During her undergraduate years at Harvard University, Stefanik became politically active. After her 2006 Harvard graduation, Stefanik landed a job with W Bush’s Domestic Policy Council and also worked for W’s second Chief-of-Staff Josh Bolten. She later joined GOP Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaign as policy director. After Pawlenty withdrew, Stefanik worked for Cong. Paul Ryan (R-WI) when he became Mitt Romney’s running mate. She advised Ryan on his vice-presidential debate preparation against Dem. VP Joe Biden (Cohen & Cook 2020 Almanac, Hagerty, M., postar.com, 5/04/14, CQ 116th Cong. At Your Fingertips).

After the incumbent moderate Democrat decided not to run in 2014, Stefanik decided to run for this open seat. Stefanik received the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC)’s “Young Guns” program which supports new GOP talent. Former W adviser Karl Rove’s American Crossroads GOP group gave her nearly $800,000. Stefanik easily defeated her opponent in the GOP primary. In the general election, she faced a Democrat who did not live in the district. She was backed by GOP groups to the tune of nearly $2 million. Stefanik ran as a “moderate.” She stated she would be willing to compromise on raising the minimum wage and advocated expanding Medicare as part of a GOP alternative to Obamacare. Although Stefanik did not have a district address and was delinquent on paying DC property taxes, she clobbered her underfunded Democratic rival by a 21% margin. When she took office in 1/2015, she was then the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. With Democrats not competing hard for this district in 2016 and 2018, Stefanik cruised to re-election victories. In 2016, Stefanik supported Donald for President when he won the GOP nomination. However, in her 2016 campaign, Stefanik tried to keep her “distance” from Donald. She voiced “occasional” criticism of him and stated she would be “an independent voice for the district.” In 2018, running for a third term, Stefanik beat Democratic opponent Tedra Cobb, 56%-42%, a 14-point margin. In 2017, Stefanik was endorsed for re-election by GOP hard-liner John Bolton, who later became Trump’s National Security Adviser (Kenmore, A., 5/22/19, adirondackdailyenterprise.com, Cohen & Cook 2020).

In the House, Cong. Stefanik has taken advantage of her opportunities and has used her good connections to House leaders to entrench herself. Stefanik is a member of the House GOP Steering Committee which holds heavy sway over committee assignments. In 2018, she was vice-chair for recruitment at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the first woman to hold that position. She recruited more than 100 GOP women to run for office, but only one made it to the House. She has since left that position to take a more active role in supporting women in GOP primaries. Stefanik sits on the House Armed Services Committee where she is the ranking or top minority member of that committee’s Intelligence, Emerging Threats , and Capabilities Subcommittee. She also sits on the House Education & Labor and Select Intelligence Committees (Cohen & Cook 2020, CQ 116th Cong. At Your Fingertips).

Even though Cong. Stefanik ran as a “moderate,” her record tells a far different story. Although she criticized Trump for handling his immigration and refugee bans, since Donald took office, Stefanik has voted with him 89.6% or nearly 90% of the time, a record befitting a hard-core Southern/Rocky Mountain GOPer, not a Congressmember from a swingy competitive Eastern district (See projectsfivethirtyeight.com). For the 2017-2018 period, Stefanik has a lopsided 21% liberal v. 79% conservative rating (Cohen & Cook 2020). She opposes abortion rights but says the GOP should be more “understanding of other positions on this issue (politico.com, Nicholas, P.).” Translation: Just talk nicely to pro-choicers, but do nothing else. She voted for the Keystone Pipeline (mychamplainvalley.com, 1/20/15). True, she voted against the 1% tax cut, but her vote wasn’t needed for passage. To have voted for this bill that cut state and local tax deductions that New Yorkers relied on would have been political suicide. And five other NY GOPers voted against the tax cut for similar reasons (See Harding, auburnpub.com, nytimes.com, Almukhtar, 12/19/17). On repealing Obamacare, Stefanik voted with her fellow House GOPers and made misleading comments about how good the GOP replacement bill was. Many constituents opposed her vote (northcountrypublicradio.org, Rosenthal, NCPR, 5/16/17). From 2013-2020, far-right Koch Industries has already given “moderate” Cong. Stefanik $30, 700 (opensecrets.org).

On 9/25/2019, Cong. Stefanik announced she was opposing Trump’s impeachment (Mann, 9/25/19, northcountrypublicradio.org). She made national headlines for her “over-the-top” defense of Demagogue Donald during the 11/2019 hearing by the House Intelligence Committee investigating impeachment charges. On 11/15/2019, during this hearing, ranking ultra-partisan Intelligence Committee member Devin Nunes (R-CA) attempted to yield part of his allotted witness questioning time to Cong. Stefanik. Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) ruled Nunes out of order. Stefanik accused Schiff of “making up the rules as he goes” and preventing GOP committee members from controlling their own time to question witnesses (dailygazette.com, Subik, 11/16/19). In fact, Nunes with Stefanik tag-teaming him, were violating the rules that the House had voted on in 10/2019. That rule which Schiff cited to both of them authorized only Schiff and Nunes or their counsels to ask questions during the first 45 minutes of each party’s questions for witnesses (dailygazette.com, 11/16/19). This GOP incident created a controversy in which Stefanik, other GOPers, and Demagogue Donald accused Schiff of “gagging her (foxnews.com, Shaw, 11/16/19).” The Washington Post and other reporters characterized the incident as a stunt to portray Schiff as “unfair (Blake, washingtonpost.com, 11/15/19, Rupar, vox.com, 11/15/19).” Stefanik and the GOP went into fake indignation over Schiff’s proper actions.

And Cong. Stefanik’s outrageous behavior didn’t end with that hearing. On 1/08/2020, “moderate” Cong. Stefanik (LOL) tweeted for a fundraising appeal a hideous photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). This highly doctored, almost cartoonish caricature had a wash of red and a high contrast that created a spiderweb of black lines over Pelosi’s face. Pelosi was made to look like she was part of a horror-movie poster. Along with this awful image, Cong. Stefanik used random capitalization like Donald does and got a retweet from him. Besides the ghoulish picture, Stefanik crudely attacked Schiff, Pelosi, and the whistleblower who started the Ukraine-related impeachment inquiry (McCarter, dailkos.com, 1/09/20). Stefanik retweeted this sick ad again on 1/09/2020 even after the Washington Post called her out over it. Stefanik was heavily hammered on Twitter for this altered wacky Pelosi photo (rawstory.com, Boggioni, 1/09/20).

Conservative commentator George Conway, husband of Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, called Cong. Stefanik “lying trash” and gave the maximum individual donation to Stefanik’s 2020 Democratic opponent Tedra Cobb. Cobb has already raised $1 million in a three-day stretch after Stefanik’s mocking Speaker Pelosi. In her unsuccessful 2018 campaign, Cobb had just brought in over $1.5 million (politico.com, Gronewold & Niedzwiakek, 11/18/19, rawstory.com). Cobb, a SUNY Postdam graduate, taught Spanish for three years at Riverview Correctional Facility and then joined North Country AIDS Outreach where she did rural screening programs. She spent four years heading a community health program which she founded. In 2002, she was elected to the St. Lawrence County legislature and served two four-year terms. She then founded a consulting firm and taught communications at SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University before running for Congress in 2018 against Stefanik (ballotpedia.com).

Can Cobb defeat Stefanik? Stefanik, with her hard-right zealous defense of Donald is loved by fellow GOPers, but her rhetoric and action do not fit the moderate/swingy 21st NY CD, and Democrats must emphasize this and get “y uu ge” turnout here on Election Day. Yes, this CD has just an R+4 Cook Partisan Voting Index, but the GOP still has a registration advantage here of more than 46,000 voters, an 11% edge. Stefanik has the advantage of incumbency. The national GOP and the Kochs will give her oodles of cash to bolster their new right-wing “heroine.” Democrats, unlike 2018, will have to give Cobb their all in financial and political support, and Cobb will have to run a near-perfect campaign (politico.com, Gronewold et al). In any event, Cong. Stefanik’s extremism and slavish devotion to Donald must be challenged if Democrats want the GOP to play defense and wage a campaign where “every zip code counts.”