- CQ Roll Call via AP Images
- Congresswoman Elise Stefanik at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in March
On an overcast day in early May, some 250 protesters congregated around a mock coffin on a patch of grass outside Mountain Lake PBS' Plattsburgh, N.Y., studios. The faux casket was painted brown and covered with rose petals and a bouquet of flowers. Scrawled in white on its lid were the words, "Here lie the newly UNINSURED, those 37,000 New Yorkers whose human rights have been coopted for political gain."
The crowd had gathered to mourn the U.S. House's approval, days earlier, of the American Health Care Act, which would gut the 7-year-old law best known as Obamacare. More specifically, they had come to express their displeasure with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), whose late-breaking support for the bill was critical to its passage.
"Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Elise Stefanik has got to go!" the protesters chanted as the subject of their rage prepared for a televised town hall meeting inside.
Since becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in 2014, the 33-year-old pol has earned a reputation as a savvy insider whose strong relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has paid dividends. But her support for Ryan's Obamacare repeal measure risked alienating her rural, working-class constituents — many of whom rely on federal subsidies to afford health insurance.
"She's getting hammered," said Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun, a Republican and Stefanik ally. "It's the most vulnerable part of her record."
Democratic political operative Patrick Nelson, who announced he would challenge the incumbent soon after she began her second term in January, has taken to calling the bill "Stefani-care."
"Hey, she voted for it," explained Nelson, who lives in Stillwater. "She owns it."
Since the May vote, three more Democrats have joined the race, each citing Stefanik's support for the bill as a driving force behind their candidacy: Katie Wilson of Keene, Tedra Cobb of Canton and Emily Martz of Saranac Lake.
"It's super early," noted Adirondack Daily Enterprise managing editor Peter Crowley. "To have all these announced candidates at this point is unheard of."
That's not to say Stefanik is in grave political danger. Unlike much of New York State, the sprawling 21st congressional district leans red. It has sent just one Democrat to Congress since the Civil War — and only then after a 2009 special election in which the Republican nominee dropped out and endorsed her Democratic opponent.
"Overall, it still is a place where, if you're a Republican incumbent and you don't do anything truly stupid, you start every race with a pretty good shot at reelection," said Brian Mann, who has covered the region for two decades at North Country Public Radio.
Campaigning across the vast 21st district is no mean feat. It stretches from the shores of Lake Ontario across the sparsely populated Adirondack Park all the way to Lake Champlain. At roughly 15,000 square miles, it is 63 percent larger than the state of Vermont and the size of 24 other New York congressional districts combined.
"The retail politics thing is essential up here," Crowley said. "Because it is such a big district, you have to get around, travel and meet a lot of people."
Stefanik's supporters say she has done just that.
Jim Ellis, a retired high school principal who lives in the Adirondack town of Tupper Lake, noted with pride that one of her first visits as a member of Congress included a meeting with area veterans such as him. He praised her for securing a seat on the House Armed Services Committee and supporting Fort Drum, the U.S. Army base located in the northwest corner of what Ellis referred to as "a military district."
"She's attentive to her constituents — and, let's face it, constituent care is very important," said Ellis, who led the Franklin County Republican Party for nearly three decades.
Others criticize Stefanik as more a creature of Washington, D.C., than of the North Country. Upon graduating from Harvard University, the Albany-area native worked in president George W. Bush's White House and then for the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative think tank. After managing Speaker Ryan's vice presidential debate prep in 2012, she moved to her parents' Willsboro vacation home on Lake Champlain to run for office in a district in which she had never lived.
"She's not from here. She's never worked here. She's never owned property here. She's never paid taxes here," said Martz, a Saranac Lake economic development official who announced two weeks ago that she would seek the Democratic nomination. "It boggles my mind that there's somebody representing us who doesn't seem to have any experience in this region other than traveling around for photo ops."
When Stefanik does visit her district, according to the journalists who cover her, she favors tightly controlled events at which she's unlikely to face tough questions from activists or reporters. (Stefanik's press secretary, Tom Flanagin, declined an interview request from Seven Days and, for three weeks, refused to disclose her whereabouts in the region.)
"She almost never appears in an unscripted setting," Mann said. "There is a lot of anger at her for her caution and her reserve."
That doesn't seem to be the case in the nation's capital, where Stefanik recently landed an influential subcommittee chairmanship, a top job recruiting GOP congressional candidates and the cochairmanship of the Tuesday Group, a caucus of House Republican moderates.
"She's looking to be a player in the Paul Ryan/Koch brothers/Karl Rove right-wing world that is sort of taking over everything," said Protect the Adirondacks executive director Peter Bauer. "She could be in the House for decades, and we could be looking at a future speaker of the House. She's that smart and well-connected."
Compared with other members of Stefanik's Tea Party-dominated caucus, her voting record is relatively moderate. According to Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy organization affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, her lifetime voting record is only 29 percent conservative. That's to the left of Ryan's 49 percent and close to moderate Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) 30 percent.
But Stefanik's support for elements of her national party's agenda occasionally costs her back home. In interviews, three of her Democratic opponents brought up her February vote to roll back a president Barack Obama-era rule protecting waterways from coal-mining debris.
"It is literally coal dumping," said Cobb, a Canton business consultant and former county legislator who is also seeking the Democratic nomination.
In recent months, Crowley has noticed a leftward shift in Stefanik's record. Last week, she was one of just 11 House Republicans to oppose a bill delaying Obama administration ozone regulations.
"She has had to learn that stuff that kills fish in the Adirondacks is not going to go over all that well with voters," the Enterprise editor said.
While Bauer refers to the North Country as "the Alabama of New York," its politics are hardly that conservative. In 2012, Obama beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney 52 to 46 percent in the 21st. And, in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) crushed former New York senator Hillary Clinton 62 to 37 percent — though Sanders surely benefited from decades of coverage in the Burlington-Plattsburgh television market.
"I used to describe the district as populated by Rockefeller Republicans and Reagan Democrats," said Plattsburgh attorney Bill Owens, a moderate Democrat who won the seat in the 2009 special election and chose not to seek reelection in 2014. (The district's boundaries were redrawn before the 2012 election to include more eastern counties and fewer western ones.)
Last year, the 21st district became Donald Trump country. The New York real estate developer and reality-TV star bested Clinton 54 to 40 percent in the area. According to Owens, "He hit the pressure points for many, many people ... And I don't think the Democrats really offered a solution."
Stefanik endorsed Trump, but she kept her distance — rarely uttering his name on the campaign trail and speaking out against some of his more incendiary remarks.
"She was able to separate herself when necessary," said Harvey Schantz, who chairs the political science department at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
Mann, the public radio reporter, conceded that he "totally misread" Trump's popularity in the North Country, assuming that the GOP nominee had "disqualified himself a number of times."
"Elise Stefanik had a much better feel for it — and she stuck with Donald Trump through all of that," Mann said. "She's a smart enough politician, and she's close enough to the voters here that she was like, 'No, this is our candidate, and I'm sticking by him.'"
Stefanik went on to defeat her Democratic opponent, retired U.S. Army colonel Mike Derrick 65 to 30 percent last November — a better showing than Trump's in the district.
How presidential politics will play in Stefanik's 2018 reelection race remains an open question. While the scandal-plagued chief executive's approval ratings have reached historic lows, at least some North Country Republicans have dug in.
"I've got so sick of the news I don't watch it anymore," said Ellis, the retired principal and party chair. "When I see all this patter-patter going on — Russia, Russia, Russia — I don't care about Russia. I care about jobs. I care about national security. I care about my comrades in arms."
Owens is skeptical that Stefanik will be beaten. While plenty of hopefuls are lining up to challenge her, none are well-known in the district.
"Absent a strong candidate from the Democratic side, the answer is no," Owens said.
Further complicating matters for Democrats is the likelihood that Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello will take a third run at the seat. In 2014, he won 10.6 percent of the vote, and, two years later, 4.6 percent — not enough to throw either race to Stefanik, but enough to sap support from her Democratic rivals.
But if Trump's troubles escalate, Mann argued, anything could happen.
"These Democrats are positioning themselves for if things get a lot worse for Republicans," he said. "I think there's the idea that, maybe, if I'm the Democratic candidate and it turns into a Watergate cycle kind of moment, even some of these stronger-looking Republicans could be swept away."
Trump's presidency has clearly roused North Country liberals. Outside Mountain Lake PBS in May, protesters chanted, "Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!" One was dressed as the grim reaper. Another held a sign reading, "Elise ... Traitor to Women." Fake headstones near the mock coffin read, " Repeal and Replace Elise" and "Buried by Elise."
Inside the televised town hall, an audience of 100 peppered Stefanik with questions about her anti-Obamacare vote. A breast-cancer survivor named Nina Matteau told her congresswoman that if the legislation eliminated protections for those with preexisting conditions, she could face up to $78,000 a year in insurance premiums.
Harry Cook, a big, bearded man in a red-and-white plaid shirt, stepped up to a microphone and welcomed Stefanik to the forum. "Thanks for coming to Plattsburgh to face the music, as it were," he said.
The retired mental health worker from Peru, N.Y., excoriated Stefanik for voting to halt the Medicaid expansion that Obamacare set in motion.
"So, again, the Medicaid proposal in the bill would not go into effect until 2020," she countered. "So that is more flexibility, I think, for the states to determine how they provide services."
"That is a cut to the services in New York State," Cook interjected. "It is an enormous financial cut. There's no other way around it. You can't put a spin on that."
The television audience applauded.