In New York’s sprawling 21st District, a recent influx of more than $1 million from outside groups has catapulted a 29-year-old first-time candidate ahead of the two-time nominee in the Republican primary for this coveted seat.
American Crossroads alone has already made more than $750,000 in independent expenditures to boost former White House aide Elise Stefanik's bid — the group's only spending in a House primary so far in 2014.
The June 24 Republican primary pits Stefanik against Matt Doheny, a deep-pocketed businessman and repeat candidate.
Early on in the race, Doheny's familiarity with local voters and track record of self-funding his campaigns gave him an advantage. But two outside groups have flooded the district's airwaves in a way that sources say has thrown the momentum to Stefanik. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Aaron Woolf in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y. Last cycle, Owens won with one of the slimmest margins of any House race, and this cycle, the election is rated a Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
“People are just shocked that Karl Rove and Crossroads ... would come in and try to buy this election for a 29-year-old who just showed up,” Doheny said in a phone interview on June 13, before Crossroads had reserved another $250,000 worth of airtime in the district.
The spending came as a surprise to many operatives in New York and D.C. What's more, Doheny has shown no signs of trying to match Crossroads' funding. He gave more than $3 million to his past two campaigns in 2010 and 2012, according to online fundraising reports.
"If it weren’t for Crossroads, this would be a completely different race," said one Democratic operative with experience in the district. "Unless [Doheny] is able to match what Crossroads is doing on TV, [Stefanik] is the shoo-in.”
Crossroads’ two ads released so far portray Doheny as too damaged from his previous bids to win in November, calling him a "perennial loser." There's also an image of Doheny's private islands in one of the spots running throughout the 21st District, which has one of the lowest mean household incomes in New York.
Outside groups such as Crossroads cannot legally coordinate campaign activity and spending with Stefanik. She said all of her campaign materials have been "positive" in a June 10 phone interview.
"Every piece of mail, every advertisement, every radio piece that my campaign has been responsible for has been positive and focused on the issues," Stefanik said. "I think I’m the only candidate that can win in a general."
New York 2014, a super PAC that has not supported any other candidates ever, according to online records, has also spent more than $300,000 boosting Stefanik since mid-May.
The extensive outside involvement has reshuffled the race in Stefanik’s favor, but that's not the only way national supporters have boosted her bid. A veteran of President George W. Bush's administration and Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, Stefanik has picked up endorsements from the former GOP presidential nominee and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan. She's secured donations from former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer and the GOP super-lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg.
Reports also show Winning Women, a fundraising committee with ties to financier Paul Singer, hosted a joint event for Stefanik, resulting in $110,000 for her campaign.
Stefanik boasts endorsement from most of the county party committees, many of which she secured before Doheny entered the race in February. Doheny has said he planned to sit out any more House bids until Owens retired — a fact that many Stefanik supporters tout.
“She was gutsy enough to want to take on the incumbent in October," said Jim Ellis, the former chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party Committee and a Stefanik backer.
Doheny, meanwhile, insists that relationships he has built over two previous bids for the seat will carry him through. The businessman’s 2010 and 2012 campaigns were plagued by personal scandals , but local Republican raved about Doheny's work ethic and self-funding abilities.
The winner of next week's Republican primary will face Woolf, a documentary filmmaker and grocery store owner. Woolf stumbled during his campaign's rollout, snubbing local media by calling himself “more of a press release kind of guy.”
But Democrats in the area say Woolf has recovered from early mistakes and is quietly building relationships with voters, while the two Republicans remain locked in an increasingly negative primary.
Democrats also express optimism about a familiar scenario in the district: a third-party nominee peeling off Republican votes in the general election. In 2010, when fewer than 2,000 votes separated Doheny from Owens, many Republicans blamed Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman’s 10,507 votes for the GOP's loss.
Both Doheny and Stefanik are currently slated to appear on the November ballot; the Conservative Party endorsed Stefanik and the Independence Party has backed Doheny. Woolf will be the nominee for the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party.
Republicans hope Tuesday’s loser will find a way to get his or her name removed, but it's a difficult process. As New York election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder explained, “for someone to get off the ballot [in New York] is a very, very limited opportunity.” Short of death, he said, a candidate must be nominated for another office to be removed from the ballot.
Doheny, a lawyer, could ask to be nominated for a judgeship and has hinted strongly that he would do so if he loses.
For Stefanik, clearing the way for Doheny would be difficult if she loses the primary. Her clearest path would be to collect hundreds of signatures to run for state or local office by July 10, but it's unclear if this feasible in the short timeframe.
New York Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long thinks the issue is simple.
“Someone’s creating a scenario that is virtually nearly impossible. … There’s simply no way for her to get off the ballot,” said Long in a recent interview.
Emily Cahn contributed to this report.