Politics

Elise Stefanik's Cautious Dance With Trump

House's youngest woman and other GOP candidates walking political tightrope

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the youngest woman in Congress, is walking a tightrope because of her support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Elise Stefanik appears to be coasting through her re-election bid in New York's 21st District and toward a bright future in the Republican Party.

But that’s not what reporters who chased the freshman congresswoman after a recent debate in upstate New York wanted to talk about. They wanted to ask her why she still supports Donald Trump.

A similar scene has played out in dozens of congressional campaigns in the final weeks of this bizarre election cycle as Republican candidates stumble to avoid the shrapnel from Trump’s self-destruction.

But Stefanik's position is unusual. She's a 32 year-old, Harvard-educated female and a moderate — an unlikely profile for a Trump supporter.

As Trump’s popularity continues to collapse — helped along by his recent hedge on whether he would support the outcome of the election and revelations of his past sexually predatory behavior — down-ballot Republicans are making complicated calculations to determine how they will react.

Congressional candidates on both sides of the aisle are confronted with disillusioned voters. But they also must meet the sometimes conflicting demands of national party leaders who bankroll campaigns and determine political futures.

Stefanik's approach:

“I’m supporting my party’s nominee,” she said as she left the debate. “But I’ll continue being an independent voice for the district.”

Stefanik spokesman Lenny Alcivar declined to make her available for an interview, but outlined her stand on Trump.

“Her view from the beginning has been, ‘I’m going to support the nominee of my party, but when I disagree with him, I’m going to stand up and talk about it, and she’s done so,’” he said.

Alcivar said Stefanik has condemned some of Trump’s most egregious missteps, including his attack on the family of a Muslim soldier who died in Iraq, his proposed ban on Muslims entering the country, his promise to build a wall along the Mexican border and, most recently, his videotaped bragging about making unwanted sexual advances on women.

But for the most part, Stefanik avoids mentioning Trump by name. The strategy hews closely to that of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have criticized some of Trump’s past comments but have recently shunned questions on their nominee.

The position cushions her from fallout that has struck some other candidates. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire senator in one of the most competitive races in the country, has seen her prospects dwindle in a month during which she called Trump “absolutely” a role model, then withdrew her support. And in a widely circulated video, Nevada Senate candidate Rep. Joe Heck, also in a tight race, was booed and heckled when he announced he would not vote for Trump. Other candidates have waffled. On Monday, Idaho GOP Sen. Michael D. Crapo, became the third senator to rescind his un-endorsement.

As the front-runner in a House race far from the national media spotlight, Stefanik can take a more conservative position without attracting too much attention. She also benefits from a split on the opposition ticket, with a Democrat and a Green Party candidate running against her. But a local newspaper has published editorials urging her to clarify her position on the nominee, her opponents have seized on it as a potential weakness, and some political experts say the strategy might be shortsighted.

“She could disavow Trump and still win this election, and not have it as a black mark for the rest of her career,” said Morgan Hook, senior vice president of SKDKnickerbocker in Albany, a consulting company that specializes in representing Democrats. “Does anyone believe for a minute that, in her heart, Elise Stefanik supports Trump? I don’t.”

Some in her own party may suspect the same.

She’s already weathered a salvo from Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, an unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial candidate and aggressive Trump backer. Paladino tried to recruit a primary challenger to Stefanik in the spring because she had not shown sufficient enthusiasm for Trump.

A rising star

Stefanik established close relationships with many in the party’s top echelon during her 10 years working in Washington before running for Congress. She was a White House staffer during the George W. Bush administration and a 2012 campaign aide for Mitt Romney, when she prepped Ryan, the vice presidential nominee, for his debate with Joseph R. Biden Jr.

She's one of only 22 Republican women in the House — compared to 62 Democrats. Party leaders frequently turn to her as a voice of her generation and have contributed heavily to her re-election campaign. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, recently announced it is spending $500,000 in the district. 

That’s in spite of her willingness to break ranks with her party — a trait she touts on her campaign website. She is solidly conservative on key issues — she opposes government regulation and abortion, and she supports private gun ownership. But she has voted against her party on divisive issues 15 percent of the time, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis.

Stefanik grew up in the Albany area but, after the 2012 elections, moved two hours north to Willsboro, where her family vacationed during her childhood.

Her strategy of logging hundreds of miles in her Ford pickup through the largely rural district in upstate New York has also won over many who viewed her as an outsider during her first campaign — even some of her biggest detractors.

“She struck me very quickly as well-educated, a very bright person, energized,” said Bernie Bassett, a longtime Plattsburgh Democratic supervisor who recently retired. But Stefanik still struggles with the reputation as a carpetbagger.

“That doesn’t go away,” Bassett said.

Anti-Trump picketers have shown up recently outside Stefanik’s office in the Adirondack town of Glens Falls. There were pro-Trump demonstrators, too. During one protest, a man repeatedly drove his pickup around a nearby traffic circle, a Trump banner and an American flag streaming from the bed.

Judith Tully, a 68-year-old retired art teacher, was among the picketers. She described herself as a progressive who never would have voted for Stefanik anyway.

But the Trump question hasn’t helped.

“She’s trying to ride the fence,” Tully said. “Well, you can’t.”

Jeffrey Graham, who served for 20 years as the mayor of Watertown, the district’s largest population center with 27,000 residents, now runs a local political blog and supports both Trump and Stefanik.

“As far as her supporting Trump, it doesn’t bother me,” Graham said. “He’s the nominee.”

The 21st District — called The North Country by locals — runs from the suburbs of Albany to the Canadian border and is cleaved by the Adirondack Mountains. It encompasses scenic rural areas that still don’t have broadband internet, old mill towns that now depend on tourism revenue, several community colleges and the Fort Drum military base.

The plurality of voters are registered Republicans, but they still chose Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections. A previous Republican representative, John McHugh, left office to serve in the Obama administration. Other Republican state and local officials have supported abortion rights or have been openly gay.

But there are signs that voters in the district are starting to gravitate away from the center. During the primaries, it was among the majority of New York state regions to side heavily with Trump and Bernie Sanders.  

“A clever strategy”

Bill Owens, Stefanik’s Democratic predecessor in the House, said the primary results are a sign of a growing economic and social unease in a region with Trump-friendly demographics. The district is disproportionately white (92 percent) and most residents (88 percent) don't have a college degree.

Owens said Stefanik would likely lose more of those voters if she disavowed Trump than gain moderates.

“It’s a very clever strategy,” he said. “I think every member of Congress faced with this decision is doing an analysis of their district and the makeup of their voters and making a decision.”

If Stefanik later decides to run for statewide office, her support of Trump could come back to haunt her. But winning in a blue state might be difficult in any event: The last Republican to win statewide office was Gov. George Pataki in 2002.

The odds are higher that she could get a high-level cabinet position in a Republican administration, said David Fontana, an associate law professor at George Washington University who is from the district and frequently writes about its politics. That ambition, he said, would require her to appease party leaders.

“She’s part of the nationalization of politics,” Fontana said. “Everyone knows that if you were to make a list of who would be leading the party in 10 years, she is at the absolute top of that list.”

Meanwhile, Owens said many local voters he knows understand the pressure she faces and expect to cast ballots for both Hillary Clinton and Stefanik.

“They have made a decision that Stefanik’s position on Trump is political,” he said. “And they are willing to accept that.”

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