Republican incumbents take different tacks in upstate N.Y.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a young rising star in the Republican Party, stood with President Donald Trump before cheering soldiers at Fort Drum in August. Her Republican colleague in a neighboring district, Rep. John Katko, is at times standing apart from his party, blaming hard-liners in the GOP for gridlock in Washington.
The contrasting styles reflect distinctly different congressional districts in upstate New York — the rural, overwhelmingly Republican North Country represented by Stefanik and the more urban Democratic-leaning district to the south, where Katko was one of only 23 House Republicans in 2016 to win a district carried by Hillary Clinton.
“Ms. Stefanik’s district is gun country, and it’s truly Trump country,” said Cornell political science professor Glenn Altschuler. “She has no incentive to do anything other than to embrace President Trump. Mr. Katko’s constituency is different. He’s not risking a loss of support in distancing himself from the president.”
Stefanik’s 21st Congressional District, which includes the northernmost region of the state, including the Adirondack Mountains, elected Trump by a nearly 14 percent margin in 2016 after twice electing President Barack Obama by a slim margin. Katko’s central New York 24th District, which includes Syracuse, carried Obama by a wide margin twice before voting for Clinton. Both districts are targeted by Democrats seeking to flip the House.
Stefanik burnished her image with her district’s sizeable military population and solid Republican base when she brought Trump to Fort Drum to sign the $716 billion defense spending bill in August. She agrees with Trump on key issues such as dismantling the Affordable Care Act and a dramatic expansion of military spending.
“Another very important issue in this district is the Second Amendment,” Stefanik said in an interview, noting that she has an A rating from the National Rifle Association. “Second Amendment voters are going to turn out in this district.”
While she is considered one of the more conservative members in New York’s congressional delegation, the 34-year-old Stefanik has sought to portray an image of across-the-aisle cooperation in Washington. She has also distanced herself from some of Trump’s positions, declaring her opposition to trade tariffs, criticizing him for withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and denouncing his disparaging rhetoric toward women.
Tedra Cobb, Stefanik’s Democratic opponent, has accused Stefanik of failing to challenge the president’s actions in meaningful ways, noting she has voted in line with Trump’s position nearly 90 percent of the time. Cobb, 50, is a former St. Lawrence County legislator who has worked as an AIDS educator, substitute teacher and founder of a health care nonprofit. She said she decided to run for Congress when Stefanik voted for the American Health Care Act.
Katko, a 55-year-old former federal prosecutor in Syracuse, is staking his bid for a third term on an anti-gridlock message that blames hard-right conservatives in his own party for keeping Congress from acting on key issues such as health care reforms and infrastructure. As part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 48 House members from both parties, Katko supports rule changes intended to make it easier for bipartisan bills to pass.
In 2016, after criticizing candidate Trump for a divisive tone, misogynist rhetoric and lack of substance, Katko said he wrote in former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on his presidential ballot.
“Katko needs to show his independence to win over key swing voters,” said Christopher Mann, a political scientist at Skidmore College. “His path to victory depends on holding voters who split their ticket between him and Clinton in 2016.”
Katko’s Democratic opponent, Dana Balter, disputes his bipartisanship claims, saying he votes 90 percent of the time with Trump. “Our voters see through his rhetoric and see he is a party guy who votes in the interest of his corporate donors,” Balter said. “At the top of the list of issues I’m focusing on is campaign finance reform. Right now Washington is dominated by big money interests.”
Balter, 42, has worked as a community organizer in a Syracuse organization formed to fight Trump’s agenda and as a visiting assistant professor at Syracuse University’s school of public affairs, where she teaches courses while pursuing her doctorate.
A Spectrum News/Siena College poll Oct. 18-22 showed Katko with a 14-point lead over Balter. A privately funded poll showed Stefanik leading Cobb by 10 points, with health care and gun control listed as top issues for voters, but no major polling organization has surveyed that district.