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GOP candidates for the NY-21 congressional seat: Elise Stefanik (left) and Matt Doheny
GOP candidates for the NY-21 congressional seat: Elise Stefanik (left) and Matt Doheny

NY-21: GOP primary heats up, but who's paying attention?

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Believe it or not, the primary election in New York is just a month away. It's long been held in September, but the date was moved up this year, in part to get a jump on the national political calendar.

But the timing is pressurizing primary contests, including the Republican primary race for the North Country's Congressional seat. There's news from both Matt Doheny's and Elise Stefanik's campaigns. Reporter David Sommerstein joined Martha Foley to talk about the latest in the race.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Martha Foley: So Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik are both trying to bring the seat back into Republican hands. Democrat Bill Owens is retiring after three terms. Both candidates announced some news yesterday. David, tell us what's going on.

David Sommerstein: Both of these campaigns are in high gear in this extra-short political calendar.

Elise Stefanik, who moved from Washington, D.C., to her family's summer home in Willsboro last year, made a big announcement yesterday. Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, will be coming to Watertown on June 2. He'll back Stefanik's candidacy at a $50 a ticket reception at the Best Western downtown.

That's big star power for Stefanik. Stefanik worked for Ryan's vice-presidential campaign. But it underscores just how much the GOP establishment has lined up behind this 29 year old, who's a newcomer to politics as a candidate herself.

A newly formed Republican Super PAC reported yesterday a $200,000 ad buy in support of Stefanik. And locally, all but one of the Republican county committee chairmen in the district are backing Stefanik, even though a more seasoned candidate is in the race.

MF: And that's Watertown-based businessman Matt Doheny. He ran – and lost – twice against Bill Owens. David, you reported on one of his campaign stops that he's saying "third time's a charm." What news did he announce yesterday?

DS: Doheny released an internal poll showing the candidate with a double-digit lead over the Democrat in the race, 43 to 21 percent, with Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello polling at around 5 percent. Notice anything?

MF: Yeah, what about Elise Stefanik?

DS: No mention of Stefanik. And in fact, when the Watertown Daily Times asked about that, a campaign spokesman had no comment. So Doheny is trying to position himself as the guy who can re-take the North Country for Republicans in the general election in November – this a district that was in Republicans hands for literally more than a century before Owens won in 2009.

MF: Meanwhile, what's going on with the other two candidates?

DS: Well, there's Democrat Aaron Woolf, a filmmaker who, like Stefanik, recently moved from the East Coast – in this case, New York City – to relocate to the family summer home in Elizabethtown. And there's Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello, who owns Rock Hill Bakehouse in Glens Falls.

Neither is facing a primary, so they're campaigning along, out meeting folks and attending civic group meetings and spaghetti dinners and the like. That has its pluses and minuses.

They're able to build their campaigns in a slow and steady way. But they're not getting the press of the Republican candidates. That will change after the primary election.

MF: And that's on Tuesday, June 24. It's so early and so unusual for the average voters' political rhythms. Is anybody paying attention?

DS: Obviously, this is a huge deal for GOP faithful and insiders. But for the average Joe and Jane out on the street…meh!

I was in the Thousand Islands for a profile I'm working on on Matt Doheny – he grew up in Alexandria Bay. And I was standing on the main drag of Clayton interviewing Justin Taylor, the town supervisor, about the race. And he started stopping people walking by and asking them what they thought of this race.

"I did. I asked 5 or 6 people that walked by the town hall here," Taylor said, "and they had no understanding of any election of the 21st Congressional District, so they're not thinking about that, at all."

MF: So now we go into a stretch that could put this race in people's minds: The debates are starting.

DS: Yes, the first Republican primary debate is next Tuesday night on Time-Warner Cable's News 10 Now. I'll be reporting on it Wednesday morning on The Eight O'Clock Hour.

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