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No clear frontrunner in NY21 GOP primary

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Tuesday, voters will decide the outcome of the bitter Republican primary that has pitted Watertown businessman Matt Doheny against Elise Stefanik.

Stefanik is an experienced GOP policy adviser whose family owns a seasonal home in Willsboro in Essex County. This race had looked to be a sleepy one.

But then Congressman Bill Owens, a Democrat, decided not to seek reelection and that shifted the Republican primary into high gear. Brian Mann and David Sommerstein spoke with Todd Moe about tomorrow's vote.

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CORRECTION 6/25/14: In the original transcript of this conversation, David incorrectly characterized the two polls referenced as "internal". The poll released last week that found Elise Stefanik ahead of Matt Doheny 45% to 37% was conducted by Republican polling firm Harper Polling. A correction in the transcript has been made.

Todd Moe: David, let's start with you. Do we have any sense for how this stands — any indication that Doheny or Stefanik has an edge with Republican voters?

David Sommerstein: We really don't, it appears it's going to be very close. We do know a couple things—both candidates and their teams have been pushing hard for months now, crisscrossing this really huge district putting miles and miles on the cars.

Two polls have been released in this race, one an internal poll by the Doheny campaign, the other an independent poll by Republican polling firm Harper Polling.  The latter found Elise Stefanik was up by eight percentage points. Another released last month said Doheny was leading the Democrat and the Green Party candidate in a general election but never mentioned Elise Stefanik. Those polls for a couple reasons are very difficult to trust – they're partisan and have small sample sizes. So in a few words – we don't know how this is leaning just a day out.

TM: Brian, talk a little bit about the tone of this primary. It seems like the last few years Republicans keep having these ferocious primary battles.

Brian Mann: That's right Todd, and it kind of goes back to that big fight that happened between Dede Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman five years ago. Ever since then the party has had a tough time putting it all back together and rallying behind one candidate.

This primary in particular has included accusations of legal impropriety, it included attack ads from Karl Rove's American Crossroads group that accused Matt Doheny of being a sort of perennial loser who can't win big elections, and Doheny's campaign comparing the Conservative Party's leadership with "Big Brother," so harsh words all around.

And I think, Todd, the big concern here for Republicans, a lot of times primaries are rough and tumble but the big concern going forward, both of these candidates already have ballot lines secured in November — Doheny with the Independence Party, Stefanik with the Conservative Party.

So if we don't see a clear winner tomorrow, and like David said it's uncertain where it's going to land, with all this rancor there might be real temptation for both of these candidates to just stay in the race all the way through November, possibly dividing that vote yet again. Talking to Republican operatives around the district, that's really kind of their nightmare scenario. They are really hoping there will be a clear result tomorrow that will allow them finally to really unify.

TM: One sign of the division — the fact that we don't have a clear frontrunner yet — is that both candidates have received strong endorsements from newspapers and from conservative groups. David, who's backing Matt Doheny as this point?

DS: Doheny's earned a lot of support from the North Country's most influential papers and the North Country's most influential politicians. He won endorsements from the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Watertown Daily Times, his hometown newspaper. The Times endorsement really bemoaned how these two candidates have been almost identical on the issues, I mean nearly agreeing on nearly every issue except for the rooftop highway— Doheny is in favor of building an interstate between Watertown and Plattsburgh; Elise Stefanik says to focus on existing infrastructure. But otherwise, very tough to tell these candidates apart on the issues.

But the Watertown Daily Times argued Doheny, having grown up in Alexandria Bay and living in Jefferson county for several years after living in New York City, has better familiarity with the communities of the North Country.

Now on the political side, State Senators Patty Ritchie and Joe Griffo, and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, have gotten behind Matt Doheny, so there is some big political heft there. Let's not forget that this is the third time Doheny has run in an election in this district, and so he has the benefit of name recognition. Whatever people think of him, people know his name more than they know Stefanik.

TM: And Brian, what about Elise Stefanik? Who does she have in her corner going into tomorrow?

BM: You heard a big long list from David supporting Matt Doheny, and the remarkable thing is that Elise Stefanik also has huge support. It's just a sign about how divided it is. Early on she won the backing of most of the region's Republican committees, so all the chairs and committees in the district are behind her mostly, and that could mean a lot of support in terms of the "get out the vote" effort. Those committees in some years have really been able to turn out a lot of voters. Especially if this turns out to be a low-turnout primary election that could really matter.

Stefanik also did win backing from one important newspaper in the region, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newspaper based here in Saranac Lake went for her. I also think it's important to note that Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham, who is an important political figure with a popular blog, has also backed her prominently. So while some of the big names have come out for Matt Doheny, Stefanik too, despite being a newcomer to the region, has really won over a lot of people.

DS: And Todd I want to add it's really hard to say how much these endorsements matter. Voters are being bombarded with vicious ads on TV hourly or more sometimes. They're seeing lawn signs. And let's not forget, this election will be determined by a relatively small number of people. This election, the primary used to be in September, now it's in June, many people don't even know it's happening. It's months earlier than anyone is used to. The most passionate Republicans will be the ones who show up

TM: OK, big day tomorrow for Republicans in the North Country. Thanks guys- any final thoughts?

BM: I'll chip in, Todd, that I do think David's exactly right, this is going to be very close, and it could be very low turnout, so if you are a registered Republican your vote really could matter. And I think it's also fascinating here that the Republican Party as an organization is still so deeply divided and really uncertain about who the best candidate is and who their best standard-bearer should be going forward.

So this is really the case, and this is kind of cool in a way, voters get the say. The will really define what the Republican party looks like going forward for the next couple of years. I'm eager for the ballot box to get into action here.

DS: I just want to add that we have been talking about the shape of this race and where it's going—some people will call it the horse race analysis of the campaign—we have a lot of issue based reporting we've done over the past months including debates and profiles of these candidates, all in one place on our website NCPR.org.

Meanwhile today, both candidates are making the final push and they will both be in the southeastern part of the district, which is not coincidentally where most of the people are. Matt Doheny will be at lunch at Poopie's in Glens Falls and Elise Stefanik will be going door to door in Queensburry, Wilton, and Fort Edward.

Brian Mann from our Adirondack bureau will be with the Stefanik campaign Tuesday night, with live coverage on twitter and at NCPR.org. David Sommerstein from Canton will be with the Doheny campaign in Watertown keeping us updated and we'll have full coverage on the outcome Wednesday morning during Morning Edition and the 8 O'clock Hour.

 

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