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Elise Stefanik declares victory in Glens Falls Tuesday night, with her family and GOP county leaders behind her. Photo: Brian Mann
Elise Stefanik declares victory in Glens Falls Tuesday night, with her family and GOP county leaders behind her. Photo: Brian Mann

Stefanik overwhelms Doheny in NY-21 GOP primary

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November's ballot is set after yesterday's primary elections. Among the races decided yesterday, Elise Stefanik beat Matt Doheny in the GOP primary for the 21st District Congressional seat opened up by Democratic Congressman Bill Owens' decision not to run this year.

Stefanik's win sent shock waves through the North Country last night. She was unknown before moving to Willsboro in Essex County last year. Yesterday, she won 60 percent of the votes in the Republican primary for the region's House seat. She toppled Watertown businessman and investment banker Matt Doheny, who was running for the third time.

After a sometimes bruising and bitter campaign, Stefanik, who is 29 years-old, won every county in the sprawling district.

We have two reports this morning, the first from Brian Mann -- who was at Stefanik's victory rally last night in Glens Falls, then from David Sommerstein, who was with Doheny supporters in Watertown.

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Stefanik tops Doheney

(Brian Mann was at Stefanik headquarters at the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls)

After polls closed Tuesday, Mark Westcott, a Republican Party leader from Warren County, trumpeted early election returns that showed Elise Stefanik posting strong numbers. "Good news across all the district...Just to let you know in my backyard who won Queensbury, 67 to 33 percent."

The mood at the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls was upbeat. As the crowd grew, Elise Stefanik made a quick appearance, giving hugs and quick smiles. Stefanik, who is single and turns 30 next month, is new to this kind of politics, but she's clearly a natural. Nicholas Southwick is a college student who drove down last night from the town of Champlain in Clinton County. "Even just a few moments ago when she saw me, she still remembered my name, and thanked me for supporting her from the beginning."

Stefanik also won over one of the North Country's political icons, Doug Hoffman – the conservative activist whose own bid for this House seat in 2009 helped launch the tea party movement. "I like the fact that we're getting the younger people involved and I think that's very important for the district and for the party."

Elise Stefanik is greeted with a hug as she enters her Glens Falls headquarters just before the polls closed. Photo: Brian Mann
Elise Stefanik is greeted with a hug as she enters her Glens Falls headquarters just before the polls closed. Photo: Brian Mann
Another key ally in this race has been Willsboro town supervisor Shaun Gillilland. Even as Stefanik was facing sharp criticism that she was a carpetbagger, a seasonal visitor with few visible ties to her adopted home town, Gillilland was helping her build support and name recognition. "I met her early last spring; I didn't know her from anything. So she came out, told me she was running and I asked her all her background stuff. To me, she's extremely honest and forthright. She moved to Willsboro, that's where she lives."

The fact that Stefanik could earn that kind of trust and support so quickly is a remarkable thing in the North Country's sometimes insular politics. Eleven out of the 12 GOP committees endorsed Stefanik and they stuck with her even after Watertown businessman Matt Doheny – a better-known candidate – jumped into the race.

Ray Scollin is chair of the Republican Party in Franklin County and helped with Stefanik's massive get out the vote effort. He says she's the new face of the region's conservative movement. "I think this is key for the Republican party to look forward to. This is who is going to take over our party, these are the people that we have to make room for. And when it's for somebody like Elise Stefanik, we made the right decision."

By 10:30 or so last night, it appeared all but certain that Stefanik had racked up a wide enough margin in unofficial returns to claim victory – even winning Doheny's home turf in Jefferson County.

With her parents looking on, the candidate claimed the win. "Are you ready to bring new ideas and a new generation of leadership to Washington? Are you ready to win back this district this November?"

Stefanik still has a lot of work to do to unify her party. Many of the region's most powerful Republicans backed Doheny, including state Senators Patty Ritchie, Joe Griffo and Betty Little.

Speaking with North Country Public Radio, Stefanik said she'll begin that effort immediately, hoping to overcome the divisions that have cost her party dearly in the last three elections. "Absolutely, I look forward to working with everyone in this district; anyone who has common sense ideas, including the elected officials. I will continue, and I am optimistic, that I will have a strong working relationship with them over the course of the campaign and ultimately serving after November."

It's not always the case that a rough and tumble primary like this one leaves a candidate stronger and better prepared for the general election. But that's clearly the story here. After surviving Matt Doheny's challenge, Stefanik is now far better known among voters, and her political organization is battle tested, better prepared for November.

That gives the Republican Party its best shot at retaking the North Country's House seat in half a decade.

Doheny blames defeat on outside money

(David Sommerstein was at Doheny headquarters at the Best Western in Watertown)

Matt Doheny concedes Tuesday night in Watertown. Photo: David Sommerstein
Matt Doheny concedes Tuesday night in Watertown. Photo: David Sommerstein
So what was Matt Doheny doing while Elise Stefanik was working the room early on in Glens Falls? According to his brother, Mark, he was at home with his wife, Mary, his one year-old son, Declan, and Mark's three kids.

"To be honest, it's complete chaos. There are four kids under the age of five, three babysitters, and Matt and Mary. So the kids have basically taken over the house. You wouldn't even realize it was Election Night, really."

This family scene is the nut of the story that Matt Doheny was trying to tell voters. That he's the hometown guy from Alexandria Bay, the only true "local" in the race. That he's here to stay. And that his Wall Street business experience, coupled with political savvy built seeking this office three other times, make him the right choice. Tell people that story, and they'll vote.

"Our basic theory was that we're going to go out, we're going to knock on doors, and we're going to work and see people."

Unofficial results: NYS Board of Elections
Unofficial results: NYS Board of Elections
But it didn't work out that way. When Doheny took the podium around 10:30, he said he'd called Stefanik to congratulate her. And he quickly took aim at American Crossroads, Karl Rove's Super PAC that spent $800,000 in vicious attack ads against Doheny.

"We were outspent in total ads six or seven to one, and it obviously made the difference. It just did. The reality is my opponent had a good night, and Karl Rove had a good night."

It's the only time so far this cycle in which American Crossroads spent money against a fellow Republican. Doheny supporter, and St. Lawrence county deputy treasurer, Bob Santamoor, said the ads went too far.

"They used words like 'loser,' and, I'm sorry, but that's really uncalled for. That's inappropriate, especially for this level. And it's even worse", he added," that Republicans are going after one other."

But Doheny launched his own attack ads, branding Stefanik as a "Washington insider." So when Stefanik supporters in Glens Falls watched the concession speech on TV, they booed when Doheny blamed his defeat on outside money and super PACs.

John Watson from the town of Adirondack near Schroon Lake said Doheny had his chance.

"Matt's had three shots and he hasn't done it."

That's the big question that's hung over the Doheny campaign since he announced in February — whether he was "damaged goods" politically speaking after losing to Bill Owens twice. Jefferson County GOP committee chairman Don Koon called it "Doheny fatigue."

"Sure, I think maybe there was a combination of a little Doheny fatigue after two tries before, and then, a fresh face out there running an energetic campaign."

Stefanik's fresh face will now pivot to the general election against Democrat Aaron Woolf and Green party candidate Matt Funiciello. Doheny still owns a place on the Independence party line. But with a defeat this lopsided, it seems unlikely he'll continue to campaign.

He didn't sound like he would when, at the podium, he kissed his wife, praised his supporters, and said good night. "I want to thank everyone for coming. I appreciate the opportunity. And, most of all, enjoy the rest of the summer."

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