Politics & Policy

Upstate New York’s Conservative Hope

Meet House candidate Elise Stefanik, 30.

Elise Stefanik may have a knack for beating rich guys.

At least that’s what a band of conservative donors looking to foster fresh political talent in the GOP are hoping. Stefanik, a House candidate from New York, is one of a cadre of political newcomers supported by a network of donors worried that the party has become myopically focused on candidates wealthy enough to fund their own campaigns.

If she wins in November, Stefanik will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. The race has attracted national attention not only because of her age — she turned 30 on the campaign trail — but also because New York’s 21st congressional district, where she is running, has bedeviled Republicans, who held the seat for over a century, for five years now.

In 2009, the district’s congressman, John McHugh, was appointed secretary of the Army. In the special election that followed, the GOP and the Conservative party nominated different candidates, and Republicans split their votes between Dede Scozzafava, who had the support of the GOP establishment, and Doug Hoffman, who was backed by the Tea Party. On Election Day, the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, walked away with a plurality of the vote — and a victory.

Stefanik is looking to put the seat back in Republican hands, an increasingly plausible scenario if recent polls are any indication: The latest shows Stefanik leading her Democratic opponent, the filmmaker and organic grocer Aaron Woolf, 46 to 33 percent. The race has long been considered a tossup, but pollsters now say it leans Republican.

At first glance, her success seems somewhat unlikely. Woolf is a multi-millionaire who has poured more money into his campaign than he has raised from individual donors. He undoubtedly has the ability to spend more than the $400,000 he has invested in getting himself elected. Stefanik is two decades younger, she wasn’t recruited by any party official, and she had to defeat a two-time candidate — another multi-millionaire — to make it to the general election in the first place. A Harvard graduate and former Bush-administration aide, Stefanik is the first member of her family to earn a college degree or, she notes, to take a serious interest in politics.

Her rapid ascent has been aided in large part by Republican megadonor Paul Singer and his extended network, which has sought to foster young talent in the GOP ranks in an era when campaign-finance reform has limited the ability of political parties to do so themselves. Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton, Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner, and Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan are also considered candidates with long-term payoff for the party, and they have also been the beneficiaries of the Singer network’s largesse. But Stefanik stands apart as the only congressional candidate in the group. She attended a Singer-organized fundraiser in Colorado with a handful of Senate candidates; and employees of Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management, have contributed over $80,000 to her campaign, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Donors such as Singer have swooped into action as campaign-finance regulations have limited the flow of money to political parties, forcing parties to favor candidates who can fund their own campaigns. Though they cost less, self-funders don’t always make the best candidates. One need look no further than New York’s 21st for proof.

In 2010 and 2012, Republicans ran the same candidate, the wealthy investment banker Matt Doheny, who, among other things, was photographed kissing a staffer and slapped with fines for boating while intoxicated. Doheny lost both races. But when Owens, the Democratic incumbent, announced his retirement this year, Doheny decided to try again.

It didn’t work. Despite the personal wealth of both her primary and general-election opponents, Stefanik has outraised them both.

That’s in part because donors identified her as a young up-and-comer with tremendous potential. Singer and four other hedge-fund managers, including Citadel’s Ken Griffin and AQR Capital’s Cliff Asness, formed a political-action committee exclusively devoted to the race, called New York 2014, and raised more than $400,000. They spent over $200,000 running ads against Doheny in the primary. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads spent upwards of $800,000 in the primary alone. Stefanik has also pounded the pavement, putting 100,000-plus miles on her car and cultivating local donors, reengaging Republicans, she says, who became disaffected over the past five years.

The Bush network has also proved a crucial source of support. Two days before her graduation from Harvard in 2006, Stefanik landed a job as a staff assistant on the Domestic Policy Council. In the White House for an interview, she bumped into Karl Zinsmeister, a fellow upstate New Yorker who was then serving as head of the Domestic Policy Council and was looking for a special assistant. He hired Stefanik.

“I moved over to the West Wing before I even started,” Stefanik says. The experience gave her “insight into the policy-development process unlike anything else.”

“Seeing the type of strong leadership that is needed to make those decisions has stayed with me,” she says, and she calls Bush “a leader of conviction and courage” and a “strong commander-in-chief.”

The Bushies, famously loyal, are helping their own. Contributors to her campaign include former national-security adviser Stephen Hadley, Bush counselor and Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie, former Council of Economic Advisers chairman Glenn Hubbard, the first lady’s former chief of staff Anita McBride, former Cheney adviser Neil Patel — the list goes on.

Stefanik talks a lot about the hunger for a new generation of leadership in Washington. If elected, she’ll join a delegation of just 19 other Republican women in Washington, but, gender aside, many Republicans hope she’s the vanguard of a new sort of GOP politician.

Running against Woolf, she has managed turn the tables on issues that Republicans have struggled over in recent years. It didn’t look good when a Democratic activist wrote to a local paper demanding that Stefanik disclose whether she has a “private relationship with anyone” — especially  when it was revealed that members of Woolf’s staff and the New York State Democratic party had corresponded with the letter-writer. Woolf was forced to condemn the activist.

Stefanik has also backed Woolf against the wall on the Buffett Rule. Woolf has voiced his support for the measure, which would impose a minimum 30 percent tax rate on those making more than a million dollars a year; Stefanik responded by announcing she would release her tax returns and demanding that he release his. “Aaron Woolf is a millionaire many times over,” her spokesman said. “If he is such a strong proponent of the Buffett Rule, you have to assume that he abides by it in his personal life. Woolf should release his tax returns and we’ll find out.”

She is not your typical candidate, but in the eyes of top Republicans and some of the party’s most powerful moneymen, that’s precisely the point.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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