In 1973, 31-year-old Elizabeth Holtzman became the youngest woman elected to the U.S. House. More than 40 years later, she still holds the record, although a fellow New Yorker is poised to break it on Tuesday. First-time candidate Elise Stefanik, 30 years old, has a double-digit lead in the race to replace retiring Rep. Bill Owens (D) in New York's 21st District.
You're likely to see a lot of her in upcoming years. Not only is she young, she's a Republican too — a cocktail that conservatives have tried to bottle and mass produce for years. Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have both joined her on the trail, and American Crossroads and other outside groups have run ads in the race. But, the reasons for the Republican Party's excitement extends beyond Stefanik's youth. She knows how Washington works very well.
In 2012, Stefanik was as a policy director for the Republican National Committee, helping to craft the party's platform and making sure vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan memorized its contours in debate-friendly doses. In 2011, she worked as a director of new media for Tim Pawlenty's presidential exploratory committee. She had stints with the conservative think tanks Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Foreign Policy Initiative, and founded a now-defunct site for conservative women, as North Country Public Radio, which has done extensive reporting into all the 21st District candidates, reported.
At Harvard, where she graduated from in 2006 with honors and received the Women's Leadership Award, Stefanik sometimes wrote about politics and women in politics for the Crimson, but often as a call for less apathy and more problem solving, ideology not included. (She also wrote about less weighty things, "We, at Harvard, can still meticulously prepare to make gazillions of dollars, change the world, found a nonprofit and be elected senator. But every once in a while, the best decision we will make is allowing ourselves to fall — the way Elvis and Romeo do.") She served as vice-president of Harvard's Institute of Politics, and co-wrote an op-ed with the institute's then acting director, Jeanne Shaheen, on why college students should be more involved in the political process.
"Her whole life she has been grooming herself for this type of work," says documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf, Stefanik's Democratic opponent. "She's spent her career trying to affect the outcome of elections. That's a significant difference from my experience, which has been not making policy, but seeing what comes of these policies."
Stefanik's stump speeches this year are more reminiscent of her earlier forays into politics, avoiding much explicitly conservative rhetoric in favor of the hottest tracks from this year's political novice soundtrack -- lamenting broken Washington, calling for new faces in politics and stressing a willingness to break with her party. When she does talk about her positions, it would be hard to pick her out of a lineup of candidates trying to appeal to center-right voters. She talks about lower taxes, small businesses and an "all of the above" energy plan.
We hoped to talk to Stefanik about what she hoped to accomplish in the House, and how much her emphasis on increasing the number of women in politics would play into it. Her spokesperson emailed back, "Right now that’s a bit forward looking. We’re focused on winning on Election Day, and hope we have something to talk about if/when she’s in Congress."
It's the same Marshmallow Fluff-esque platform we've seen all over the country this year, as candidates have managed to avoid saying much about their plans if they happened to win, choosing instead to coast by on a wave of anger, regional insults and the monotonous hum of "Obama" that has pervaded every race. For the 21st District race, inconsequential questions of carpetbaggery have eaten up a lot of airtime. It's not just in smaller elections where you see this; plenty of Senate races feature first-time candidates who could join Congress next year as blank slates.
In Nebraska, Ben Sasse, another former Bush administration official, won his Republican primary by appealing to both tea party and establishment Republicans, leaving little inclination of which faction he preferred most. Since the primary, his race has receded from focus, and he will win an easy victory by promising to fix Washington with yet-to-be determined tools. In Kansas, independent candidate Greg Orman has refused to say which party he would caucus with if elected. A former reporter for the Alaska Dispatch News wrote an op-ed last week complaining that Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan "seems ignorant or indifferent about Alaskaʼs issues. And clueless about how he would address them. He seems afraid he might blurt something damaging to his campaign or that might irritate the PACs supporting him and disrupt the substantial money flow." It doesn't matter where you turn -- candidates have been especially reticent to say anything too revealing about how they plan to represent their constituency -- or allowing connections between their past political lives and their current campaign. It's why Alison Lundergan Grimes refused to reveal whether she voted for Obama, and every candidate wastes their time talking about values, one of the more vacuous word in the political dictionary. When outside groups or a viral story can upend a campaign after a single mistaken syllable, candidates fear that the costs of saying anything far outweighs any benefit that might come of it. If you played the talking points of 2014 in concert, they'd probably sound as incomprehensible as the adults in Peanuts. If you let each of them take turns in the spotlight, you'd still be scratching your head.
All these question marks have made it hard for some locals to get quite as excited about Stefanik as those helping her win. Republican Teresa Sayward represented the 113th district of New York's General Assembly -- which is tucked inside the 21st congressional seat -- for a decade. She hasn't decided who to vote for yet. "I have mixed emotions," she says. "It's the most difficult race I've ever had to cast a vote in." "The biggest disappointment for me was Elise Stefanik's view of women's issues," Sayward added. "She didn't come out and say she was against gay marriage, but she said it was a state-by-state issue."
Sayward did vote for Owens and Obama in 2012. She says she agrees with Stefanik's middle-of-the-road platform if she indeed intends to vote that way in Washington. "If I was running, I'd be saying the same thing, but I'd also be backing that up with votes. These candidates -- none of them have a record to show if they mean what they say." As someone who clearly doesn't always agree with the GOP orthodoxy, Sayward adds, "It's the most difficult thing in the world to cast a vote for what you believe when you know the party leaders back home won't be happy with it. It's one thing to say that on the campaign trail, it's another thing to go down to Washington and do it."
For Stefanik, it's also unclear where her political ambitions lie. As Harvey Schantz, chair of the political science department at SUNY Plattsburgh points out, there isn't much room for advancement for a Republican in New York at the moment. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand show no sign of leaving any time soon, and it's getting harder and harder for Republicans to win statewide.
Several media outlets have labeled the race — if Stefanik does win — as a Republican pick-up, but that doesn't tell the whole story. "Republicans feel like this is their district," Schantz says. Democrats were just borrowing the seat, and even that had been a result of lucky timing on the part of the Obama administration and the weird way politics work in Northern New York.
In 2009, President Obama nominated Republican Rep. John McHugh, who represented New York's 23rd District, to become Secretary of the Army. A special election was called; Dede Scozzafava ran on the Republican ticket, Owens ran as a Democrat and Doug Hoffman ran on the Conservative Party line. Hoffman's candidacy was seen as a beta test for the tea party, and he was ahead as Election Day approached, as Scozzafava and Owens split the moderate vote. In a surprise twist that could be scripted in few places, the Republican dropped out and endorsed the Democrat, and Owens won. Redistricting reshaped the district to become the current 21st, and the number of people registered as Republicans in it continued to drop. The district still leans conservative, but its voters are willing to be charmed by moderates regardless of their packaging, as Sayward's commentary and career show.
However, Owens' success isn't likely to be repeated. Woolf's campaign never caught on, and House Majority PAC, a super PAC devoted to helping Democrats, canceled their ad time this September. As Woolf says, "It's one thing to be behind the camera, it's another thing to be in front of it." It hasn't helped that President Obama's favorability in the region has dropped markedly since 2009. A third-party candidate -- the Green Party's Matt Funicello, the well-known owner of Rock Creek Bakery in Glens Falls -- has won a few endorsements from newspapers who weren't impressed with Stefanik or Woolf, but he's far behind in the polls. Like Sean Haugh in the North Carolina Senate race, his main purpose is offering those upset with the midterms a chance to vent.
One thing we can learn from this doozy of a downer of an election -- being an exciting candidate can sometimes mean more than a promise to come to Washington dressed in new car-scented air fresheners, and communicating how you plan to do that -- without using the words "Obama," "fix Washington" or "values" -- is not electoral extra credit.