By Susannah Sudborough
BU News Service
BOSTON — Approximately three hours north of New York City lies an area known as the “North Country” by its inhabitants. This is the battleground where Republican incumbent Elise Stefanik and Democratic challenger Tedra Cobb are sparring over New York’s 21st Congressional District.
The biggest controversy in the race occurred in early July, when a video taken by a paid intern from Stefanik’s campaign was released. In the video, Cobb said she supported an assault weapons ban, but could not say so publicly because it would prevent her from winning the election.
According to the Watertown Daily Times, the teen took the video while posing as a Cobb supporter under a false name, at a Teens for Tedra event in May.
A poll by the Republican market research firm Target Point cited gun rights as the second most important issue to voters in the 21st Congressional District.
Will Farrell, a college student from Glens Falls, NY, said that he considered voting for Cobb, but that the video had eliminated any chance of him voting for her because of his strong support for gun rights.
Some of Cobb’s supporters have countered that they view the video as another act in a long line of “dirty” campaign tactics from the Stefanik campaign, such as negative attack ads.
“It’s problematic for a campaign to pay a child to spy on someone,” said Johanna Shea, a college student from Canton.
But Stefanik’s supporters were also concerned with the video’s implications about Cobb’s transparency.
“The video was a big red flag,” said Kelsey Norwood, an installer manager and long-time Plattsburgh resident. “I wonder what she is and isn’t saying because she needs people to vote for her.”
Covering over 15,000 square miles and encompassing the Adirondack State Park, New York’s 21st Congressional District is made up of mostly white, non-college educated voters, according to U.S. Census data.
Representative Elise Stefanik has represented the region for four years and at age 30 was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
According to her website, Stefanik grew up in upstate New York and was the child of a small business owner who owns a home in Willsboro, NY. She later attended Harvard University and was an aide for former president George W. Bush.
Her opponent, Tedra Cobb, first came to the North Country when she attended SUNY Potsdam, a prominent college in the region, according to her website. She then settled down permanently in the nearby town of Canton. In 2002, Cobb ran for the St. Lawrence County legislature and served for eight years.
So far, the race between Stefanik and Cobb has been heated, despite Cobb being the underdog.
According to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, the morning after Cobb won the Democratic primary at the end of June, Stefanik released her first attack ad against Cobb. The video labels Cobb “Taxin Tedra,” accusing Cobb of frequently voting to raise taxes during her time in the St. Lawrence County Legislature.
Fact-checkers at The Post Star found that out of the 20 instances referenced in the ad, six instances were verified as times Cobb voted to raise taxes. The 14 other instances were found to be either questionable or wrong.
Cobb has countered in her television ads by accusing Stefanik of taking money from the healthcare and fossil fuel industries. According to the watchdog organization Open Secrets, companies within the healthcare and fossil fuel sectors are among the top donors to Stefanik’s campaign, though they do not rank among the top five.
Although Stefanik has released many more ads, Cobb has not been afraid to fight back at her events, often accusing her opponent of being out of touch with voters’ concerns because of too few visits to the district.
In interviews with longtime residents of the 21st Congressional District, voters from both parties were concerned about many of the same issues.
According to the Target Point poll, healthcare was the most important issue across party lines.
“Health insurance is a big issue to me,” said Norwood. “With a family on the way, I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford it.”
Peter and Barbara Beekman of Canton, a retired education fundraiser and community volunteer both of whom plan to vote for Cobb, said that they were dismayed by Stefanik’s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Other issues, such as the North Country’s struggling economy, also cut across the aisle.
“The North Country used to have many more opportunities for manufacturing jobs,” said Doug Frost, a former village trustee from Lake George and a Stefanik’s supporter. “They used to offer stable benefits and a high income for people who didn’t go to college.”
“St. Lawrence County is one of the poorest counties in the state,” said Michael Chudzinski, a customer service representative from Waddington and a Cobb supporter.
According to the U.S. Census data, St. Lawrence County has the 4th lowest per capita income in New York state.
Many voters also expressed feelings that the North Country has been ignored by both legislators in Albany and Washington.
“People feel left behind and not represented,” said Barbara Beekman. “They’re not talking about our lives.”
Constituents remain divided on key issues.
While Stefanik voters were wary of increasing state taxes, Cobb supporters were concerned about environmental protection and climate change.
Cobb supporters also stressed Cobb’s pledge not to accept donations for corporate PACs.
According to Open Secrets, though Stefanik has raised approximately twice as much money as Cobb, Cobb has raised over $200,000 more in non-PAC donations.
Despite having more registered Republican voters, the district has swung back and forth between parties.
Before Stefanik, the district was represented by Democrat Bill Owens, and although the district went to President Trump in 2016, President Obama got a majority of the district’s votes in both 2008 and 2012.
Both Stefanik and Cobb supporters said that they desire bipartisanship from whichever candidate wins.
Ties to President Trump are also an important factor for many North Country voters.
While Stefanik’s supporters said that they liked the direction that Stefanik and the Republican party is going, Cobb’s supporters said that they were concerned that Stefanik usually votes in line with President Trump and is not as bipartisan as she is appears to many in the North Country.
According to a voting analysis by FiveThirtyEight, Stefanik votes in line with President Trump 89% of the time.
However, according to GovTrack.us, in 2017, Stefanik was one of the most frequent Republican members of Congress to join bipartisan bills and is toward the middle of the ideological spectrum.
Currently, Stefanik is expected to win the race, with a 8 in 9 chance of winning, according to election forecasters at FiveThirtyEight.
Still, Cobb’s supporters are hopeful.
“Don’t underestimate the grassroots support for Tedra,” said Barbara Beekman. “She’s authentic and she has an effect on people.”