It looked for a minute like New York’s Republican 21st district incumbent Elise Stefanik might be vulnerable to a challenger this year—but thanks to redistricting it now seems New Yorkers will be stuck with the moderate-turned-Trumpist for the foreseeable future.
Welcome to the politics of partisan ratf**kery, New York–style: The Empire State lost one of its 27 congressional seats after the 2020 Census tally and, as it redrew the maps, the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission added bright-red Rensselaer County to Stefanik’s turf. The redrawn map flipped the 21st from a “competitive” to a “solid” Republican district, according to analysis at FiveThirtyEight. Stefanik’s rural district comprises most of the Adirondack Park and includes a few “pivot” counties that saw voters go for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but for Trump in 2016 and 2020. It had previously supported Bill Clinton twice, and then George Bush twice.
By contrast, her fellow Trumpian Republican (and New York gubernatorial candidate) Lee Zeldin saw his Eastern Long Island congressional district squeezed so hard it’s flipped from competitive Republican to competitive Democrat.
In late February, Stefanik took a victory lap in Rensselaer County and met with overjoyed conservative dairy farmers—even as the state Republican party was suing Governor Kathy Hochul and other state Democrats over the redrawn maps. Republicans argued that the new maps run afoul of the state Constitution’s prohibition against partisan gerrymandering, but in late February Judge Patrick McAllister ruled that even if the maps did need to be redone, it was already too late—given the state’s June 28 primary. McAllister did leave the door open for a special election in 2023, should he ultimately be persuaded by the GOP argument. The judge has set a hearing for today, March 14, to give lawyers for the state and the GOP an opportunity to address the broader constitutional issues. But the 2022 election will go forward with a map that now heavily favors Stefanik—despite her own attacks on the state’s redistricting process and results.
Stefanik will face one of four Democratic challengers this year, a diverse roster that includes former CIA agent and counterterrorism official Matt Castelli, gay small-business owner Matt Putorti and progressive Berniecrat Ezra Watson, who supports Medicare for All and a guaranteed living wage. Castelli has emerged as the front-runner.
Based on recent election results and the fickle electoral history of the district, Stefanik was by no means a lock to keep her seat this year. She faced off against Tedra Cobb in 2018 and beat her Democratic opponent by 31,000 votes. Cobb made up the difference two years later and in the depths of the Covid-19 crisis—but thanks mostly to Stefanik’s support among retiree voters, she beat Cobb by nearly 60,000 votes. Those retirees, according to the Open Secrets data portal, have also sent $1.4 million Stefanik’s way.
Stefanik, a formerly (and putatively) moderate House member, leveraged her fealty to Trump to earn a promotion to the House conference chair after minority leader Kevin McCarthy booted Liz Cheney from the number-three GOP slot over Cheney’s role in investigating January 6. Castelli and the other Democrats have pushed a narrative that Stefanik’s hard-right lurch would cost her at the polls this year. Castelli pledged to put country before party and highlighted his bipartisan upbringing. But that was before redistricting.
Stefanik was the subject of a recent article in Politico on how she won over rank-and-file GOP members: As the post-Cheney conference chair, she’s counseled members to ignore CNN and bring the GOP message to One American News and Newsmax. That same strategy is on display in her home district: Stefanik has notoriously ghosted local media outlets in and around the district—especially when it comes to answering questions about January 6. North Country Public Radio criticized Stefanik earlier this year for refusing to engage, and noted that ignoring regional media had been a pattern going back to 2018 when she sold her soul on behalf of Donald Trump and his sway with “the base.”
Stefanik wasn’t always such a right-wing opportunist. At the time of her ascension to the House leadership role, NBC News reported that the conservative Club for Growth had given her a lower score even than Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar. The Freedom Caucus expressed their unease with Stefanik on another, regional, NBC report. They were concerned about her “moderate” views on environmental regulations, and that she had voted with Trump 78 percent of the time while Cheney had a pro-Trump voting record of 93 percent.
True to form, Stefanik didn’t respond to questions put to her about her pivot to Trumpian extremism, but she did tell Fox in January that she hopes Trump runs again in 2024—while Trump himself declared she’d be a great president in 2028.
Trump-Stefanik in 2024? Well, that’s one way to get her out of the House—right now, maybe the only one.