Elise Stefanik tests impeachment waters for moderates in Congress
If you are looking for a political laboratory experiment on how much impeachment impacts a swing district, visit the district of Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik in northern New York. It is called North Country, stretching to the Canadian border. It is rural, containing a large portion of the Adirondack Park, the Fort Drum military base, and 2 percent of the New York state population. Over the past decade, it has elected a Democrat to the House three times, and a Republican, Stefanik, three times. It voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, then went for President Trump by 14 points in 2016. It is a Republican leaning district, but there has been a recent increase in Democratic enrollment.
There is a famous physics theory called the intelligent observer paradox, stating that matter takes on a specific form only when measured by an intelligent observer. In the physics of politics, as poles diverge, does the middle travel left or right? Stefanik ran as a moderate Republican in 2014, and once in office, she opposed Trump on the border wall, travel ban, and government shutdown. She also cochairs the Tuesday Group, a caucus of 50 moderate Republican lawmakers. Throughout the House impeachment hearings, Stefanik was expected to maintain a cautious distance from the president, laying low in the moderate roots of her swing district.
Instead, in the House Intelligence Committee hearings, Stefanik stepped out into the spotlight, emerging as an outspoken critic of impeachment. Earlier this year, Stefanik cosigned a letter sent to Chairman Adam Schiff demanding his resignation. During the House impeachment hearings last week, she delivered an impassioned speech on behalf of Trump. Following the hearings, she appeared on Fox News with Sean Hannity to further trash the proceedings. Her attacks on impeachment guaranteed her ascendance on the right. Trump, the national television critic in chief, praised her performance and called her a new Republican star.
Like many Republicans, Stefanik criticizes the process of the inquiry but does not outright defend the behavior of the president. If she hopes her moderate constituency will interpret this line of attack as balanced, news coverage suggests otherwise. Her critique of impeachment has been viewed as synonymous with a robust defense of the president. As bases across the country intensify in opposition, it is harder for politicians to hold nuanced positions. Stances tend to spiral to the extremes.
There is less room for middle ground as Democrats demand stronger attacks on the president and Republicans bellow for grander defenses of his leadership. As the fundamental electoral theory states, every action begets an equal and opposite reaction. Stefanik defending Trump has raised her profile on the right but infuriated donors on the left. Thanks in large part to her impeachment performance, her Democratic opponent, Tedra Cobb, has now raised $1 million for her 2020 House bid.
Like any good experiment, this is replicated elsewhere. In the New York district that stretches along eastern Long Island, farms sit uneasily amidst Hamptons mansions and boutique wineries. This district voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Democratic Congressman Tim Bishop from 2002 to 2014, then swung for Trump by 12 points in 2016. Its representative today, Republican Lee Zeldin, has been an ardent defender of the president.
Like Stefanik, Zeldin has made a name for himself through frequent and colorful critiques of the impeachment process, referring to the inquiry as a “charade” and “clown show.” His fiery commentary has brought him closer to the staunchest supporters of the president. He is often featured on Fox News speaking alongside the likes of Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes. His recent fundraiser featured a book signing by Donald Trump Jr.
These swing districts are laboratories in which the conventional laws of political physics may very well be rewritten. Traditional hypotheses will be tested. Does doubling down on the base lose voters in the middle? Or do voters in moderate districts no longer elect moderate representatives? Are exurbs and rural areas getting redder, while suburbs are swinging bluer? Finally, is there political merit in a strategy of holding your nose to the odor of bad behavior in order to breathe freely in 2020?
The results will be in the next election. In the meantime, battleground states are heating up, and the political test tubes are boiling.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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