ALBANY — With the Republican primary on June 24 just three weeks away, the two GOP candidates, Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik, met in the state capital for their first televised debate.
Here’s what you need to know about what’s shaping up to be one of the country’s most vital races.
RESIDENCY IS STILL AN ISSUE
The candidates sparred right after the opening bell on an issue that has become central to the campaign:
North Country roots.
Doheny, 43, an investment banker who was raised in Alexandria Bay and lives in Watertown, jabbed Stefanik, a former White House aide who was born in Albany County and moved to her family's seasonal home in Willsboro last year to run for office, in debate moderator Liz Benjamin’s opening question about understanding the needs of the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi.
“Part of my advantage is actually growing up and living in the district, unlike my opponent,” said Doheny. “It’s home, you actually know what the folks need and what the issues are. Partly from where you have worked, partly from where you have continued to live and partly from your knowledge.”
Stefanik, 29, cited the year she has spent traveling the district listening to voters and floated the idea of a mobile congressional office that annually would visit each of the district’s 194 towns and villages. “The district office comes to you to hear about your concerns firsthand,” she said.
On her residential status:
“I work there today and I plan on living here and raising my family here,” she later said, referring to Willsboro, her adopted hometown in Essex County.
Each time the issue was brought up — it surfaced in discussions on military affairs, mailings from the Doheny campaign and the outside money that is pouring into the race — Stefanik segued into her family’s small business background… and also managed to get a jab in:
“I don’t hold it against you, Matt, that you were born in New Jersey,” she said.
“Alright, we’re going to move on,” said Benjamin.
SMALL BUSINESS, BIG BUSINESS
The GOP is all business. Both candidates have used their business backgrounds as the foundations of their candidacies and at times, the hour-long debate appeared to descend into the candidates going on autopilot with the rote repetition of stock phrases.
Stefanik, who works for her family’s Guilderland Center-based company, Premium Plywood Projects, cited her small business background in her opening statement (“I came from a small business family, a small business that I am proud to work at today”), addressing the needs of the district (“We do business with hundreds of customers across the congressional district”), health care (“My family’s small business had our coverage cancelled as a result of Obamacare”), trade with Canada (“My family business actually does business with Canadian businesses on a weekly basis. We buy supplies and products from Canadian businesses as well as domestic products”), economic growth (“We understand how to make businesses grow and how to provide jobs in this district”), overhauling the nation’s tax system (“With my family’s background, operating a small business that works with hundreds of businesses across the district, I understand that the tax burden is too high”) and the minimum wage (“We do business on a week-to-week day-to-day basis with small businesses”).
It remains unclear how this small business experience, which critics have called into question as a result of the time she has spent working in Washington — including a stint as 2012 GOP Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s debate coach — will translate into more than just talking points.
Doheny, a former Wall Street investment banker who now runs the Watertown-based firm North Country Capital, stressed his experience as why he is qualified to represent the district and he, too, repeatedly revisited the issue:
“This race is all about experience,” he said in his opening statement. “The experience of being a businessman, of saving tens of thousands of jobs.”
It was revisited in a discussion on constituent outreach (“I’m a self-made businessman, I understand that customer service is paramount”), the growing scandal surrounding Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (“What we need is someone who actually believes in accountability. If you don’t get the job done, you know what, in my business, and the business I’m involved with, that person is not around any longer”), economic growth (“I know the difference between a balance sheet and an income statement”), government accountability (“I want to audit each and every department and sub-department that we actually spend money on”), tax reform (“It takes a businessman to try to stop the out-of-control spending and bring us back into fiscal sense”) and job creation:
“As a businessman, I know how challenging it is,” he said. “People say, ‘Let’s wave a magic wand and create jobs.’ It doesn’t work that way. We need to have people that have good ideas — entrepreneurs, we call them. And other folks that are willing to take the risk: get capital, start a business — only when you get to a certain size and a certain need, then you bring jobs in.”
Like with Stefanik, it remains unclear how a freshman representative would harness this experience into immediate and effective policymaking for the district.
THEY DISAGREE ON MINIMUM WAGE
In a GOP race that is increasingly defined by political chicanery and cheap shots, the issues have generally been glossed over in favor of more headline-grabbed commentary.
Tuesday’s debate, however, offered the clearest look yet about how the candidates differ on the issues, including minimum wage.
Stefanik is open to an increase:
“I think the best people to determine the correct minimum wage are our small businesses,” said Stefanik. “I would be open to be having a vote on increased minimum wage, but I think it’s very important that our small businesses are a part of that conversation.”
Asked by Benjamin if she would be open to asking Speaker of the House Jim Boehner to bring a “clean” minimum wage bill to the floor, Stefanik said she “would be open to that.”
Doheny is not.
Citing the $200,000 he accrued after borrowing his way through law school, he chalked up his success to hard work and the teachings and the “well-founded education” that his parents and schooling gave him.
“I was able to go out and live my own version of the American Dream,” he said. “That’s what makes America great. No one gave me anything, no one handed anything down. I did it all on my own, two hands and my brain and that’s what makes America the great place that it is. I want those people out there, especially the young people, to go out and live their own American Dream.”
Doheny cited his belief in limited government and said states should be used as laboratories for democratic policy-making, including a possible minimum wage hike.
“Let’s have states battle it out and see migration in terms of jobs and people,” he said. “I would not push the House — it’s already been taken care of in our state.”
Most politicians, despite how acrimonious races become, often don perfunctory fig leafs in public appearances and give the impression of feuding relatives that will eventually come around once the table is cleared at the end of the day.
Not with these two. There was no sign of that here, with each both drawing blood right out of the starting gate with smarmy comments, audible sighs and interruptions (“You mentioned the Ryan-Murray Budget Deal,” interjected Stefanik as Doheny discussed the Ryan Budget. “Do you support that budget deal?”) and flat-out haymakers:
“I find it remarkable that my opponent, who went out to Aspen, Colorado for an elite Republican donor weekend, for her to say, ‘I have no idea — I’m shocked that Super PACs are supporting me.’ This is what it comes down to,” said Doheny. “Who knows who these people are? I’m sure it’s part of your DC insider crowd and so that’s what this race is all about.”
And at the end of the debate when Stefanik thanked her opponent, Doheny appeared to be attempting to stifle his laughter.
THE RACE WILL GO ON
Asked repeatedly by debate co-moderator Bryan Dwyer if they would actively campaign on their respective third-party lines if they lost the Republican primary on June 24 — Stefanik netted the Conservative line, Doheny, the Independence — both avoided giving a definite answer.
“I will be on the ballot this November as the Conservative Party nominee and I’m the only candidate who can unite both Republicans and Conservatives to win back this seat,” said Stefanik. “As you’ve pointed out, this district has been lost by a split ballot — that’s why winning the Conservative Party nomination, and the Republican endorsement, gives me the best opportunity to ensure that Republicans take back this seat this November.”
“But the question was, ‘Will you actively campaign on the 25th for that line if you were not on the Republican line?’ asked Dwyer.
“I’ll be on the Conservative Party line this November and I think it gives me a great shot to win the Republican primary,” said Stefanik.
“So… not answering the question?” asked Dwyer.
“I will be the Conservative Party nominee and I think this is why we can unite Conservatives and Republicans and this is what my primary opponent can’t do,” said Stefanik.
Doheny said he “feels very comfortable” about where his campaign is in the process and, asked to elaborate by Dwyer, said he would “reevaluate and take a good hard look” at continuing in the event he lost the primary.
“I think it’s important for both of us to reevaluate,” agreed Stefanik.
First impressions. For many voters, the debate was the first look at Stefanik, a candidate who has remained a cipher in Essex County. It remains to see how this debate will resonate with those whose first exposure to the candidate was this appearance (which was not televised across a wide swath of the eastern part of the district due to a lack of access).
Privatize military health care? In a discussion about the emerging Veteran’s Administration scandal that has alleged deep-rooted malfeasance in how veterans receive government-provided care, Stefanik said while she does not support cutting health care funding to veterans — and would support a funding increase — the delivery system needs to be changed:
“We need to provide private health options for our veterans, many have to travel 2-3 hours to get the health care that they need,” said Stefanik. “I want to ensure that our veterans, instead of traveling to Albany, they have access to our local hospitals within the district to provide high quality health care.”
Doheny said he would also support an increase in funding, but urged more government accountability, transparency and flexibility:
“When you think about the North Country, you have to make sure people are covered here,” he said. “For instance, Malone. It continues to hang in the balance with VA clinics here and operating month-to-month kicking the can down the road. I will try to keep Malone, make sure the VA clinic is there. It’s that local knowledge I have to make sure that we can treat, and all the folks, soldiers and veterans have the coverage they need.”
Cheap shot. Stefanik injected politics into a lighthearted question about a hypothetical invitation to the wedding of pop culture supernovas Kanye West and Kim Kardashian into a slight against Doheny, who said he would “absolutely” attend the bash that took place last week in Florence.
“No, I would have been focused on Memorial Day events,” she said.
Since she brought it up — and we think politicizing the holiday is tacky — Doheny was in Crown Point here in Essex County for Memorial Day on Monday. The Valley News, Stefanik’s hometown newspaper, was in Willsboro, her adopted hometown.
She was not.
As for who won, we’re calling this one a draw. While both candidates were highly skilled debaters — articulate, charismatic, prepared — and walked a fine line between arrogance and assertiveness, both demonstrated enough policy chops befitting of the office and will be formidable opponents for their prospective opponents on the other side of the aisle this fall, including Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf and Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello.
Two more GOP debates are scheduled before registered Republicans held to the polls on June 24, including one in Hague on Wednesday, June 11.