Former White House staffer Elise Stefanik won Tuesday’s Republican primary in the 21st Congressional District and could become the youngest person in Congress.
Unofficial returns from the 12 counties across the district showed the 29-year-old holding a solid lead over Matt Doheny, who was making his third bid for the northern New York congressional seat.
Doheny conceded during an appearance at his Watertown headquarters about 10:30 p.m. Stefanik declared victory soon afterwards.
“I will work very hard to make sure Republicans are united,” she told supporters in Glens Falls.
The race, however, was marked by divisions within the party, and Doheny blamed his defeat on a Washington political action committee that ran attack ads.
“Karl Rove had a good night. It’s just the reality,” said Doheny, referring to ads run by American Crossroads, the political action committee of Rove, one of President George W. Bush’s chief political advisers.
Stefanik had a 59 percent to 42 percent lead, according to the New York State Board of Elections. At press time Stefanik was leading in all the counties that had reported, except for Herkimer.
Stefanik, of Willsboro, entered the race last winter before current U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat, announced he’d be leaving the seat he’s held for three terms. She has worked in Washington, but is new to electoral politics.
Pre-election polls have shown Stefanik leading. Doheny was the Republican candidate who lost to Owens in both 2010 and 2012.
Doheny, 43, of Watertown, entered the race this spring, after the party establishment in most of the district’s 12 counties had given its support to Stefanik. That set in place what has proven to be a sometimes bitter fight between two political conservatives.
The apparent win means Stefanik will go into the general election in November against Democrat Aaron Wolff of Elizabethtown, a filmmaker who also has the Working Families Party endorsement.
By voter enrollment, the 21st Congressional District is overwhelmingly Republican; it was a secure Republican seat for decades prior to Owens’ win over a split Republican party in a special election in 2009.
Stefanik, a graduate of Harvard University, worked in the White House under President George W. Bush, and also was part of the 2012 vice presidential campaign of Rep. Paul Ryan.
That experience caused Doheny, a self-financed investment fund manager, to blast Stefanik as a “Washington insider,” and to criticize her for only recently moving from her family’s Albany County home to its summer camp in Essex County, near Lake Champlain.
Stefanik, however, has received endorsements and financial support from national conservative political action committees like American Crossroads, which has run attack ads critical of Doheny on a variety of grounds. American Crossroads has spent $770,000, according to federal filings — about as much as each of the two campaigns spent on their entire campaigns.
The primary may not be the end of the road for either candidate. Doheny also has the Independence Party nomination, and Stefanik has the Conservative nomination for the November general election, so there’s the potential for the race to continue into the fall.
Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello will also be on the ballot in November.
The congressional district is among the largest in the East, stretching across mostly rural territory, from the northern half of Saratoga County to the Canadian border, and from the Vermont line to Lake Ontario. Fulton County is also in the district.