FORT DRUM — President Donald Trump on Monday made his first visit to upstate New York since his inauguration, marking one of his initial forays into a House battleground district that will help determine control of Congress this fall.
Trump began his visit in Fort Drum, where he was greeted by a 21-gun salute and military helicopters buzzing overhead. Inside, standing in front of a military helicopter and a large crowd of troops in uniform, the president thanked Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, for her persistence in bringing him to the base.
“She called me so many times,” Trump said of Stefanik, mispronouncing her name. “She didn’t stop, and here I am.”
Stefanik, who heads the National Republican Campaign Committee’s recruitment efforts, is a favorite to defeat the Democratic challenger, Tedra Cobb.
The odds are less certain for Rep. Claudia Tenney, the beneficiary of Trump’s second stop in Utica, where he headlined a closed-door fundraiser on her behalf. Tenney’s district, which stretches from Binghamton to Lake Ontario in central New York, is one of the most fought-over seats in America, with more than $1.6 million in super PAC money already pouring in to the contest, more than any other New York race.
Trump has trumpeted his role as a kingmaker in this year’s Republican primaries — “5 for 5!” he wrote on Twitter after candidates who he endorsed won last week — and he is expected to want to affect the fall electoral map as well. He has already campaigned against incumbent Senate Democrats in states, such as Montana and North Dakota, that he carried by wide margins.
The problem for the White House, and Trump, is that many House battlegrounds are in suburban districts where Trump’s polarizing presence might not help the Republican incumbents, some of whom have tried to create some distance from him.
Not so with Tenney, who has closely allied herself with the White House in a district that Trump carried by more than 15 percentage points in 2016. Last month, Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter and a top White House adviser, also visited Tenney, holding a round-table discussion in the district. Tenney and Ivanka Trump climbed onto some heavy machinery together as photographers snapped pictures.
Tenney, who is in her first term, narrowly won a three-way contest with 46.5 percent of the vote in 2016, and her re-election is seen as a tossup, as Democrats recruited a more centrist challenger, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi. Both Brindisi and Tenney have raised nearly $2 million.
Tenney’s campaign is already using some Trump-style, racially charged messaging, with an early attack ad splicing together seemingly disparate black-and-white images of tattoo-covered Latino men, Nancy Pelosi, people scrambling up border walls and Brindisi; the ad accuses Brindisi of putting “illegal immigrants before upstate New Yorkers.”
Other ads feature her on a motorcycle.
Some Republicans were perplexed that Trump — who can draw massive crowds at a rally or massive checks from deep-pocketed donors — would choose to headline a closed-door fundraiser in Utica, a city of 60,000 hardly known for its financial might.
Tickets to get into Monday’s event start at $1,000. For $15,000, guests receive access to an exclusive table and reception with Trump, plus a photo.
Trump’s stop in Fort Drum came after Stefanik had invited him to visit in a March letter, noting that the 10th Mountain Division based there had been “the most actively deployed division to Iraq and Afghanistan in the entire U.S. Army.”
Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had all visited Fort Drum while in the White House. (The last president to stop through Utica, Tenney has said, was Harry Truman on a 1948 whistle-stop tour.)
Stefanik’s seat, which stretches from north of Albany to the Canadian border, is seen as one of the most solidly Republican in the state, with Stefanik carrying 65 percent of the vote in 2016. She is running for her third term after becoming the youngest woman elected to Congress in 2014, a record that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is expected to break in November.
Officially, Trump was there to sign the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, named after the ailing Arizona senator who has been among Trump’s most vocal Republican critics, and a man whom the president has mocked at his rallies.
The president never mentioned McCain’s name in his speech in front of the troops on Monday, though he did take a swipe at one of his other favorite targets: the media.
“I’m so proud of myself,” Trump said, “I didn’t call them the fake news media.”