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Reporter Debrief: A Contentious Congressional Race In The North Country

Two images, side-by-side, one of a woman at a press conference, another a portrait of a woman in a field
Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
Tedra Cobb campaign, Courtesy
Incumbent Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, left, seen here during the impeachment trial in January, is facing Democratic challenger Tedra Cobb, right, in New York's North Country.

Across Lake Champlain in New York's North Country, Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik is defending her seat against Democratic challenger Tedra Cobb.

Stefanik is a rising star in the GOP, and in recent years, she's gone from distancing herself from President Donald Trump to becoming one of his staunchest supporters. She became a vocal defender of the president during Trump's impeachment earlier this year, and millions of dollars have poured into both Stefanik and Cobb's campaigns for New York's 21st congressional seat.

North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell is covering the race and she joined VPR's Henry Epp to talk about it. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So these two candidates ran against each other two years ago. Do we have any sense of who's leading this rematch heading into Election Day?

Emily Russell: You know, we don't. There hasn't been any public polling on this congressional race, but most political observers will say it's a solidly Republican seat. Stefanik was first challenged by Cobb back in 2018 and she won by 14 points. That's a margin of about 30,000 votes. So that's pretty significant. Cobb does have more money this time around. She's raised about $5 million this election. But Stefanik has pulled in more than twice that. Plus, she has become kind of this Republican star, like you mentioned.

Yeah, well, we saw Stefanik really grab onto the national spotlight during President Trump's impeachment trial. And that was not always the case in terms of her political alignment. Why has she aligned herself more closely with the president? And how do you think that'll affect this race?

You know, when Trump first ran for president, Stefanik kind of distanced herself from him. She came out against one of his biggest campaign promises: a border wall with Mexico. And then over the last few years, she's really made this kind of dramatic shift. Anyone who watched, you know, his impeachment trial… might remember hearing a lot from Stefanik. She was outspoken during the hearings. She also appeared a lot on Fox News. So she's really kind of gone all-in on Trump.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: New York Rep. Elise Stefanik's Role In Impeachment Inquiry Hearings

And is there a sense that that's an effective campaign strategy? I mean, the North Country has not always been Republican. It's been represented by Democrats in the past.

Yeah, that's right. A Democrat held Stefanik's seat before she took office in 2015, and it has been known as a pretty purple district. The region voted twice for Obama. In 2010 though, it was redistricted, and that made the 21st House district more conservative. In 2016, Trump won nearly every county here. But, you know, there are a lot of factors to consider this time around, including Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the state of the economy.

What have been some of the biggest issues in this congressional race and what are people most concerned about?

I'd say that health care has been the most talked about issue. Stefanik has voted multiple timesto repeal the Affordable Care Act. She thinks that private insurance offers people more choice. Cobb wants to keep the ACA and add a Medicare public option. She had favored a Medicare-for-all option, but she's kind of walked that back a bit.

Many Vermonters, especially in the Champlain Valley, may have seen campaign ads for this race on TV in the shared TV market. And one common theme is just that the tone of this race has been fairly uncivil - campaign ads with a lot of name calling. What's the mood there in the district about the tone of this race?

Yeah, these two candidates really have come after each other during this campaign. Stefanik often calls Cobb by a nickname, "taxin' Tedra." A number of news outlets, including North Country Public Radio, have found that to be misleading. Back in August, Stefanik accused Cobb of plagiarizing from her military bill when in reality, it was Stefanik taking credit for other people's work.

More from NCPR: Report: Stefanik Misrepresents Credit On Military Bill While Accusing Opponent Of Plagiarism

And Cobb has also made misleading statements. She's repeatedly said Stefanik was silent after reports found that Russia paid the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers. Stefanik did, in fact, issue a statement on those findings. So, as you said, tensions just have been really high these last few months.

And New Yorkers have already started voting. The polls opened for early voting last Saturday and absentee ballots are coming in. What kind of turnout has the district seen so far?

We saw really long lines in most North Country counties at the early voting poll places the first few days. There's this paper out of Rochester, New York, called the Democrat and Chronicle, and they've been doing some great work this week, collecting early voting data. And as of Wednesday, more than 30,000 people in the North Country's congressional district have cast their ballots early. And that's just remarkable. So in so many ways, this election is going to be really fascinating to watch unfold.

More from VPR: A Guide To Voting In Vermont For The 2020 General Election

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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