Democrat Matt Castelli challenges Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik in November.

When Elise Stefanik was first elected to Congress in 2014, she made a key promise on the night of her victory: “With every decision I make, with every vote I cast, I ask myself one question: Will this help the hard-working families of the North Country?

“I will work with anyone, regardless of political affiliation, to make this happen,” Stefanik continued. “Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and even Green Party members – if you have a great idea, I’m ready to get the job done.”

Eight years later, however, Stefanik’s message seems very different. “Are we ready to fire Nancy Pelosi in 17 days? Stefanik asked a crowd at a recent rally in Saranac Lake. “Are we ready to fire Kathy Hochul in 17 days and elect Lee Zeldin?

Stefanik faces Democrat Matt Castelli in the midterm elections, a candidate who says her more partisan and extreme rhetoric shows she is out of touch with the North Country. But Stefanik’s rising profile and her Republican advantage here in the North Country make her tough to beat.

From moderate to “ultra-MAGA”

During her four terms in Congress, Stefanik has gone from a low-profile moderate and up-and-coming bipartisan to a nationally known Trump loyalist, now describing herself as “ultra-MAGA.”

She rose through the political ranks and is now the third Republican in the House. Stefanik did this, in part, by attacking Democrats on core conservative issues like crime, guns and immigration.

“We have the most insecure border in the history of our country and it’s wide open due to Joe Biden’s pro-amnesty policies,” Stefanik told the crowd at his recent rally in Saranac Lake. “We have to go back to President Trump’s very effective border security policy; that means building the wall.

Pushing back the extremes

To attract more left-wing and right-wing voters, Castelli is running as a Democrat and a moderate, which he sees as key to his campaign strategy.

“One of the things that’s unique about our campaign is that we kind of push the extremes on both sides and bring people together in the middle and that’s what people crave.”

Castelli has never held public office before. He is a former CIA officer and senior National Security Council official.

He’s not from the North Country, so he’s had to build his notoriety over the past year. While Stefanik spoke at large rallies and Republican dinners, Castelli knocked on doors and held town halls.

About 40 people recently dropped off with the VFW in Saranac Lake to meet Castelli. They talked about issues facing veterans and the military, but people also asked Castelli about a key issue.

“I see ads from Stefanik saying you’re for gun control,” one man told VFW. “Is she wrong?”

“I would say yes,” Castelli said with a laugh. He told the crowd that he supported the Second Amendment. He himself owns firearms. And he’s against proposals passed by many Democrats, like banning assault weapons.

“I don’t believe in gun control,” Castelli said. “I believe there are opportunities for us to promote gun safety and responsibility.”

Castelli supports policies such as red flag laws and universal background checks. It’s that kind of moderate stance that he hopes will appeal to right-wing voters who might be fed up with Stefanik’s false assertions on issues like the 2020 election and critical race theory.

Castelli told the VFW room he was confident in his campaign strategy.

“When we win this race, it will be a byproduct of building a coalition of Democrats, Independents and Republicans – people who care more about their country than their party affiliation and want to seek real public servants raised to actually solve the problems facing our country. country and our community.

Matt Castelli chatting with voters at the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor in Chestertown.  Photo: Emily Russell

Matt Castelli chatting with voters at the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor in Chestertown. Photo: Emily Russell

The popularity of Elise Stefanik

Many people in the North Country, however, think Stefanik is doing both: sticking to his party and delivering results to his district. While she has made misleading claims about federal funding that has come to the North Country, many local leaders NCPR has spoken with applaud Stefanik’s advocacy here.

She is also very popular among the Republican base. “I love her. I’ve always supported her,” said Saranac Lake’s Peg Miron, who was at Stefanik’s rally in Saranac Lake. “She’s local and I’m just a big fan of her.

Jim Mazzotte, a Riverview veteran, believes Stefanik keeps his word. “She’s been very honest with what she says and she does what she tells you she’s going to do,” Mazzotte said.

Bloomindale business owner Jacquelyn Niederbuhl appreciates Stefanik’s focus on the economy. “I feel like she’s one of us and works for us and fights really hard for a lot of things that we need.”

Rep.  Stefanik at an event in Saranac Lake this year.  Photo: Nancie Battaglia

Rep. Stefanik at an event in Saranac Lake this year. Photo: Nancie Battaglia

Stefanik’s voting record

Eight years in Congress gives Stefanik a long resume to campaign for, but her record also leaves her vulnerable. Across from her recent rally in Saranac Lake, about 50 protesters held signs reading things like “Elise voted no on reproductive freedom” and “Elise voted no on cheaper prescriptions.”

Phil Newton was holding an American flag. It was a Vietnam veteran who described Stefanik’s vote against the health care bill for burn victims as “passive betrayal.” He was also shocked when she voted against the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill last year.

“Roads, bridges, water systems, broadband — all those things that everyone knows we need,” Newton said. “A bipartisan majority backed it but voted against it. I don’t even understand why that would happen.

Stefanik describes the infrastructure bill as a radical form of spending.

Castelli’s moderate identity

While Stefanik’s voting record leaves her vulnerable to criticism, Castelli’s vulnerability may be her identity as a moderate. He’s likely to push away more left-leaning progressive voters, the likes of Ausable Forks’ Emily Hirsch-Steinberg — even if she’s willing to look past it.

“I don’t think he’s the liberal of my dreams,” said Hirsch-Steinberg, who was among the protesters at Stefanik’s rally. “I think he’s a lot more moderate, but I’m happy to back him and hope he has a smaller margin of loss than the old contenders.

Stefanik beat all former contestants by a double-digit margin. She beat Democrat Tedra Cobb two years ago by almost 18%, a margin of more than 56,000 votes. Now, after recent redistricting, the North Country is leaning even more Republican.

Voters will decide what matters most

According to Stefanik’s campaign, it has raised more than $15 million this election cycle, with enough to distribute millions to other Republican campaigns across the country. His focus on more national issues potentially hints at his more national political ambitions.

“We unveiled our commitment to America,” Stefanik said, “which is focused on a strong economy, a secure nation, a future based on freedom and accountable government and we are going to win on these issues.”

Stefanik is not the moderate she was when she was first elected to Congress. She went from being the 13th most bipartisan member of Congress to the 100th this year.

The question is whether this really matters to North Country voters or whether someone like Matt Castelli can convince a large enough base that he is a better alternative.