Elise Stefanik thinks Congress could use more women — including her.
A former aide to President George W. Bush and policy director for Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign, the 29-year-old Stefanik declared her candidacy for New York’s 21st District congressional seat Tuesday. Stefanik told The Daily Caller that her post-college Washington experience impressed upon her the need for change in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve learned that Washington is broken and desperately needs new ideas and new leadership,” she said. “I think no matter what side of the aisle you are on, we need people to step up to the plate to shake things up.”
After graduating from Harvard University in 2006, Stefanik went to work for the Bush White House, first for the Domestic Policy Council and then for the chief of staff’s office. Stefanik’s post-White House career included working on Pawlenty’s ill-fated presidential campaign, working as communications director for the hawkish Foreign Policy Initiative and running debate prep for Paul Ryan during his campaign for vice president. After Romney-Ryan failed to take the White House, Stefanik moved back home to upstate New York to work for her family’s plywood business.
If Stefanik wins the Republican primary, where she faces at least one Republican challenger, she has a real shot of winning the seat from incumbent Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, according to Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“We have it rated as leans Democratic, which is a step up from it being a toss-up 50-50 race, so I have Owens as kind of a slight-favorite,” he told TheDC. “It’s one of the 35 most competitive House races in the country just based on the kind of fundamentals of it.”
In 2012, Owens won re-election by less than 2 percentage points.
“If the environment is very good for the Republicans next year, this is one of the seats you could imagine the Republicans winning,” Kondik said.
Stefanik defines herself as a “big-tent conservative.” As she tours the district, she says the issues voters express concern for mainly relate to the economy.
“The issues that I’m focusing on the most that I’ve heard from virtually every voter that I met with in the district are creating jobs and promoting economic growth,” she said. “It’s been getting harder and harder for small businesses to make ends meet in the north country in upstate New York. So I’m looking to bring some new ideas to the forefront to change that.”
In the ad accompanying her entry into the race, she made clear that Obamacare is also an issue she intends to run against.
“Obamacare is causing health care costs to increase and quality to decrease, and I think we need to repeal and replace Obamacare with common sense reforms that people have a say in and that lower costs and increases quality and access for everyone,” she said.
Asked whether she supports the drive led by Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas to defund Obamacare in a continuing resolution this fall — a move widely considered to be a stunt with no prospect of success — Stefanik says she doesn’t have a position on the legislative maneuver.
“I think we should repeal and replace,” she said. “I’m not a member of Congress and I’m not ready to comment on hypotheticals in terms of how I would vote. I would need to take a closer look at that if I were a member of Congress.”
On foreign policy, Stefanik struck an internationalist tone in line with the think tank she once worked for.
“I believe in a strong national security,” Stefanik said, while noting she is a strong believer in American exceptionalism. “I don’t think we should be balancing the budgets on the backs of our servicemen. I think we need to look elsewhere.”
“[T]his is particularly important to my district because Fort Drum is a jewel of the 21st Congressional District and is suffering from sequestration,” she added. “So I believe across the board defense cuts hurt the economy and hurt our national security and our military families are feeling that directly in the district.”
Her former boss at the Foreign Policy Initiative, Jamie Fly, praised Stefanik in an email to TheDC.
“Unlike many in Washington, who specialize in a particular field or issue, Elise had an impressive knowledge of both foreign and domestic policy,” said Fly, who now works as a foreign policy adviser to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
“At FPI, she played a key role in our efforts to educate candidates about foreign policy and also helped build our Defending Defense project, which highlighted the devastating impact of sequestration on the U.S. military. She is a hard worker and is very driven. Elise is one of those people that you realize has a bright future ahead of them as soon as you meet them.”
As TheDC’s interview with Stefanik came to a close, she interjected one last point.
“We need more women [in Congress],” she said.
“I think women speak to hard working families,” she explained. “The people that balance budgets for their families are often women. Women are small business owners. Women increasingly are the higher dollar earners in families. I think it is important to represent their perspective.”