Democratic Rep. Bill Owens unexpectedly announced on Tuesday he’s retiring from the House - giving Republicans a solid chance of re-capturing New York's 21st District.
Barely four years after he won a three-way special election to replace veteran Republican Rep. John McHugh, who resigned to become Secretary of the Army, 64-year-old Owens said he was stepping down for personal reasons.
No sooner had his decision become public than attention was focused on the Republican who has been gearing up for weeks to oppose him: 29-year-old Elise Stefanik, a former Bush White House staffer who helped prepare Paul Ryan for the vice presidential debate.
"I'm running as a fresh face and that's what we need in this district," Stefanik told Newsmax hours after Owens' announcement. "We're experiencing a 'brain drain' here in the district and it's time to put together an agenda of opportunity to convince the young people not to leave."
The mostly rural district covers 12 counties and the cities of Plattsburg and Watertown.
The first of her family to earn a college degree, Harvard graduate Stefanik worked on the Domestic Policy Council under George W. Bush, specializing in economic development.
Returning to her hometown of Willsboro, N.Y., to work in the family plywood business, Stefanik several months ago began to pursue the Republican nomination for Congress as well as the ballot lines of the Conservative and Independence Parties.
"I am going to be the only speaker from the 21st District at the Conservative Party's upcoming state conference," she said.
With Owens stepping down, there is early speculation that other Republicans may join Stefanik in the race. Businessman Matt Doheny, who narrowly lost to Owens in 2010 and 2012, could run.
But as Stefanik put it, "He's had two chances already."
Also mentioned are state Sens. Patty Ritchie of St. Lawrence County and Betty Little of Warren County. Both could be formidable candidates. Another GOP legislator, Assemblyman Tony Jordan, was just elected Washington County District Attorney and is considered out of the congressional mix.
Among Democrats, the lone name mentioned is Assemblywoman Addie Russell, who is from the western side of the district.
"This district is now a swing district, not a traditional, conservative Republican seat," John Faso, former state assembly GOP leader and 2006 Republican nominee for governor, told Newsmax.
"Many voters work for government, higher education, or non-profits that rely upon government spending, so this is a much more moderate seat than pure party enrollment would make it seem," Faso said.
"Elise Stefanik certainly has impressed people and has a leg up now, but there is no telling how others will react to the opportunity of an open seat."
Faso is optimistic that the Republicans can win back the district. He said: "For now, let's just say this is an excellent opportunity for a Republican pickup.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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