21st CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT -- The North Country congressional district represented by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, is considered by political oddsmakers to be "safe" for Republicans, but Democrats there are taking heart from Doug Jones' unexpected Senate victory this week in solidly Republican Alabama.

Going into the 2018 congressional election, seven Democrats are already running against Stefanik, who was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in 2014, and at age 33 is still the chamber's youngest member.

One of the Democratic candidates, Patrick Nelson of Stillwater in Saratoga County, said Friday that he's been encouraged by a number of recent Democratic victories around the country and locally, including some at the Town Board level in historically Republican 21st Congressional District towns.

"Of course I'm encouraged when Doug Jones wins in Alabama," said Nelson, a former Bernie Sanders campaigner who is pushing progressive causes like a higher miniumum wage and goverment-supervised health care. "I don't think there's any such thing as a safely Republican seat. The majority of voters in the district are not Republicans. It's been held by a Democrat in the past. It was carried by Barack Obama twice. It is a winnable district for Democrats."

Voter registration figures at the state Board of Elections show that of 438,117 voters registered in the district as of Nov. 1, 178,359 are Republicans, 128,562 are Democrats, and 93,920 are unaffliated. The rest belong to smaller political parties. Democrat Bill Owens held the seat from 2009 to 2015, as factional righting split the Republican vote in those elections.

The Democrats in the race include Nelson; Don Boyajian of Cambridge; Tedra Cobb of St. Lawrence County; Ronald Kim of Queensbury; Emily Martz of Saranac Lake; Katie Wilson of Keene; and Tanya Boone of Granville. If there's a primary to decide the Democratic candidate, as seems likely, it will be held on June 26.

Stefanik also faces two potential Republican primary challengers: Russell Finley of St. Lawrence County and Steven Schnibbe of Saranac Lake.

Since going to Congress, Stefanik, of Willsboro in Essex County, has been generally a reliable vote for Speaker Paul Ryan's priorities. But in recent months she has shown more independence, voting against the House version of the Republican tax cut plan which would reduce or eliminate the homeowner property tax deduction. On Thursday, she issued a statement critical of the Federal Communication Commission's decision to end net neutrality. She said Congress needs to legislate net neutrality rules, in contract to the Trump administration's position on the issue.

A Stefanik campaign spokesman said she has a strong record on local issues to run on, and he noted that she won the district by 30 percentage points in 2016.

"There will be a time for politics," spokesman Lenny Alcivar said. "On Election Day, Congresswoman Stefanik will win the hearts and minds of voters across the district because they will know her record of results, and because they trust her to continue to deliver the results for which she campaigned, for families and businesses and everyone who put a stake into the district."

Going into the election year, Stefanik has an enormous lead in fundraising. As of the July filings with the Federal Elections Commission, Stefanik had more than $1 million in her campaign accounts. The leading Democratic fundraiser, Boyajian, had raised about $208,000, which some large donations coming from members of the Capital Region legal community, where his father, also named Donald, is a prominent attorney.

Cobb, a former St. Lawrence County legislator who had raised the second most money of any Democrat, $129,000 through last July, said she is encouraged by the Democratic victory in the Virginia governor's race in November, as well as Jones' win last Tuesday over controversial Republican Roy Moore. Moore in the final weeks of the race was accused of sexually harassing underage girls. Despite the lurid nature of allegations against Moore, Cobb said Democrats have won on the issues.

"I think politicians think voters won't notice that they're voting against local priorities," Cobb said. "[Stefanik's] betting that we won't notice they're voting for the closing of local hospitals, cutting off of health care for local people, to reduce restrictions on corporate polluters, and then there's this horrendous tax bill. But they noticed in Virginia, they noticed in Alabama, and we notice in northern New York. The voters are paying attention."

Fulton County Republican Chairwoman Sue O'Neil is a strong supporter of Stefanik, but she acknowledged Democrats might have reason for hope after Jones' upset victory. She said she expects to work hard for Stefanik regardless of what her opponents may do, and for Stefanik herself to campaign hard for re-election.

"I never go with the feeling of safe with anything like this," O'Neil said. "Even if you're unopposed, you have to work really hard. She's going to work really hard and when she's back home. She makes it a point to get out to the counties."

Noting that Stefanik has sometimes broken with Republican leadership on national issues, O'Neil  said, "One of the issues we've had in conversations with her is that [legislation she will support] has to be good for the North Country. She does pay attention to what she hears from constituents."

Her opponents, however, fault Stefanik for holding few open town hall-style meetings with residents, and progressive organizations have demonstrated outside her district offices, including her Glens Falls office, calling for Stefanik to meet with the public more often.

The 21st Congressional District stretches from the Capital Region's northern suburbs to the Canadian border, including all or parts of Saratoga, Fulton, Washington, Warren, Hamilton, Herkimer, Essex, Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties. Geographically, it is the largest district east of the Mississippi.

Patrick Nelson