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Who is Elise Stefanik, Liz Cheney's likely GOP leadership replacement?

·West Coast Correspondent
·6 min read
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On Wednesday, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to strip Rep. Liz Cheney — the congresswoman from MAGA-red Wyoming who voted with President Trump 93 percent of the time — of her No. 3 leadership position.

And later this week they will almost certainly vote to replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik, a 36-year-old Harvard grad and former Paul Ryan acolyte from deep-blue New York state whose record is arguably more liberal than those of 98 percent of her GOP colleagues.

A few conservatives, such as Rep. Chip Roy of Texas and Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, have objected to Stefanik’s coronation on ideological grounds. But most of the rest of the GOP, from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to hard-right Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, don’t seem to mind that Stefanik’s voting record is significantly more moderate than Cheney’s.

Why? The reason is simple: Stefanik has shown unwavering personal allegiance to Donald Trump over the past eight months; Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, consistently repudiated Trump’s campaign of falsehoods about election fraud.

“We cannot both embrace the ‘big lie’ and embrace the Constitution,” Cheney told reporters after losing her position.

Trump, in turn, has noticed. “Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL endorsement for GOP Conference Chair,” he tweeted last week.

The fact that the House GOP quickly followed the former president’s lead and gave Cheney the boot is perhaps the most dramatic illustration yet of how little policy or ideology matters in today’s Republican Party, as members look toward pleasing the base and winning reelection in 2022. What matters is loyalty to Trump.

Stefanik understands this — and unless House conservatives suddenly and unexpectedly rise up in opposition to her en masse, she is about to be rewarded as a result.

The remarkable thing about Stefanik is that she isn’t even a particularly long-standing loyalist. Nor does her loyalty extend to actually agreeing with Trump on key issues that might otherwise define the GOP agenda.

A native of Albany, Stefanik graduated from Harvard in 2006 with a degree in government and promptly joined the George W. Bush White House under chief of staff Joshua Bolten. In 2012, she worked for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign and later assisted Ryan after he became Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) speaks during a press conference following a House Republican caucus meeting on Capitol Hill on April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

All five of those establishment Republicans — Bush, Bolten, Pawlenty, Ryan and Romney — have since denounced Trump and the direction of the GOP under his dominance. At first, Stefanik wasn’t any different. Citing her parents’ Adirondacks vacation home in Willsboro, N.Y., as her residence to compete in the state’s heterodox 21st Congressional District, Stefanik launched her 2014 House bid by touting herself as a “fresh voice” unconstrained by the usual partisan politics. She won by more than 20 percentage points, becoming the district’s first Republican representative in more than two decades and (at the time) the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

In 2016, Stefanik initially backed moderate Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president, and even as Trump had cleared the field — as late as Oct. 17, in fact — she refused to endorse him by name, saying only that she would “support my party’s nominee.” She also slammed Trump’s “inappropriate, offensive comments” toward women and said he had “no excuse” for “attacking” Gold Star military families. The arm’s-length strategy worked, and she won reelection by 35 points.

In Congress, Stefanik co-chaired the Tuesday Group, a caucus of moderate Republicans, and continued to clash with Trump — now more on substance than style. She spoke out against Trump’s ban on migrants from majority-Muslim countries. She criticized his proposed border wall. She opposed his deep budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. She demanded more information on Russian election interference, calling herself an “outspoken supporter of the [Robert] Mueller investigation, which I believe is best equipped and our best hope to get to the apolitical truth.”

The list goes on. She broke with Trump on NAFTA and trade. She called for an end to family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. She voted with Democrats on a bill that would have blocked Trump from withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. She backed LGBTQ antidiscrimination bills. She opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. And she even voted against his signature 2017 tax cuts.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY)(L) gets a hug from U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) before the start of the first session of the 114th Congress in the House Chambers January 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Stefanik gets a hug from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., before the start of the congressional session in January 2015. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

All in all, Stefanik legislated more as an establishment Republican in the Romney-Ryan mold than as an “America First” MAGA culture warrior, voting with Trump less than 70 percent of the time in 2019 and 2020, according to CQ Vote Watch — the seventh-lowest score in the GOP — and ranking as the 13th most bipartisan member in the 116th Congress.

“I think both parties need to address the tribalism that’s happening, and the siloing of where we’re getting our information,” she said in 2018.

Yet in late 2019, Stefanik’s emphasis started to shift. Trump had already won her formerly blue district, which voted twice for Barack Obama, by 14 percentage points. Now her reelection campaign was underway, and her perch on the House Intelligence Committee gave her a very visible platform during the president’s first impeachment inquiry.

So after initially declining to take sides, Stefanik started to publicly spar with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., going so far as to declare him an “abject failure” during an appearance on Fox News’ “Hannity” in which she urged voters to donate to her at fightschiff.com. The gambit raised $500,000 in two hours; Trump tweeted that “a new Republican star is born.”

Stefanik ultimately leveraged her starring role as Trump’s top impeachment defender into an email list of 200,000 small donors, which she used to raise $13.3 million last cycle, nearly doubling her combined haul over three previous contests — and to steer loads of cash to other Republican candidates.

Her transformation complete, Stefanik has spent the past several months endorsing lawsuits to overturn the 2020 election, voting to reject Joe Biden’s winning electoral votes after the Capitol riot and supporting falsehoods about “voting irregularities” while frequently engaging in cancel-culture wars on cable news and social media — much to Trump’s delight.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump address guests at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on January 20, 2021. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)
Outgoing President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Jan. 20. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

Interestingly, Stefanik hasn’t entirely abandoned her more moderate instincts on policy, voting with Biden more often than 90 percent of her Republican colleagues, according to FiveThirtyEight.

“Elise Stefanik is NOT a good spokesperson for the House Republican Conference,” tweeted the Club for Growth, which has traditionally backed candidates with a conservative record on tax and spending issues. “She is a liberal with a 35% CFGF lifetime rating, 4th worst in the House GOP. House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House Majority.”

Yet, in that — and in her coming ascension to the highest rungs of leadership — Stefanik is the exception that proves the rule. In today’s GOP, even the politician who’s about to be in charge of keeping House Republicans on message can stray from the party line on matters of policy — provided she doesn’t stray on matters of Trump.

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