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Elise Stefanik: From moderate to Trump favourite, who is the rising GOP star expected to topple Liz Cheney

·9-min read
Elise Stefanik has positioned herself as forceful defender of Donald Trump (Getty Images)
Elise Stefanik has positioned herself as forceful defender of Donald Trump (Getty Images)

If you do not recognise the name, it is likely you saw her in one of several moments from Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing that went viral.

Appointed to defend the then president over claims he had sought political favours from Ukraine, Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik frequently and stridently clashed with Democrats such as Adam Schiff.

“This is the fifth time you have interrupted a duly-elected members of Congress,” she told told him on one occasion, in an exchange that delighted Republicans.

Or else you may have seen her after the hearings, addressing the media with other Republicans, and very much taking centre stage among her more senior colleagues.

“These hearings are not about tweets. They are about impeachment of the president of the United States. This is a constitutional matter,” she railed one day. “You can disagree or dislike the tweet but we are here to talk about impeachment and nothing in that room today and nothing in that room earlier this week, nothing rises to the level of impeachable offences.”

People took notice, in particular Trump, grumpily watching the proceedings on television from the White House.

“A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik!” he tweeted, then still able to do so.

Much water has raced past in the river of national politics in the 18 months since then. Trump was impeached twice by the House of Representatives, and twice the Senate did not convict him. Joe Biden won a presidential election, which Trump and his supporters falsely claimed was rigged, the former president was banned from both Twitter and Facebook for spreading false information, the latter’s decision upheld this week by its independent oversight board.

Yet lots has not changed. In the coming days or weeks, the 36-year-old Stefanik, who represents New York’s 21st congressional district, is expected to be elected as the third most senior member of her party in the House. In doing so she will be filling the seat currently held by Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney, and ousting one of the daughters of a former vice president.

On many positions, Cheney, 54, would normally be viewed as considerably more conservative than Stefanik, who spent a number of years wearing the mantle of a Republican moderate.

Yet, there is one issue on which their positions could barely be further apart and which has come to steer and shape both their political paths – loyalty to Donald Trump.

In the aftermath of the 6 January storming of the US Capitol by hundreds of supporters of the then president, Cheney was one of just 10 Republicans to impeach Trump, charged by Democrats with “incitement of insurrection”.

As the House Republican Conference chair, she was the most senior member of the party in the lower chamber to do so, and she was noticeably scathing of Trump and his responsibility. She said he had “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack”. She termed Trump’s actions the “greatest betrayal” of a US president ever.

Trump and his most shrill supporters have denounced Cheney, and vowed to organise and fund a primary challenger. She has sought – not with much success – to move on from the controversy and get on with with the job of trying to recapture control of the House in the midterms.

Yet she has not backed away from her position. In February she survived a vote for her job by secret ballot.

This week, as speculation about her future has grown amid talk members of the House could soon vote again over her future, she told the party that its actions would be judged by history.

“The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “History is watching. Our children are watching. We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process.”

By contrast, Stefanik – a graduate of Harvard University, whose husband Matthew Manda works in communications – has further sought to cement her position as someone ready to do what it takes to display fealty to Trump. Following his election loss she was among those Republicans who claimed, contrary to the evidence, there had been widespread electoral fraud and other aspects of Trump’s “big lie”.

She supported his lawsuits in places such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, and was among those Republicans who voted not to affirm Biden’s electoral college votes, even after the Capitol was overran.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse says there is no evidence that members of the public are interested in the fight over the number three GOP position in the House.

“We’re 18 months from the midterms and I don’t think this is a going to be seen as more than a bump in the road,” he tells The Independent.

However, he says the fight underscores Trump’s fierce grip on the party, even having lost the presidency and having been forced to adopt a lower profile.

“What it tells you is – it is still Donald Trump’s Republican Party. That’s the reinforcement here.”

Trump retains an approval rating of up to 85 per cent among Republicans, says Newhouse. He says claims by some Republicans that Stefanik is too moderate on her positions for such a leadership role, are irrelevant to what is happening right now.

“The criteria is not whether you’re conservative enough, but whether you’re toeing the line with Donald Trump. And she checks that box.”

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist who previously worked for former Republican House Leader Eric Cantor, and who knows Stefanik, agrees loyalty to Trump is the current litmus test.

He says the party’s senior figures have decided that Trump and his hugely loyal base for now remain the GOP’s future.

“I think there are two reasons for that. One is they are hearing from their voters,” he said. “But also, they’re fearful of his wrath, and especially going into midterm elections, they know Trump can potentially be helpful. But we know that he can play a more sinister role if he chooses to.”

Of Stefanik, he says she is “well liked, well respected, whip smart, and aggressive”.

Her decision to offer unquestioning support to the former president and his claims of election fraud, have surprised many who have watched her career in New York politics.

Getty Images
Getty Images

She was first elected in 2014 at the age of 30, then the youngest woman to enter Congress, and having previously worked for George W Bush’s domestic policy council. She then worked at a Washington DC think tank, before working with then congressman Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 presidential elections. One of her jobs was to prepare Ryan, who would go on to serve two terms as Speaker of the House, for his debate against Barack Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden.

Suzy Ballantyne a New York political strategist, says Stefanik had set out with the reputation of a moderate Republican, willing to work on issues on a bi-partisan manner, and skewing to the left of her party on issues such as the Republicans’ 2017 tax cut, and giving legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

She has also been a fierce fundraiser, and supporter of female candidates, using the E-PAC, or Elevate PAC, to help elect as many as nine women Republicans.

In 2019, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broke her record as the youngest woman to take a position in Congress, she wrote an open letter of advice to her and other young members. She said: “Success means that you serve as a role model for a next generation of women who believe they can run and win at a young age.”

The website FiveThirtyEight suggested that while Cheney voted with Trump more than 92 per cent of the time, Stefanik’s total was just 77 per cent. Another site that measures bi-partisanship among politicians ranked her as high as the 13th most bi-partisan.

“She definitely changed in the last number of years. She formerly was moderate Republican in the New York kind of way,” says Ballantyne, a former director of government affairs at the AFL–CIO, the US’s largest union group. “Since Trump, she has radically changed the kind of person she was.”

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Such is her reputation for “moderation” that a number of groups, including the non-elected lobbying organisation Club for Growth, and the right-wing Freedom Caucus have raised doubts about her suitability to be the party’s number three.

Stefanik has worked to try and assuage any concerns. She is due to meet with members of the group next Monday, according to the Times Union. “Cheney was not a good listener,” a source told the newspaper. “People just want to make sure Stefanik is a good listener.”

To further her credentials among populists, she also appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast where she spoke in favour of the controversial “vote audit” taking place in Arizona.

The audit of Maricopa County, where much of Arizona’s population lives and which was won by Biden in November, was ordered by the Republican-controlled state Senate despite objections by the county. It was done so, despite the state already ordering reviews that found no malfeasance. The company carrying out the recount, Cyber Ninjas, was founded by Doug Logan, who supports Trump’s claim the election was stolen.

Stefanik, who previously supported Trump’s legal appeal to the Supreme Court, told Bannon she also backed what was happening in Arizona. “We want transparency and answers for the American people — what are the Democrats so afraid of?”

In truth, Stefanik has most likely done enough to secure her the number three spot. In a pointer to what is likely to play out in the coming days, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News his members were “concerned about [Cheney’s]nability to carry out the job as conference chair to carry out the message”.

The next day came even clearer words from Trump, whose voice matters more than anyone else.

“Liz Cheney is a warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership,” he said. “We want leaders who believe in the Make America Great Again movement, and prioritize the values of America First. Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair.”

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