Wednesday, June 16, 2021
June 16, 2021

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The evolution of Elise Stefanik: How she turned into a belated Trump favorite on the rise

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WASHINGTON — Elise Stefanik knows how to pick her battles.

At a small town-hall meeting in 2018, she called for President Donald Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, to resign.

The demands burnished the New York Republican’s brand as an independent thinker in her politically heterodox upstate district, which voted for Trump even though environment and climate change matter a lot to the ski resorts and lakeside retreats that dot the Adirondacks.

But when Democrats drafted a resolution demanding Pruitt’s resignation a few weeks later, Stefanik didn’t sign.

In an interview with the Watertown Daily Times and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Stefanik defended the apparent flip-flop, saying the Democrats’ resolution was doomed in the GOP-led chamber. Signing it would have only escalated her discord with the White House — a fight she didn’t want. It would be better, she said, to get more Republicans to join her call than to sign on to the Democratic resolution.

The episode showcased Stefanik’s willingness to buck her party on policy, but not on politics, a quality that now might vault her into the upper echelon of GOP leadership.

On Tuesday, Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the No. 2 ranking Republican, supported calls to replace No. 3 Liz Cheney with Stefanik. On Wednesday, former President Donald Trump also endorsed Stefanik, whose national profile grew — and changed — dramatically during his first impeachment.

If that happens, the Republican conference chair will go from one of the party’s most steadfast conservatives to one of the most liberal members based on their voting records. And it will show that for the Republican Party, loyalty to Trump matters more than fealty to conservative ideology or democratic ideals.

Stefanik has always been a Republican star, albeit, until 2019, a rising one outside the national limelight. “Elise isn’t just the future of the Republican Party,” former House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote in 2019. “She is the future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America.”

She first won election in 2014 at the age of 30, making her the youngest female representative ever until Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in 2018. She flipped the North Country district, which had elected a moderate Democrat in the prior three elections and backed Barack Obama for president, twice.

Stefanik grew up just south of the district, in Albany. After graduating from Harvard University, she worked in the George W. Bush White House. In 2012, she joined Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign, and she later worked for Ryan after he became Mitt Romney’s running mate. She moved back to the area shortly before the 2014 race, using her parents’ vacation home in Willsboro as her residence.

In that race, Stefanik campaigned as a “fresh voice.” She refused to sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge — practically a sacrament of initiation for GOP candidates. Despite the carpetbagger allegations and tax apostasy, Stefanik won the GOP primary and then went on to a decisive win in the general. She hasn’t faced a close challenge since.

Back in D.C., she was assigned to the House Armed Services Committee. She used that perch to defend Fort Drum — home to the 10th Mountain Division and employer of thousands in her district — from reductions by including protective language in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

In the 2016 presidential race, Stefanik only reluctantly came to support Trump after initially backing John Kasich, who would go on to endorse Joe Biden in 2020. Even when she ultimately did, she declined to actually say Trump’s name, referring to him only as “my party’s nominee.”

After that election, she became co-chair of the Tuesday Group, a caucus of moderate Republicans, alongside Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. Dent would resign his seat after numerous public spats with Trump and, like Kasich, endorsed Biden in 2020, calling Trump a “threat to the rule of law and functional democracy.”

Besides calling for Pruitt’s head, Stefanik defied her party — and Trump — on a number of other issues. She voted with Democrats on a bill that would have blocked Trump from withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, backed LGBTQ anti-discrimination bills, and voted against the 2017 tax cuts. According to CQ Vote Watch, Stefanik voted with Trump less than 70% of the time in 2019 and 2020 — the seventh lowest score in the GOP.

She also earned a reputation for bipartisanship. According to an index from the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Stefanik was the 13th most bipartisan member in the 116th Congress, placing her in the top 3%.

Stefanik has also opposed some of Trump’s more dovish tendencies, criticizing his decision to remove troops from Syria and supporting legislation that would take a more hard-line approach to Russia and its meddling in U.S. elections.

But on the one issue that appears to matter most to the former president — personal loyalty — she became unwavering. When the first Trump impeachment put the national spotlight on the House Intelligence Committee, some thought Stefanik — a moderate, an “independent voice” and someone who had backed the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election despite Trump’s grievances against it — might lend the hearings some bipartisan support.

Instead, she defended the president, loudly and fiercely, echoing his arguments denouncing the process as an illegitimate partisan hack job. She went on to repeat Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, supporting lawsuits to overturn the results, opposing Trump’s second impeachment, and voting — after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol — against its certification.

Cheney, by contrast, denounced Trump after the Jan. 6 attacks and voted for his impeachment. And as Trump has continued to claim, without evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen, Cheney has continued to speak out against those claims, noting that they risk undermining Americans’ faith in the democracy that undergirds the legitimacy of government and the rule of law.

Stefanik’s relative willingness to defy the GOP orthodoxy on other issues — those unrelated to support for Trump’s assault on truth and democracy — has continued now that Biden is president. According to Voteview’s ideology ranking, she is more liberal than 98% of her party, while Cheney ranks right in the middle. FiveThirtyEight’s Biden voting score shows Stefanik voting with the Democratic president 18.8% of the time, with only 20 other Republicans supporting Biden more frequently.

It would be surprising to see that continue if she joins leadership, whose job largely consists of whipping votes and maintaining party unity. As they did when Obama was president, the Republican Party has embraced a strategy of near-total opposition to the president’s agenda while accusing Democrats of failing to act in a bipartisan manner.

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