Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY) has stolen the national spotlight and the Conference Chair positionfrom Liz Cheney, who was removed this week by voice vote of the GOP House membership. As the only woman with any real leadership powers within the Congressional GOP delegation, Stefanik is in a rare position. But few know much about her, and even fewer know what she has planned. So here's a few truths about her.
Stefanik has no principles.
When she first won election to Congress in 2014, Stefanik was the youngest woman ever elected to the House. Now, seven years later at age 37, she is truly a unicorn: a once politically moderate millennial turned hardcore Trump acolyte who will be charged with keeping the entire House GOP caucus on message. But what will that message be?
If this were Stefanik of even just a few years ago, we would hear her say of the Muslim ban that it was "not who we are as a country," of the Border Wall that "I don't think that's realistic," and of Trump's infamous Access Hollywood tape that these were "inappropriate, offensive comments." As Mother Jones noted, Stefanik entered Congress as a moderate but "now is being anointed as a top Trumper who has fully supported Trump's Big Lie that the election was rigged against him." The woman who in town halls and interviews once called upon Trump to admit that Putin interfered in the election in 2016 to help him, and for Trump to release his tax returns, has done a complete political about-face worthy of Lindsey Graham or Kellyanne Conway (or for that matter, Krysten Sinema).
She made her move toward Trump during the first impeachment hearing. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, she blasted committee chair Adam Schiff for not allowing Republicans to question the witnesses, earning her praise from Trump himself in a tweet: "A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik!" Trump crowed. Basking in this attention, and the national attention and fundraising powers it bestowed, Stefanik pivoted even harder to the ex-president, signing on to an amicus brief in support of a GOP suit asking the Supreme Court to toss out Biden's victory and voting with House Republicans to object to certifying Biden's victory in Pennsylvania. Part of this was raw political calculation: Stefanik's district in upstate New York had once voted for Obama, but now was 14 points for Trump.
Stefanik says she supports women candidates but backstabbed Liz Cheney.
Republican leaders first took notice of Stefanik after she succeeded in recruiting and supporting women candidates to run for GOP House seats. This was an especially difficult lift after the thumping the GOP received in the 2018 midterms, when suburban women turned against Trump and the Republican Party generally. Stefanik formed a PAC designed to help female candidates win, and an impressive 18 out of 30 of her endorsed candidates prevailed in their races according to Politico. These House members are likely to line up solidly behind Stefanik's leadership. Indeed, the GOP sees Stefanik as key to energizing women candidates and women voters after reaching what she calls a "crisis" point with them in 2018.
Despite championing the need for greater representation for women in the GOP, Stefanik had no issue announcing that she would be happy to replace Liz Cheney as Conference Chair. This was a critical factor in House Leader Kevin McCarthy's decision to turn on Cheney: If the GOP couldn't find another female leader willing to step up, the sacking of Liz Cheney would look a lot like a bunch of men rounding on the only woman in their gang. Stefanik was quite willing to place her own ambitions ahead of any kind of female solidarity and move to take out the most powerful woman in the GOP.
Stefanik will make support for Trump a litmus test in the primaries.
As Conference Chair for the House GOP, Stefanik is now in charge of party messaging, and there could be no clearer indication that loyalty to Trump is paramount to her own elevation. Her head-spinning flip-flop on Trump is in fact a perfect example of what is now expected within the GOP. The clear message is that whatever you once thought or said about Trump doesn't matter as long as you kiss the ring now and extol him at every turn.
There is a deeper message as well. Kevin McCarthy has not been willing in the past to get involved in primary battles, preferring to work with whomever the voters ultimately choose. Not so Stefanik. Her PAC was deeply committed to promoting specific candidates in GOP primaries, and we can expect that to continue. We can also expect that loyalty to Trump will now be a key factor in who receives institutional support from her and from the party in those primaries, with the ex-president himself likely to make clear who his favorites are, and with the expectation that Stefanik and McCarthy will back that up.
The end result is almost certainly a sharper turn toward Trumpism than ever in 2022. While this may be hard for sane people to wrap their heads around, it must also be understood as an all-in bet by the GOP they were basically forced to make. There are simply too many Trump voters in many districts for any moderates to prevail in an off-year cycle. Stefanik's job will be to keep everyone in the GOP riding on the Trump train, even as it barrels toward a gigantic wreck with moderate voters in the general election.