In Elise Stefanik, the GOP Installs a Trump Convert

Once a moderate, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the party’s new No. 3 in the House, tacked to the right as her party and district rallied behind Donald J. Trump.

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WASHINGTON — As Representative Elise Stefanik of New York watched then-candidate Donald J. Trump take her party by storm and win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, she was so skeptical of his inflammatory style and hard-right positions that she refused — even when pressed — to say his name.

But on Friday, minutes after she was elected to her party’s No. 3 House post as part of a Republican leadership purge that targeted a leading critic of Mr. Trump, the former president’s was one of the first names she uttered.

Having won Mr. Trump’s endorsement for the leadership position as she parroted some of his false claims about fraud in the 2020 election, Ms. Stefanik sang his praises, capping a remarkable metamorphosis by the 36-year-old congresswoman that mirrors the G.O.P.’s evolution into a party made entirely in his image.

“Voters determine the leader of the Republican Party, and President Trump is the leader that they look to,” Ms. Stefanik said, after thanking the former president. “I support President Trump, voters support President Trump; he is an important voice in our Republican Party and we look forward to working with him.”

The 134-46 vote to elevate Ms. Stefanik was the capstone on a campaign by Republicans to force out Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who had angered her colleagues by repudiating Mr. Trump’s election lies and insisting he should have no place in the party going forward.

Ms. Stefanik’s swift rise to replace her cemented a litmus test for the party’s leaders of unswerving loyalty to Mr. Trump. It was also a striking culmination of her own political journey, from disciple of the once-dominant establishment wing of the Republican Party to an outspoken Trump acolyte.

That conversion mirrors not only that of Ms. Stefanik’s district in New York’s North Country, but of the Republican Party itself, as one-time critics of the former president have either stepped aside, held their tongues for fear of drawing a backlash from Mr. Trump’s loyal base, or, in Ms. Stefanik’s case, reinvented themselves altogether to capitalize on the zeal of his supporters.

“The base of our party has listened to President Trump,” said Representative Ken Buck, Republican of Colorado. “And there’s a lot of feedback.”

When Ms. Stefanik first came to Congress in 2014 — then the youngest woman ever elected — she was viewed as a rising star in the mold of then-Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who had hired her to work on his 2012 campaign for vice president and whom she later credited in part with inspiring her to run for Congress. A graduate of Harvard and an alumna of former President George W. Bush’s administration, she presented herself as a moderate pragmatist willing to work with Democrats and hoping to expand the party’s appeal, especially to women and younger voters.

“I will work with anyone, regardless of their party affiliation, to get it done,” Ms. Stefanik had said. “Republicans, Democrats, independents, even Green Party — if you have a good idea, I’m willing to work with you to get the job done.”

In an interview with a local radio station in 2015, she trumpeted her work with a group of moderate Republicans, who she said were “more of the governing caucus within the Republican Party,” and landed a thinly veiled jab at the ultraconservative members of the House Freedom Caucus without naming them, suggesting that they had not used “the most appropriate tenor” and had provoked “internal squabbling.”

“Elise Stefanik is a builder — no easy feat in an age when so much of politics is about tearing people down,” Mr. Ryan wrote in 2019 when she was named a rising star by Time magazine. “Elise has built a record as an authentic, respected voice for ideas and common sense.”

Even after Mr. Trump was elected, Ms. Stefanik kept her distance, voting against his emergency declaration to build a wall on the southern border and against his signature 2017 tax cuts bill. A member of the Intelligence Committee, she boasted about supporting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia and being “one of the first members” to call for transparency in regards to the report.

But Ms. Stefanik was already starting to move closer to Mr. Trump, having taken note of his 2016 romp in her district, a 14-point victory in a swath of upstate New York that had favored former President Barack Obama twice by large margins.

“I really paid attention to the voters and the people in my district,” she told Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, in an interview last week. “And it was really stunning to see the amount of Trump signs popping up, the number of people attending Republican rallies, people that had never come to political rallies before turning out to vote.”

Just before the 2018 midterm elections, she invited Mr. Trump to her district to sign the annual defense bill at Fort Drum and shared the stage with him, though she pointedly declined to praise him during her brief remarks.

Even as she was allying herself with Mr. Trump, Ms. Stefanik was playing a leading role in countering his effect on the Republican Party, which lost its House majority that year in part because suburban women were alienated by him. She began an intensive drive to recruit and elect more G.O.P. women, raising huge sums for the task.

But by the following year, with Mr. Trump facing his first impeachment, Ms. Stefanik made it clear she was no longer reluctant to be associated with him. The starkest indication of her shift came during his hearings and subsequent Senate trial, when the New York Republican served as one of the former president’s defenders.

Understand the Removal of Liz Cheney

House Republicans voted on May 12 to oust Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from their leadership ranks for her refusal to stay quiet about President Donald J. Trump’s election lies.

Backlash to Impeachment Vote: In January, Ms. Cheney issued a stinging statement announcing that she would vote to impeach Mr. Trump. In the statement, which drove a fissure through her party, she said that there had “never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States” than Mr. Trump’s incitement of a mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. She was among 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him. A group of Mr. Trump’s most strident allies in the House called on her to resign from her leadership post.Leadership Challenge: In February, Ms. Cheney fended off a challenge to strip her of her leadership position in a secret ballot vote. Even as a majority of House Republicans opposed impeaching Mr. Trump, most were not prepared to punish one of their top leaders for doing so — at least not under a blanket of anonymity.Censure: Ms. Cheney also faced opposition from the Wyoming Republican Party, which censured her and demanded she resign. Ms. Cheney rejected those calls and urged Republicans to be “the party of truth.”New Challenge: Ms. Cheney continued her blunt condemnation of Mr. Trump and her party’s role in spreading the false election claims that inspired the Jan. 6 attack, prompting a new push to oust her from her leadership role. This time, the effort was backed by Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader.Removal: Ms. Cheney framed her expulsion as a turning point for her party and declared in an extraordinary speech that she would not sit by quietly as Republicans abandoned the rule of law. She embraced her downfall and offered herself as a cautionary tale in what she is portraying as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. The removal came by voice vote during a brief but raucous closed-door meeting in an auditorium on Capitol Hill.Impact and Analysis: What began as a battle over the party’s future after the violent end to the Trump presidency has collapsed into a one-sided pile-on by Team Trump against critics like Ms. Cheney, a scion of a storied Republican family. The episode, a remarkable takedown that reflected the party’s intolerance for dissent and unswerving fealty to the former president, has called attention to internal party divisions between more mainstream and conservative factions about how to win back the House in 2022.Successor: On May 14, House Republicans elected Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, a vocal defender of Mr. Trump, as their No. 3 leader. Ms. Stefanik pledged to maintain a focus “on unity” as conference chair, but she has also drawn criticism from some hard-right Republicans who have questioned her conservative bona fides.

Her combative tone and willingness to lean into the proceedings as a partisan brawler catapulted her into the limelight, drawing widespread praise from conservatives on social media and attracting the attention of Mr. Trump, who anointed her a “new Republican star.” The attention also led to a significant surge in campaign donations, allowing Ms. Stefanik to build a list of over 200,000 small-dollar donors, according to her aides.

Her performance also won over some of the ultraconservative members she had earlier disdained. Representative Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican who served with Ms. Stefanik as an impeachment defender, recalled in an interview how she had carefully prepared her questioning behind the scenes, and praised how she had calibrated her fierce tone to the proceedings.

“When you’re talking about a bipartisan veterans’ bill that everybody’s going to agree with, you can have a press conference and everybody’s getting along and working together,” Mr. Zeldin said, referring to Ms. Stefanik’s earlier inclination to work across the aisle. “But when you’re talking about impeachment of a sitting president of the United States, it’s different.”

It was those performances and her effort to elect more Republican women to Congress — which bore fruit last year — that inspired party leaders, led by Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, to tap Ms. Stefanik as they looked to dethrone Ms. Cheney.

“We need to be united, and that starts with leadership,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Capitalizing on the newfound swell of support from conservatives and the backing of a number of prominent freshmen congresswomen whom she helped elect, Ms. Stefanik turned her attention to bolstering her credentials with some hard-right members who were still skeptical of her.

She went on a hard-right media blitz, echoing Mr. Trump’s election allegations by referring to “unprecedented, unconstitutional overreach” by election officials in 2020. She endorsed an audit in Arizona that has become the latest avenue for conservatives to try to cast doubt on the results and declined an opportunity to correct her erroneous claim that 140,000 ballots in a single Georgia county had been illegally cast.

And perhaps crucially for the lawmakers she was hoping to sway, she promised an end to the broadsides against Mr. Trump that had become a hallmark of Ms. Cheney’s tenure, and pledged instead to unite the conference with a pro-Trump message.

On Friday, shortly after members officially elected her as their new conference chair in a closed-door vote, Ms. Stefanik delivered on her promise, calling Mr. Trump a “critical part of our Republican team” and wasting no time in denouncing Mr. Biden and his administration’s policies.

“We’re going on offense and we’re going to win on the issues,” she confidently told reporters. “Because people are understanding that, Joe Biden’s pledge of bipartisanship? He has broken that pledge.”

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