The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A moderate congresswoman went all-in for Trump. Her constituents think they know why.

During President Donald Trump's 2019 impeachment hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said the inquiry was not about his tweets. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. — When Rep. Elise Stefanik ran for reelection in 2016, observers here dubbed her "the tightrope walker" for the way she delicately tiptoed around the question of Donald Trump.

She had once insisted he could never win the Republican nomination. Once he did, she kept him at a careful distance — acknowledging, when pressed, that she supported the man at the top of her party’s ticket while generally avoiding any mention of his name.

Three years later, with Trump’s presidency on the line, Stefanik (R-N.Y.) shot to his defense with all the subtlety of a human cannonball.

Given a national platform during impeachment hearings, the Harvard University graduate leveraged her post on the House Intelligence Committee to do battle with President Trump’s antagonists over their “crumbling” case and to present herself as “the 35-year-old Republican congresswoman standing between Democrats and our American Democracy.”

“A new Republican star is born,” Trump tweeted approvingly.

Democrats, meanwhile, shook their heads: Why would one of Congress’s most moderate Republicans — with a carefully nurtured reputation for bipartisanship and independence — go all-in for a president on the brink of being impeached?

Seen here from her Upstate New York district — a vast region of vertiginous Adirondack mountain peaks and far-flung valley towns known collectively as the North Country — there’s a lot less mystery. And a lot more clarity about how the politics of impeachment are playing out far from the fevered congressional hearing rooms where Stefanik rose to national prominence this fall.

The country may be divided over impeachment, with about half of voters opposing it and half supporting it. But weeks of open hearings have failed to give Democrats any momentum among independents, and the vast majority of Republicans remain adamantly opposed.

In a reasonably solid Republican district like this one, where politics has become increasingly polarized, there’s no appetite for ambiguity among the voters who define Stefanik’s base.

“When I saw her on Fox News, I said, ‘This is who we elected — someone who will stand up and fight,’ ” said James Grinter, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran, retired social worker and Stefanik campaign volunteer. “People say, ‘Well, she’s just become a mouthpiece for the president.’ But I feel like this is one area where she and the president have to agree.”

The dynamic here in Glens Falls helps explain why, when the House votes in the coming week on whether to make Trump the third president in American history to be impeached, at least a few Democrats are expected to break ranks — but Republicans will almost certainly stand united.

Elise Stefanik emerges in impeachment hearings as key Trump defender — and GOP celebrity

That wasn’t always assured. When Democrats began their push for impeachment in early fall, congressional watchers thought the strength of the allegations against Trump could persuade independent-minded Republicans to jump on board.

Some even dared to venture in that direction, publicly musing that the evidence suggesting Trump had used his office to pressure a foreign government to intervene against a domestic political opponent was troubling and credible.

But those who did so tended to lack a crucial ingredient in any politician’s life: a plan for winning reelection.

One, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), had already declared he wouldn’t run again when he pronounced Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president “inappropriate.” Another, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), said he wanted to “get all the facts on the table” — then announced his retirement a day later amid a furious backlash from his Trump-loving constituents.

Stefanik — young, ambitious and with every apparent intention of seeking a fourth term next year — chose a different path.

Since winning her House seat at age 30 — at the time, she was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress — she has compiled one of the Hill’s most bipartisan records. On key votes — including Trump’s signature tax cuts — she has bucked the president. As recently as last month, she crossed the aisle to keep the government funded.

But on impeachment, she has hugged Trump tight.

When the Intelligence Committee held impeachment hearings last month, she provoked a high-profile clash with the chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), over the rules of engagement. She joined the committee’s most ardently partisan Republicans in news conferences to proclaim Trump’s innocence. And she popped up on the president’s favorite prime-time show — Sean Hannity’s, on Fox News — to assure the nation that “there was no quid pro quo.”

Despite subsequent testimony from Trump’s handpicked ambassador to the European Union that there actually was one, she has not backed down. The case against the president, she has said, is weak and born of a Democratic vendetta.

“I’m proud of what I said in the impeachment hearings,” Stefanik said in an interview.

But she also pointed to the reality of politics in her district, which Trump flipped after two straight wins for Barack Obama and carried by 14 points.

Whatever she may have thought about Trump in 2016, “voters made their voices heard very strongly. They wanted someone who’s not traditional, who’s going to break up the status quo.”

Stefanik had arguably been part of that status quo — a Republican insider who worked in the George W. Bush administration and for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. When Paul D. Ryan squared off with Joe Biden in the 2012 vice presidential debate, Stefanik helped to prep him.

In her 2014 bid to represent New York’s 21st Congressional District — she had grown up in Albany, just beyond the district’s boundaries — she pitched herself as a new breed of Republican, one willing to break with party orthodoxy on issues such as the environment and same-sex marriage.

But to critics, her recent turn toward Trump has revealed her true character.

“She was putting up a facade of being a moderate, bipartisan,” said Joe Seeman, a local liberal activist. “It was an absurd act. And now the facade is long gone.”

Stefanik’s opponent in 2018 — who is also her presumed rival for 2020 — has struck similar notes. Democrat Tedra Cobb, a former county legislator, pulled in $1 million in fundraising in the days after Stefanik’s impeachment performance by questioning whether Stefanik was truly independent and promising to “put problem-solving ahead of political gamesmanship.”

The local Republican Party chair, Michael Grasso, acknowledged that Stefanik had “put a bull’s eye on her back” by taking such a prominent stand on impeachment. That, he said, was fueling cash infusions for both campaigns.

But, notably, Cobb has not emphasized impeachment in her local pitch — suggesting that even if it helps pull in donations, it is not necessarily a winner among voters.

Impeachment hearing thrusts Stefanik — and her challenger — into national spotlight

Political prognosticators continue to rate the district as a good bet for Republicans. And local officials say that, if anything, the tide has been turning further in the GOP’s favor as impeachment has dominated the debate in Washington.

“The vehemence of people who hate Trump has increased,” said Mark Westcott, a former local Republican official and informal Stefanik adviser.

But in a district where Republicans hold an approximate 50,000-voter registration advantage, impeachment has also helped rally party members around the president, he said. Even Republicans who were skeptical of Trump in 2016 — he and Stefanik among them — are firmly in his camp on the question of whether he should be forced from office.

Stefanik’s role in the impeachment hearings was “a little different for her,” offered Dan Stec, a Republican state assemblyman.

“But people are frustrated. They’re sick of it. They’re not watching it. They’re not talking about it,” he said. “Politically, is this safe for her? I think her constituents want it.”

At Poopie’s diner — a Glens Falls institution serving pancakes and burgers straight off the griddle — there’s no question about that.

“It’s all a big hoax,” said Jerry DiManno, the 65-year-old owner, as he served up plate after plate of steaming hot breakfasts one frigid December morning. “I used to vote for the Democrats. Now I’m on Trump’s side all the way.”

At the front of his restaurant, DiManno has set up a shrine to the president — complete with a framed portrait, Trump books and a Trump doll. A photo of Stefanik is on the wall, too.

“We love her here,” he said.

Not everyone in Glens Falls agrees, of course. The small city — long ago dubbed Hometown USA by Look magazine because of its all-American vibe — is relatively liberal compared with more rural parts of the district.

At the local paper, the Post-Star, editor Ken Tingley said he had heard more objections from readers to Stefanik’s behavior than support for it.

But even before the hearings, he said, there were already sharp divisions. Those were most vividly on display over the summer and into the fall, when pro- and anti-Trump demonstrations repeatedly snarled traffic in the city’s quaint downtown as rival groups squared off with shouts and insults.

“This has not been a very political area,” Tingley said. “But Trump has brought something we’ve never seen before, something I never would have expected in a place like Glens Falls.”