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Opinion Elise Stefanik is a poster child for the GOP’s Trump-era dilemma

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) on Nov. 15 blocked Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) from yielding time to Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Elise Stefanik is suddenly famous. And she may come to regret it.

The third-term congresswoman from upstate New York used to be known — to those who knew her at all — as one of the most moderate Republicans in the House. But she thrust herself to the front of the impeachment inquiry, making her one of President Trump’s chief defenders.

Stefanik is now being lauded in conservative circles. But her new prominence may already be producing a backlash that could complicate her reelection campaign in 2020. Indeed, Stefanik’s story is a microcosm of a dynamic that has played out around the country over the past couple of years, leading to one Republican defeat after another.

When former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified before the House Intelligence Committee, Republicans concocted a scheme to engineer a confrontation between Stefanik and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the committee chair. According to the rules of which everyone on the committee was well aware, Schiff and ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes would each have 45 minutes to question Yovanovitch; they could turn that time over to the committee counsel if they wished, but not to any other member.

Nevertheless, Nunes tried to give some time to Stefanik, which Schiff refused to allow. “You’re gagging the young lady from New York?” said Nunes with all the fake outrage he could muster. Stefanik chimed in with her own well-planned umbrage and dismay.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Republicans wanted to put Stefanik front and center because she’s the only woman they have on the Intelligence Committee, and they’ve become sensitive to the optics of a bunch of guys angrily yelling at a female witness. Whatever the reason, Stefanik has now been cast in this role, to be cheered in conservative media as a hero of the Trump defense:

Then something interesting happened. Stefanik’s performance didn’t just raise her own profile, it also gave an extraordinary boost to Tedra Cobb, the Democrat whom Stefanik defeated by 14 points in 2018 and who is running against her again in 2020.

Cobb, who had raised $656,000 for her campaign in all of 2019 to this point, brought in over $1 million in contributions just this weekend. On Thursday, the day before the Yovanovitch hearing, Cobb had fewer than 5,000 followers on Twitter; as of this writing, she is approaching 250,000 (more than Stefanik’s 213,000).

None of which guarantees anything about next November’s election, of course. But it shows how in the Trump era, every race for Congress — and other offices, too — is nationalized. Stefanik’s former identity as a moderate Republican representing a swing district got washed away in the course of a day. Now she’s a Trump defender, for better or worse, and that will define her next campaign.

That might do her more good than harm in the end; Trump won her district by 14 points in 2016, even though Barack Obama had beaten Mitt Romney there by 6 points in 2012. But we’ve seen over and over again in the past two years how Republicans move to embrace the president in the belief that their self-preservation depends on it, only to witness an equal and opposite backlash from Trump opponents that produces their defeat.

It often happens with Democratic candidates barely mentioning Trump. They’re free to allow the nationalization of the campaign to boost turnout among their supporters, while they spend their own time talking about local issues.

That was the prevailing dynamic in last week’s gubernatorial runoff election in Louisiana, which incumbent John Bel Edwards won despite Trump repeatedly campaigning for Republican Eddie Rispone. Edwards, a conservative Democrat, didn’t criticize Trump on the trail because he didn’t have to; Trump motivated Democrats to turn out and vote all by himself.

Something similar happened in the recent Kentucky governor’s race, in the Virginia elections that swung both houses of the state legislature to Democratic control, and in last year’s midterm congressional elections where Democrats gained dozens of seats: Democratic candidates focused on local issues while the Republicans embraced Trump in an attempt to hold support and boost turnout among GOP voters. In many cases, the Republicans were successful in increasing turnout among their base, only to lose because turnout among Democrats increased even more.

A member of Congress such as Stefanik has a tricky line to walk. She wants to let Trump-loving Republicans know she’s there for the president. But with every step she takes in that direction, she may motivate her Democratic constituents to work even harder against her. Moderate Republicans and independents in suburban areas who are drifting away from Trump may also turn their backs on her, if they figure she’s just another Trump shill. Making herself into a national figure produces a flood of contributions for her opponent.

In other words, Stefanik has now tied her fate to Trump. Maybe that’ll work out for her, but if she decides it’s not such a great idea after all, it will be too late.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Yovanovitch hearing confirms that Trump is running a thugocracy

Jonathan Capehart: Here’s a way to counter a Republican effort to rewrite history on the whistleblower

Jennifer Rubin: The gatekeepers are the worst of all

Greg Sargent: New revelations demolish yet another desperate GOP defense of Trump

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans play a losing hand when they stick with Trump