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Opinion Elise Stefanik could be just what the GOP needs

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in November 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) seems tapped to succeed Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) as the third-ranking member of House Republican leadership. Despite misgivings among more conservative members of the party, Stefanik could be just the type of new leader the GOP needs.

For many Americans, Stefanik first emerged into view as one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders during the House impeachment hearings in 2019. Her questions were smart and, more politically important, her demeanor was unyielding. This earned her the enmity of progressives who funneled more than $5 million to the campaign of her 2020 Democratic opponent, Tedra Cobb. Stefanik’s national presence allowed her to raise more than twice as much, which — combined with the rural, blue-collar district’s pro-Trump lean — allowed her to thrash Cobb by nearly 18 points. Trump’s public endorsement of her to replace Cheney will merely confirm to some observers that Stefanik is merely another loud Trump acolyte.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Stefanik is an unusually canny and precocious politician. She served in the George W. Bush administration in her early 20s and stayed on in Washington to work for Republican campaigns and conservative organizations. She went home to upstate New York in 2013 and prepared to challenge incumbent Democratic Rep. Bill Owens. Owens decided not to run again, and Stefanik swept to victory by 21 points in a district that President Barack Obama had won by 6 percentage points just two years earlier. At a mere 30 years of age, Stefanik was then the youngest woman ever elected to the House.

That background is key to grasping why Stefanik could be a boon for the House GOP. If elevated, she would be not only the only woman in Republican leadership, but also the only Republican leader to represent a seat that Obama carried. Every other member of leadership represents a safe, conservative seat — four of them from the South. Their constituents are largely the old GOP party base: religious, fiscally conservative and normally hawkish on foreign policy. Stefanik alone would bring views formed by persuading moderate, former Democrats to cast ballots for her. That’s key to holding the 15 seats Obama carried in 2012 that Republicans currently hold as well as gaining similar seats now held by Democrats.

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Both Obama-Trump and Romney-Clinton voters are significantly more moderate than the type of Republican who dominates safe GOP seats. A 2017 analysis found that these voters were closer to Democrats than Romney-Trump voters on questions such as economic inequality and government intervention in the economy. Romney voters who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 were also to the economic left of GOP partisans. A 2021 EPPC-YouGov survey that I helped design found that 50 percent of the Trump voters who backed Trump in 2020 said they were moderate or liberal. Fifty-eight percent said they were working class or poor, compared with only 37 percent of Romney-Trump voters, and they were nearly twice as likely to say they were atheist, agnostic or religiously unaffiliated. Stefanik presumably understands these crucial distinctions and could help bring these voters’ views into Republican councils, where they are often excluded.

Her past record gives many conservatives pause. Her lifetime score from the conservative group Heritage Action is a mere 56 percent, compared with Cheney’s 91. She similarly lags behind Cheney in rankings compiled by the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and neo-libertarian Freedom Works. The group Americans for Tax Reform has criticized her in the past for not signing their famous pledge to reject raising taxes (she won her initial GOP primary 2014 despite this apostasy), a position she has not changed since. Stefanik’s 2019 endorsement of the Equality Act worries many religious conservatives, too. (She has since tempered that support.) As a result, some movement conservatives are pushing back against her selection, arguing that she can’t lead a party she doesn’t agree with.

That’s a fair concern so far as it goes. If she can’t back the consensus in the GOP conference, she ought not to lead it. That’s one of the real problems with Cheney, who is increasingly a Bush-era Republican in a party trying to redefine itself for a post-Trump world.

Stefanik’s promise, though, is that she can help lead the GOP to a new consensus that reflects the totality of its current and potential voter base. Movement conservatism does not and will not dominate American political discourse in the foreseeable future. A party that permits no deviation from those dogmas is one that is more like an enthusiastic church than a majority party. Stefanik could help persuade Republicans to craft a thoughtful new policy agenda that is firmly rooted in movement conservatism without being mindlessly wedded to it.

The media’s obsession with Trump is obscuring the real debate going on within the Republican Party today. The Stefanik-Cheney battle is a microcosm of this struggle. Its resolution will determine whether the party has a chance of regaining power or whether it will be an increasingly irrelevant sideshow in a country dominated by the left.

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