That response will probably reach a new apex this week with the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the party’s third-highest position in its House caucus and the election of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) to take her place. In some circles, this has elicited a sense of bafflement: How could a Republican Party so centered on right-wing orthodoxy elevate a member to a leadership position whose own track record is so moderate?
For example, a key official from the Club for Growth, once an essential Republican gate-keeping institution, deemed Stefanik “very much a liberal” recently — certainly an exaggeration but not entirely disconnected from her actual record. There’s a measure called DW-NOMINATE that evaluates how liberal or conservative the voting records of members of Congress are. (The metric essentially measures how members feel about the role of government in the private sector based on their votes.) On that metric, according to scores compiled by Voteview, Stefanik is in fact one of the least conservative members of the House caucus.
When she won election in 2014, she replaced the retiring Democrat Bill Owens, one of the least liberal House Democrats. Stefanik’s similarly moderate voting record has earned her reelection three times. She’s far less conservative in her voting history than Cheney or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) or Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). Hence Club for Growth’s objection.
But this isn’t really a mystery. Last week, we reported on research that suggests how Republican activists see “conservative” not in terms of adhering to small-government principles but, often, how closely legislators hew to Trump’s rhetoric. In 2016, researchers asked activists to evaluate how conservative various Republican senators were relative to one another. Senators who’d embraced Trump at the time, such as Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), saw boosts on how conservative they were viewed to be. Those who had critiqued Trump, like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), were viewed as less conservative than their voting records would suggest.
This is one study, but it certainly comports with observed patterns. It comports with the Stefanik-Cheney swap itself: Cheney is more conservative in her voting but critical of Trump; ergo, Stefanik — who diverges from the caucus in her record on traditionally conservative issues — is seen as a better fit for a party still focused on Trump.
It’s not more complicated than that.
One might ask why Stefanik embraced Trump, a question that was explored extensively by Time’s Charlotte Alter last week. But we can start by observing how useful her fealty to Trump has been.
In late 2019, Trump was first facing impeachment over his efforts to cajole Ukraine into targeting Joe Biden with an investigation. Stefanik stood up in Trump’s defense, eventually joining his impeachment defense team. That elevated her profile nationally, including on Fox News.
Over the months she’d been in office before November 2019, Stefanik raised an average of about $140,000, according to Federal Election Commission data. From November 2019 forward, she’s been averaging more than $575,000.
Loyalty to Trump pays. Literally.
Speaking to Alter, former Paul Ryan aide Brendan Buck pointed to the change in Stefanik’s district as a reason for her shift.
“If you’re looking for a through line, it’s that her district has changed and she’s always been attuned to what her district wants,” Buck said. “A swing purple district got a middle-of-the-road moderate member, and now it is a Trumpy district, and they have a Trumpy representative.”
This is broadly true, with some asterisks. Stefanik’s Upstate New York district has shed residents over the past decade, losing 4 percent of its population from 2012 to 2019. But it is the sort of heavily White, heavily rural area where Trump overperformed in 2016 and 2020.
After Owens’s retirement, the results in the district’s House races were fairly consistent: Stefanik won narrowly in midterms and by a wider margin in presidential years. Stefanik outperformed Trump in both 2016 and 2020, according to data compiled by DailyKos.
It’s not exactly clear what effect her relatively new adherence to Trumpism had on her 2020 bid. Biden got more votes than her Democratic opponent, but the number of votes earned by the Democrats she’s facing has steadily increased in the Trump era.
Perhaps her moderate voting record helped her overperform Trump. Moderate Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who is one of the few members of the Republican caucus with a more liberal NOMINATE score than Stefanik, no doubt hopes so. The Washington Post reported on Monday that Katko last week told reporters he’s confident that Stefanik will want to see other moderates holding seats.
Stefanik “knows that if we ever want to be back in control of Congress again,” he said in a call last week, “people like me have to win, and we have to flourish, and we have to have a big tent as the Republican Party.”
But Katko, like Cheney, voted to impeach Trump in January. His assumption that anyone in his party will prioritize voting records over fealty to the former president seems misguided. That’s the lesson he should have learned from Stefanik’s likely ascent.