President Trump once called Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York a “new Republican star” as she defended him against Democratic criticism. But as she took the national stage Wednesday to implore voters to give Trump four more years, Stefanik is trying to sell constituents back home on a different sort of reputation: centrist.
Once considered among the most moderate members in the House, Stefanik over the past two years has become one of Trump’s most vocal champions on Capitol Hill, surprising even some of her own colleagues while propelling the youngest Republican woman in the House to GOP stardom.
During the Trump impeachment proceedings last year, she was a regular on Fox News, forcefully rejecting complaints that Trump abused his oath of office in pressing a foreign leader to investigate his domestic political rivals. More recently, Stefanik has campaigned for the president, flying to at least one rally in Tulsa during the coronavirus pandemic to appear by his side.
Yet Stefanik, 36, has long branded herself a pragmatic moderate as she has easily won reelection in a district that stretches from the outskirts of Saratoga Springs across the Adirondack Mountains to the Canadian border.
The race in the North Country district, which backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then went for Trump by 14 points in 2016, is not considered competitive and Stefanik is favored to win. Still, she has played up that centrist image while promoting Trump.
“One of the most bipartisan members of Congress,” says the moderator in one ad airing in her New York district. “Elise Stefanik, independent, delivering results.”
The ad makes no mention of Trump.
Compare that to her speech backing the president Wednesday night, in which Stefanik offered glowing remarks for Trump while assailing Democrats for a “socialist agenda.”
“Since his first day in office, President Trump has fought tirelessly to deliver results for all Americans, despite the Democrats' baseless and illegal impeachment sham and the media's endless obsession with it,” Stefanik said.
She argued Americans from all walks of life are unified behind Trump despite multiple polls showing a bitterly divided nation while calling out Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by name.
“Now we face a critical choice: Joe Biden's Far-Left Socialist policies that will weaken America or President Trump who will stand up for the American people and the Constitution,” she said.
The dual brand — both centrist and Trump champion — is rare for the GOP. Often Republicans are either conservative and adamant Trump defenders, or moderates who keep their dislike of Trump quiet for fear of the base.
Stefanik’s move to be both had elicited criticism. Ahead of Stefanik’s convention appearance, her Democratic challenger, Tedra Cobb, attacked her as “shilling” for Trump, more intent on growing her national profile than in representing her district.
“Her fealty to him has left us behind,” said Cobb, who lost to Stefanik 56 to 42 percent in 2018. “We are a district that is very independent . . . so we know that people want a representative who will stand up when we need them to . . . and unfortunately that’s not Stefanik.”
She added: “Elise Stefanik has time to go to Iowa [for Trump] and time to go to Tulsa and time to show and talk and stump for the president — but she’s not here to fight for our families.”
On issues, Stefanik remains among the more moderate House Republicans. She opposed Trump’s 2017 tax cut, has been a vocal supporter of equal rights for LGBTQ Americans, and has pushed to give legal status to young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
On Saturday, Stefanik broke with the president, voting for a bill to give the U.S. Postal Service $25 billion and block operational changes to ensure that mail-in-ballots for the November election will be counted on time. Trump, meanwhile, has said he wants to curb the agency’s funding to undercut absentee voting that he fears will hurt his reelection bid.
Overall, the Lugar Center ranked Stefanik as the 14th most bipartisan lawmaker in the House in 2019. The conservative Club for Growth, meanwhile, has put her at 197th most conservative.
Still, Democrats who have worked with Stefanik on bipartisan issues say they don’t recognize her anymore as she moves to embrace a president she once kept at arm’s length. She used to tout her work reaching across the aisle, but now she blasts Democrats for being “radical” while saying little — if anything — about Trump’s own controversies.
“She’s trying to have it have it every which way,” said one House Democrat who has worked with her, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank. “She’s not a ‘Trumpy.’ Her views aren’t ‘Trumpy.’ I supposed she’s trying to use this as a fast pass to the leadership table.”
At the very least, Stefanik’s move toward Trump has been a fundraising boon. She has brought in $7.8 million this cycle and has $4.5 million on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission report. That’s almost triple her $2.8 million fundraising from the 2018 midterms.
Stefanik’s bid to promote what Democratic critics consider contradictory positions comes as Republicans have started privately jockeying for a post-Trump world. Many Republicans think Stefanik has leadership ambitions and is setting herself up to be someone who can pull the party together and set it on a more centrist path should Trump lose.
Republicans speculate that the party will be looking for a Republican who backed Trump on most policy matters — but who was not afraid to speak out at times.
Stefanik’s office declined to make her available for an interview. But in a statement, her campaign spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said she was not interested in a leadership position — and highlighted an area of dispute with the president.
Stefanik, her aide said, does not support the QAnon conspiracy theory, even as Trump has sought to welcome those who do into the Republican fold, even inviting one follower — House candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — to the White House for his acceptance speech on Thursday.
Adherents of the conspiracy theory believe Trump is secretly battling a cabal of “deep state” saboteurs who worship Satan and run a child sex-trafficking ring. The FBI has identified QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat.
Still, Anderson said Stefanik backs Trump wholeheartedly.
“Congresswoman Stefanik strongly supports President Trump’s reelection and is proud to serve as his New York Campaign Co-Chair,” she said in the statement. “She is running on her record of results, as she has done in every single election going back to her first reelect. Similar to President Trump, many of these significant results such as USMCA [U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement], veterans issues, support for seniors and rural hospitals and small businesses, investing in defense — are bipartisan results.”
Elected in 2014, Stefanik attended Harvard University before joining the Bush White House as an aide. In 2012, she advised and befriended then-vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul D. Ryan, prepping the Republican from Wisconsin for the campaign debates before deciding to launch her own bid to join him in the House.
When Trump won the nomination in 2016, she followed the advice Ryan, then speaker, gave many moderates: Keep a safe distance from the controversial candidate and instead highlight policy work on the trail.
But in the 2018 midterms, many moderates who followed Ryan’s guidance and spoke out against Trump lost, as the House flipped to Democratic control. And by the time Democrats started impeachment proceedings in fall 2019, Stefanik, a member of the House Intelligence Committee overseeing the probe, began to emerge as a Trump defender.
Her performance during the panel’s high-profile impeachment hearings caught Trump’s attention. The president would retweet clips of her questioning witnesses, skyrocketing her to fame in GOP circles after she spent years avoiding speaking his name.
In June, Stefanik flew to Oklahoma to speak at a Trump campaign rally, according to local media reports. But the president — seething over the small crowd amid the pandemic — skipped her introduction entirely, then mispronounced her name onstage.
Stefanik’s campaign disputes the notion that she was scheduled to speak, however, arguing that she flew there for a shout-out from the president.
Still, Stefanik’s campaign announced that in a 48-hour period surrounding the event, she raised $150,000 as part of what they called a “Trump Rally Money Bomb.”
The Trump campaign has also benefited from the relationship. The president faces a gender gap, and Republicans think Stefanik’s support for Trump will help him with female voters.
Stefanik receives high marks from even some GOP critics of Trump. As one of only 13 women in the House, she decided in late 2018 to jump-start an outside group to support female GOP candidates, privately scolding House Republican leaders for not doing more to support Republican women.
And she has delivered: The GOP now has a record number of women running for Congress this year, in part because of her effort.
“She’s doing a great job recruiting women . . . and I respect that,” said Sarah Chamberlain, a GOP campaign strategist focused on female voters. “And if she happens to be endorsing Trump, I respect that as well.”
Alex DeGrasse, her senior political adviser, also noted that she has the endorsement of 37 local Democratic leaders in her district.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
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