“I was 29 at the time, and instead of complaining about the state of American politics from the sidelines, I started the process of running for Congress,” Stefanik (R-N.Y.) told a crowd of young GOP staff in March 2016. She introduced the man who had just become House speaker as “a happy warrior who understands the power of an idea, the power of the American idea.”
That version of Stefanik no longer exists.
Instead, over the past 18 months, the congresswoman has morphed into a disciple of former president Donald Trump’s vision for the Republican Party.
She has studiously made allies out of the firebrands in the House Freedom Caucus, who spent three years opposing Ryan’s work as speaker, and she now revels in engaging in “cancel culture” wars on cable news and social media.
She first caught Trump’s attention during the 2019 impeachment, winning his full support Wednesday when the former president announced his support of Stefanik’s effort to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the No. 3 post in House GOP leadership.
“Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL endorsement for GOP Conference Chair,” Trump said in a statement.
Allies of Stefanik do not deny that she has shifted her world view — and they say she fully embraces the shift.
Stefanik, 36, who declined to comment, no longer wants to be identified with the traditional conservatives who served as her mentors. Instead, she wants to be placed squarely in Trump’s “America First” movement.
Her pivot maps precisely with her constituents in her state’s North Country.
New York’s 21st Congressional District used to be a Democratic stronghold, delivering a six-percentage-point margin for President Barack Obama when Stefanik worked for Ryan in 2012. Trump won the district by double-digit margins in 2016 and 2020.
As Stefanik’s friends contend, she is just following her district’s instincts.
Moreover, they argue that Stefanik’s shift is quite similar to other House Republicans who once embraced the Reagan-Bush ideology and now reside squarely in Trump’s camp.
Yet none of those House Republicans came from such elite traditional conservative roots. Stefanik’s résumé reads like someone who was nurtured to be a younger version of Cheney.
Upon graduating in 2006 from Harvard University, she secured a job in the White House as a domestic policy adviser and eventually served as a top aide to Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s chief of staff. In the 2012 GOP presidential contest, Stefanik landed a job helping draw up the platform at the Republican National Convention that formally nominated Mitt Romney and went on to advise Ryan ahead of the vice-presidential debate.
“I had the honor of watching how Paul would encourage his entire team to understand the power of ideas and to raise our gaze,” she told the young Republican crowd in March 2016, deploying a Ryan catch phrase for civility in politics.
In that speech, she credited Ryan with standing behind her in the 2014 race, particularly the tough primary contest — which was aided by about $800,000 in ads that pummeled her opponent from a super PAC that was run by top advisers to the Bush and Romney presidential campaigns.
“She is a person of integrity. Every campaign is different, but values don’t change,” Romney said in endorsing her just before the primary.
She won the 2014 general election by more than 22 percentage points and has continued to win by comfortable margins, latching herself to Ryan during her first two terms. “I want to thank Elise Stefanik — she is inspiring,” Ryan said in 2016.
That speech did not mention Trump by name but was meant to serve as Ryan’s rebuke of the future president’s tone and nativist ideas.
“It did not used to be this bad,” Ryan said that day.
Stefanik started out as a classic Northeastern moderate Republican. She opposed Trump’s signature domestic policy achievement, the 2017 tax cut package, and happily supported extensions of the Export Import Bank, an agency that Freedom Caucus members branded as corporate welfare.
John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador who ultimately got fired as Trump’s national security adviser, praised Stefanik in 2017 as his type of national security hawk “who is dedicated to protecting our country and our allies against global threats.”
Bush, Romney, Ryan, Bolton — it’s a Who’s Who of Republicans that Trump hates. They all paved Stefanik’s way in Washington.
Late in 2018, after Ryan had decided not to run for reelection, he made a campaign appearance in Stefanik’s district and then had her join him for an interview for CBS’s “Face the Nation,” where she bemoaned how voters get too much information from ideologically based news outlets that poison the waters for bipartisan legislation.
“So I think both parties need to address the tribalism that’s happening, and the siloing of where we’re getting our information,” she said.
When Republicans got swept into the minority a few weeks later, Stefanik blasted GOP leaders for doing little to support candidates who were women and minorities, sounding like a moderate searching for new Republican voices to counter Trump’s brand.
But by the fall of 2019, when House Democrats started impeachment proceedings over Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian leaders to investigate Joe Biden’s family, Stefanik emerged as an unexpected high-profile defender of the sitting president. Her clashes with Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, turned into viral moments among conservative Trump supporters.
Suddenly, donations poured in — she raised more than $13 million for her 2020 campaign, nearly doubling the combined total raised in her three previous elections.
By last August, Stefanik had fully embraced Trump on the national stage, praising him at the RNC as someone who fought “tirelessly to deliver results.”
Yet back home, she still aired ads touting her work with Democrats and distancing herself from Trump. “Elise Stefanik: independent, delivering results,” the narrator said in one ad.
By Jan. 6, after securing her second-highest vote percentage, Stefanik supported the GOP attempt to oppose Biden’s victory.
After the Trump-backed insurrection was cleared from the U.S. Capitol, Stefanik delivered a floor speech that alleged fraud in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — enough electoral college votes to block Biden’s victory.
“Tens of millions of Americans are concerned that the 2020 election featured unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges,” she said.
Now, four months later, Stefanik is vowing behind the scenes to complete her political transformation into full-time MAGA supporter to knock out Cheney.
As Trump put it Wednesday, “Elise is a tough and smart communicator!”