WASHINGTON — In July 2017, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., arrived at a Capitol Hill town house for her wedding shower. All of the invitees were female members of Congress, carefully drawn from both political parties, leading some to celebrate not only her betrothal but also her willingness to defy President Donald Trump.
Indeed, few GOP House members had opposed Trump with such ferocity and frequency as the congresswoman from northern New York.
She had said Trump’s behavior toward women was “just wrong.” She said “I absolutely oppose” key parts of his foreign policy. She voted against his tax-cut plan, opposed his immigration policy and said his border wall plan was unrealistic. She disagreed with him about leaving an international climate change treaty, panned his tariffs and expressed concerns about his Russia policy. And she supported special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Moscow’s influence on the 2016 election.
A conservative group later labeled her a liberal.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is great,’ ” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who was elected in 2014 along with Stefanik from New York and attended the shower. “We have these young new normal Republicans. It was bipartisan. We’re going to change the way the system works.”
Then, in a career-defining moment, Stefanik tied her fortune to Trump, becoming one of the most vocal opponents of his first impeachment in November 2019. In response, Trump tweeted, “A new Republican Star is born.” Her profile was raised, her television appearances increased, and her fundraising skyrocketed. Eventually, she doubled down on her political allegiance and spread Trump’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 election.
Now, with Trump’s support, the 36-year-old is expected as soon as Wednesday to be elected chair of the House Republican conference, the No. 3 leadership position, and is defining herself as a loyalist to the former president in contrast to the person she would replace, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
All of which has left onetime allies asking: How did the moderate, bipartisan version of Stefanik become one of the most stalwart believers in Trump-promoted falsehoods that have undermined faith in democracy?
“A lot of folks, particularly who are center-moderate and thought Elise Stefanik was the poster child of a new way of looking at politics, finding that middle ground, there is a lot of surprise to see where she has gotten in a short period of time,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “She is making a calculated decision and bet on the direction of the party.”
The defining issue in the leadership shuffle is that Cheney, who has a far more conservative record than Stefanik, voted to impeach Trump and has condemned his lie that the 2020 election was stolen, while Stefanik challenged the electoral college results and embraced some of Trump’s false claims. Cheney wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week that the Republican Party “is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”
Four years earlier, before Election Day, Stefanik shot down similar unfounded warnings from Trump about a “rigged” vote as polls showed him trailing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“I disagree with Mr. Trump on this issue. The election is not rigged,” she said. “I have full faith and confidence in the election in this district and across this country, and I would urge candidates across this country to accept the outcome.”
But after Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen, Stefanik said without evidence that tens of millions of American are “rightly concerned” that the election had “unprecedented voting irregularities.” Stefanik voted against certifying the election results and backed court efforts to overturn them.
Stefanik said, for example, that Georgia’s Republican secretary of state “gutted signature matching for absentee ballots and in essence eliminated voter verification required by state election law. In addition, more than 140,000 votes came from underage, deceased and otherwise unauthorized voters in Fulton County alone.” There were about 525,000 votes cast in Fulton County.
Stefanik’s claims have been refuted by a spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who told The Post’s Fact Checker that there were no underage voters and that her suggestion that one-fourth of ballots cast in Fulton County were done so illegally is “ludicrous.”
Stefanik declined an interview request for this story.
Unlike some recently elected Republicans who came to Congress dedicated to Trump, Stefanik has repeatedly stressed her independence, and she has a résumé filled with names and places that are anathema to many Trump backers.
After attending Harvard University, she served as a policy aide and an assistant to the chief of staff in the White House of George W. Bush starting in 2006. In the latter job, she sat in the West Wing near senior Bush adviser Karl Rove.
“She was very smart, very able and very young, and she worked an enormous number of hours,” Rove said in an interview, speaking of the time Stefanik was in her early 20s. Rove would later play a key role in Stefanik’s career.
Stefanik had taken a class at Harvard on the American presidency taught by Lanhee Chen, who said in an interview that he recalled her as “highly intelligent, very intellectually curious.” When Chen later became an adviser to the 2012 presidential campaign of Republican former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, he said, he helped arrange for her to work on the campaign. That led her to work on debate preparation for vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan and as a policy aide on the convention platform committee. (Chen, who said he disagrees with Trump’s claim that the election was stolen, declined to comment on Stefanik’s current views).
Romney’s loss to Barack Obama led Stefanik to return to northern New York, where she had grown up. Rove said he encouraged her to seek a House seat. Rove said that he believed that the 21st Congressional District, which had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, seemed primed to turn Republican.
Stefanik initially was given little chance of even becoming the Republican nominee in the district. But then a Rove-affiliated political action committee, American Crossroads, took an extraordinary step. The committee, which previously had focused on general-election contests, poured about $750,000 into negative ads against Stefanik’s primary opponent, Matthew Doheny. (Rove referred questions about the ads to a committee official, who did not respond to a request for comment.)
Doheny, who at the time denounced the ads against him and said Stefanik is “going to be controlled by Karl Rove,” declined to comment. Stefanik won the primary and the general election, vowing to serve no more than five terms. (She is now in her fourth term).
Running for reelection in 2016, Stefanik declined to back Trump in the primaries and issued a statement saying she would support whoever the party nominated. After The Post revealed the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump made vulgar remarks about women, she said his “offensive comments are just wrong,” adding “I hope his apology is sincere.” She then stood by Trump, which became the focus of an ad against her.
Stefanik’s voters, meanwhile, had turned from supporting Obama to being firmly in the Trump camp, and she was reelected while he won the White House. She kept her distance, however, as an array of interests in the district still aligned with Democrats.
She said she opposed Trump’s “rushed and overbroad” order banning refugees and others from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. She voted against Trump’s tax-cut plan, citing the loss of deductions for state and local taxes.
She was asked by the editorial board of the Post-Star, a northern New York newspaper, in early 2018 about her view of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “I disagree on his attacks on law enforcement and the Department of Justice,” she said of Trump. “I have repeatedly and explicitly said that I support the Mueller investigation.”
At the time, Stefanik was on the rise within the GOP. During the 2018 cycle, she was named the National Republican Congressional Committee’s recruitment head, a job that she said would enable her to increase the number of GOP women in the House from 23.
Stefanik told Time magazine that she recruited more than 100 women, but only one was elected. With the defeat or retirement of some incumbents, she was one of only 13 Republican women in the House after the election.
It was, by any measure, a failure, part of a shellacking of the GOP in the midterms.
She blamed the failure on the fact that the NRCC refused to pick sides in primary fights — a strategy that she questioned, given that she had won office after a political committee had poured $750,000 into defeating her primary opponent. Leaving her position at the NRCC, she said she would use her political committee, Elevate, to support female candidates, including in primary fights.
At this juncture, Stefanik faced the potential that her future in the party could fizzle because of her performance at the NRCC. She took a series of actions in line with what the leadership wanted.
A pivotal moment came when she co-signed a March 28, 2019, letter saying that Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who had focused on Russian interference in the 2016 election, should resign. Schiff refused. He declined to comment for this article.
Then, when Democrats in late 2019 launched their first effort to impeach Trump, Stefanik became one of their most outspoken Republican opponents. That led Trump to tweet on Nov. 17, 2019, that she was a star, boosting her profile and fundraising.
Stefanik used her Elevate committee, which raised about $1 million in the 2020 cycle, as well as other efforts to help elect Republican women. An Elevate official declined to comment. The impact of the PAC’s contributions is hard to measure. Elevate typically gave $5,000 to $10,000 each to a number of candidates, and Stefanik was able to direct other contributions through various committees, thanks in part to her expanding list of contributors.
At the same time, a number of other committees, including the NRCC, made contributions to Republican female candidates. The number of GOP women in the House has increased from 13 after the 2018 election to 31 today, according to a tally by the Center for American Women and Politics.
It is not possible to say how much credit Stefanik deserves for the increase, but some candidates said her role was crucial. Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., who was among the Republican women elected in 2020, said in an interview that Stefanik helped raise about $100,000 for her campaign. She said that Stefanik’s work raising money for many Republicans has played a role in her likely ascension to the leadership position.
“She raised quite a bit of money,” Tenney said.
All the while, Stefanik kept pitching herself in more moderate terms. In her most recent campaign, she ran an ad titled “Bipartisan” to emphasize her sometimes-solidarity with Democrats. “I’m proud of being one of the most bipartisan members of Congress,” she said in the ad, as a graphic underscored the claim by saying, “One of the top 5% most bipartisan members of Congress.”
It was the sort of statement that had made her so attractive to many Democrats, including at the wedding shower three years earlier. But after she began repeating Trump’s false election claims, some Democrats who once saw her as a bipartisan bridge have lost faith in her.
Rice, the New York congresswoman, said she would not attend Stefanik’s wedding shower if it happened today. She said Stefanik was a willing participant in an plot hatched by the Republican leadership that wants to dump Cheney — but is afraid to replace the Wyoming representative with a man for fear of a backlash among female voters.
“I think the reason why people are paying more attention to her is because she is one of only a handful of women in the entire [Republican] caucus,” Rice said. “And the move right now is to take out [Cheney], the only woman in leadership. So I think that [Stefanik] is seeing this political opportunity for her. She’s very smart, but she’s also no dummy. She sees her political fate right now internally in the Republican caucus tied to being a shill for Donald Trump.”
That quest for power has meant turning on some onetime allies, including the woman she seeks to replace, Cheney. It was Stefanik who nominated Cheney for her leadership post. As Stefanik put it during a joint appearance with Cheney about women in leadership in 2019, “Liz, I was very proud to nominate you as our conference chair … we think you are a huge asset in that role.”
Cheney returned the compliment, thanking Stefanik for “taking a leadership role in the party” in support of female candidates.
Now that day of comity is long gone, and the two symbolize the party’s vast divide.
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and JM Rieger contributed to this report.