A Republican power struggle may spell the political end for congresswoman Liz Cheney, whose persistent criticism of former President Donald Trump looks likely to cost her the number three spot in her party. Her likely replacement? New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who has grown into one of Mr Trump’s most dogged defenders.
In 2014, four years before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered politics, a freshman lawmaker from New York became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Republican Elise Stefanik – then 30 years old – billed herself to voters as a traditional conservative with an independent streak. It worked. In her first major bid for public office, Ms Stefanik flipped a Democratic-controlled seat in upstate New York and claimed a more than 20-point victory.
But in recent years Ms Stefanik, 36, who declined to comment, has become a stalwart defender of the former president, a political pivot that has matched her rise within the Republican party.
A fresh voice
Born and raised in upstate New York, Ms Stefanik became the first member of her family to earn a college degree after graduating from Harvard University in 2006.
Soon after, she entered politics, serving as a White House domestic policy adviser under President George W Bush and eventually becoming a senior aide to Bush chief of staff Joshua Bolten.
In 2012, Ms Stefanik became a top campaign adviser for Paul Ryan – House Speaker-turned vice-presidential nominee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. When the Romney-Ryan ticket lost to President Barack Obama, Ms Stefanik moved back from Washington and took up residence in her parent’s vacation home in Willsboro, New York, to launch a campaign of her own.
“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,” she said later of her run.
In her campaign for the 21st Congressional District of New York, a large and mostly rural district, Ms Stefanik promised a “fresh voice” for voters.
And upon taking office in 2015, she positioned herself as a moderate, occasionally speaking out against Donald Trump the candidate and later, the president. On a local talk radio station in October 2016, Ms Stefanik said she “absolutely opposed” Mr Trump’s positions regarding Vladimir Putin, Nato and Iraq. And after the 2005 Access Hollywood tape of Mr Trump was leaked, Ms Stefanik condemned the “inappropriate, offensive” remarks.
The comments “are just wrong”, she said. “No matter when he said them or whatever the context. I hope his apology is sincere.”
Ms Stefanik also bucked the party line in some high-profile votes, including President Trump’s 2017 tax law, and called his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement a “mistake”.
‘A Republican star is born’
Ms Stefanik saw her political stock rise in 2019, alongside the first impeachment of Mr Trump.
From her seat on the House Intelligence Committee, she emerged as a vocal defender of the president. Her occasional clashes with the Democrat’s lead impeachment manager, Adam Schiff, became viral moments among Trump supporters.
Mr Trump took notice. “A new Republican Star is born,” he wrote on Twitter.
So did donors. Campaign filings at the time showed that Ms Stefanik raised $3.2m (£2.3m) in the last three months of 2019 as the impeachment trial wore on. Marking a sevenfold increase from the quarter before, she out-earned both Mr Schiff and progressive favourite Ms Ocasio-Cortez.
The momentum has followed into her fourth term. Ms Stefanik raised more than $1m in the first three months of 2021 – raising seven figures for the sixth consecutive quarter.
And the Trump loyalty has also stuck. After skipping the 2016 Republican National Convention, Ms Stefanik was a featured speaker at the event in 2020, endorsing Mr Trump as the “only candidate who is capable of protecting the American Dream”.
In January, in the wake of another double-digit win in New York, Ms Stefanik supported efforts by some of her more right-wing colleagues to oppose Joe Biden’s presidential win. After pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, Ms Stefanik took to the House floor to allege voter fraud in a number of key swing states.
“Tens of millions of Americans are concerned that the 2020 election featured unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges,” she said. Claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election have been widely disproven.
Ms Stefanik’s turn toward her party’s right wing is belied by her voting record. The conservative group Heritage Action for America has given Ms Stefanik a lifetime score of 48% for votes on Republican issues. Liz Cheney – whose demise may pave the way for Ms Stefanik’s rise – has a score of 80%.
Cresting the Pink Wave
Both in and out of her party, Ms Stefanik has earned plaudits for helping orchestrate a record year for Republican women in 2020.
In the 2018 midterms, 36 non-incumbent women were elected to the House of Representatives. But the so-called Year of the Woman was almost entirely Democratic – just one member of this class was a Republican.
Soon after, Ms Stefanik declared a “crisis” in the Republican party and launched political action committee E-PAC to boost female Republican candidates. E-PAC promoted more than two dozen candidates in the 2020 cycle and gave $415,000 to Republican women.
Ms Stefanik was the clearest example of a Republican leader dedicated to bringing women to the table, said Kelly Dittmar, research director at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Ms Stefanik’s “call to action” was critical.
“Congresswoman Stefanik was a leading force” for Republican women, said Congresswoman Nancy Mace, who won her first election after an endorsement from E-PAC. “I would not be here if I did not have that kind of support”.
And after the 2020 election, the number of Republican women in the House of Representatives doubled, from 15 to 30 – the highest total ever.
“2020 is the year of the Republican woman!” Ms Stefanik wrote on Twitter in November.
Now, her loyalty to Mr Trump may make her among the most powerful woman in her party.