Nov 20, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The Trumpification of Elise Stefanik

Rep. Elise Stefanik speaking during an impeachment hearing

Rep. Elise Stefanik. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik has opposed President Trump on Vladimir Putin, women, tariffs, the travel ban and the border wall — and then impeachment made her a star Trump defender and unlikely fundraising juggernaut.

Why it matters: Stefanik has become the youngest, most moderate example of voter-driven Trumpification of the GOP.

The big picture: Trump is highly popular in New York's 21st district. He won it by 14 points in 2016, though Barack Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012.

  • Stefanik won her first term in 2014, then the youngest woman to be elected to Congress, and built a reputation as a moderate.
  • But her fierce defense of Trump during the impeachment hearings — along with her attacks on House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff — has made her a champion among the pro-Trump community.
  • "She needs to be better aligned with [Trump] and the admin to stay on track," said one Republican aide working on impeachment. "She did a good job of framing centrist for 2018 during a Democrat year — and now the goal changes."

Stefanik pushed back against the notion that this is strategic. In an interview Tuesday night, she told Axios that "impeachment is a constitutional matter, and this is an important precedent for future Congresses."

  • "We have an overwhelming amount of support in the district. The calls are three-to-one from constituents supporting, and I'm focused on the facts and the truth and I work every day very hard for my district and I think that's why you see such large margins consistently," Stefanik said.

The political reality she faces, however, is clear. Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman says the GOP is "increasingly synonymous with Donald Trump — and the reality is his approval rating among Republican voters is higher than that of other Republicans in Congress."

  • "The closer Republicans in Congress get to Trump, the more popular they are with the base."
  • Meanwhile, many moderate Republicans who push back on Trump have retired or lost re-election.

Between the lines: Republican leaders believe Stefanik, the only GOP woman on the Intelligence Committee, provides a fresh, female voice for the party.

  • Trump on Tuesday afternoon retweeted House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, who gave a shout-out to Stefanik for making the point that the president ultimately sets foreign policy, not his staff.
  • "It's pretty powerful for Republicans to have a split screen of a young woman going after Schiff — this older white man," said one GOP official working on impeachment.
  • Some Republicans are comparing Stefanik to star Democratic freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. "She’s an attractive, young, woman, that can contrast perfectly against Adam Schiff," a second Republican aide working on impeachment texted. "That’s what the Dems do with us. Say we’re a party of old white guys, while they trot out AOC as the young face of the party.”
  • Ocasio-Cortez told Axios this shows Republicans weaponizing identity: “The fact that they have to invoke me to define her tells you everything about that."

By the numbers: Stefanik is spurring fundraising — by Democrats as well as in her own party.

  • Her Democratic challenger, Tedra Cobb, has received a surge in fundraising and social media interactions over the past week — a direct response to Stefanik's meteoric rise during the impeachment hearings. Her campaign brought in more than $1 million last weekend alone.
  • In just the past week, Stefanik campaign ads have been shown in California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania, as Roll Call reporter Simone Pathe first noted.
  • "Join me in my fight to protect our Republic and save America from socialism!" Stefanik said in a tweet seeking donations.
  • She also tweeted a statement of support from the chairman of the Independence Party of New York.
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