On Monday morning, Donald Trump declared that, as far as he’s concerned, the “Big Lie” would refer forevermore exclusively to the nature of his 2020 defeat. Less than an hour later, House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) responded, “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”
For the Wyoming Republican, the entirely accurate 30-word missive marked the beginning of the end of her role as a GOP leader. Cheney’s Republican brethren turned on her with a vengeance for having dared to tell the truth, and a New York congresswoman, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, saw an opportunity.
By Monday afternoon, Stefanik had quietly launched an outreach effort, building support for her bid to replace Cheney as the #3 Republican in the House leadership. It wasn’t long before the New Yorker received support from the top two House GOP lawmakers, as well as Donald Trump.
But as the week progressed, Stefanik’s behind-the-scenes efforts evolved into a more public campaign, in which she appeared eager to impress not just party leaders on Capitol Hill, but the GOP’s larger far-right base. And as the New York Times reported, Stefanik has apparently figured out exactly what Republicans want to hear.
As House Republicans have made the case for ousting Representative Liz Cheney, their No. 3, from their leadership ranks, they have insisted that it is not her repudiation of former President Donald J. Trump’s election lies that they find untenable, but her determination to be vocal about it. But on Thursday, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the Republican whom leaders have anointed as Ms. Cheney’s replacement in waiting, loudly resurrected his false narrative.
The report added that Stefanik’s comments “reflected how central the former president’s election lies have become to the Republican Party message.” That’s clearly true. They also reflected, of course, the New York congresswoman’s willingness to peddle obvious nonsense in order to rise through the ranks in the contemporary GOP.
It’s likely that much of the country is unfamiliar with Stefanik. She hasn’t been a Capitol Hill fixture for very long — the 36-year-old lawmaker is now in her sixth year in Congress — and she hasn’t earned a reputation for spearheading any major legislative initiatives.
But what Stefanik has done is show the political value of rapid ideological evolutions.
The New York Republican initially ran as a relative moderate, at least by modern GOP standards. Stefanik represents an upstate district that Barack Obama, among other national Democratic candidates, won twice, so as a candidate, she stressed her bipartisan bona fides. During her 2016 campaign, Stefanik was reluctant to even say Donald Trump’s name out loud, referring to him only as her party’s nominee.
When the Republican Party’s regressive package of tax breaks for the wealthy came to the floor in 2017, Stefanik voted with Democrats against the bill. A year later, when then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was embroiled in multiple scandals, she was one of a vanishingly small number of GOP lawmakers to call for his resignation.
This was a fine way for her to win re-election with relative ease. It was not, however, sufficient to get ahead in Republican politics and build a broader profile within her party.
And so, the New York congresswoman did exactly what one might expect her to do: Stefanik started making more Fox News appearances and aligning herself with Trump, most notably during his first impeachment fight.
Soon, the moderate version of Stefanik was gone, replaced with an entirely new persona — which included asking the U.S. Supreme Court to keep Trump in power despite his defeat, and voting on Jan. 6 against legitimate election results.
With Cheney becoming a villain to her party for telling inconvenient truths, Stefanik is effectively on the campaign trail again, running for the House Republican Conference chair post. Yesterday, that included cringe-worthy nonsense.
For example, Stefanik stressed her eagerness to “work with the president” — and she was referring to Trump, not Joe Biden. She proceeded to peddle all sorts of bizarre nonsense about the 2020 election, even expressing support for the utterly bonkers “audit” in Arizona and celebrating the former president as “the strongest supporter” of the U.S. Constitution, reality notwithstanding.
All of this, of course, dovetails with Stefanik’s ridiculous and discredited conspiracy theories regarding Trump’s defeat.
It’s possible that the congresswoman’s earlier moderation was a charade, and this new far-right iteration reflects her sincere beliefs. It seems more likely that she knows she’s cynically pushing absurdities, and is choosing this course anyway to get ahead.
Either way, the end result is the same.
What does it take to be a Republican leader in 2021? Elise Stefanik is answering the question in painfully embarrassing ways.