Profile

Elise Stefanik Is Most Likely to Succeed

A young woman once hailed as the future of the Republican Party embraces Trumpism to stay that way.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik stands as President Donald Trump recognizes her for her work
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik stands as President Donald Trump recognizes her for her work
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik stands as President Donald Trump recognizes her for her work during the impeachment hearings at the White House in Washington on Feb. 6, 2020. Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times via Redux
By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.

In late October 2016, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik took to a debate stage in upstate New York, seeking a second term to represent her district in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was just two weeks before an election that would horrify and electrify the country, and the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was an unavoidable topic.

At 30 years old, Stefanik had been the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress in 2014. At a time when the party sought to reach a younger and more diverse pool of voters, she was hailed as the future of the Republican Party. Stefanik had spent much of the October 2016 debate asserting her independence as a candidate, and she cited her bipartisan record in Congress and appeared unfazed when asked about Trump—his offensive remarks about women and, perhaps most significantly, his unfounded allegation that the upcoming vote would be rigged against him.

“I disagree with Mr. Trump on this issue,” Stefanik said. “I have full faith and confidence in the outcome of the election in this district and across the country and I would urge candidates across this country to accept the outcome.”

In late October 2016, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik took to a debate stage in upstate New York, seeking a second term to represent her district in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was just two weeks before an election that would horrify and electrify the country, and the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was an unavoidable topic.

At 30 years old, Stefanik had been the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress in 2014. At a time when the party sought to reach a younger and more diverse pool of voters, she was hailed as the future of the Republican Party. Stefanik had spent much of the October 2016 debate asserting her independence as a candidate, and she cited her bipartisan record in Congress and appeared unfazed when asked about Trump—his offensive remarks about women and, perhaps most significantly, his unfounded allegation that the upcoming vote would be rigged against him.

“I disagree with Mr. Trump on this issue,” Stefanik said. “I have full faith and confidence in the outcome of the election in this district and across the country and I would urge candidates across this country to accept the outcome.”

That was then. This is now.

Over the course of the next several years, Stefanik evolved from a proud moderate to a devout acolyte of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform. In this way, the representative for New York’s 21st Congressional District has proved a bellwether for the Republican Party.

Her political evolution may not have been unique, but Stefanik’s change in tone and positions has been the subject of fascination and bewilderment among former friends and colleagues, including some who championed her early rise. “It’s like the prom queen gone bad,” said a former Democratic congressional aide who knew the congresswoman, and who requested anonymity to speak candidly. Stefanik’s office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment for this piece.

Hours after Trump’s supporters rampaged through the halls of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, Stefanik cemented her loyalty to the outgoing president when she voted to overturn the results of the presidential election. She has continued to amplify unsubstantiated claims of voting irregularities and, with Trump’s endorsement, succeeded in ousting conservative grandee Liz Cheney as House Republican Conference chair in May 2021, becoming the third-most-senior member of the party in the chamber.

With the midterm elections less than six weeks away, Stefanik’s political evolution offers a lens into the powerful forces that have shaped the Republican Party. Her ascent through the ranks raises the question of whether there is any future for conservative politicians who try to resist its riptide. Why did she do it? And what does Stefanik’s transformation tell us about the future of the Republican Party—and, with it, the viability of American democracy?


From left: Representatives Martha McSally, Mimi Walters, Elise Stefanik, and Barbara Comstock gather on the House Steps of the Capitol for the 114th Congress's freshman class photo on Nov. 18, 2014.
From left: Representatives Martha McSally, Mimi Walters, Elise Stefanik, and Barbara Comstock gather on the House Steps of the Capitol for the 114th Congress's freshman class photo on Nov. 18, 2014.

From left: Reps. Martha McSally, Mimi Walters, Elise Stefanik, and Barbara Comstock gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the 114th Congress’s freshman class photo on Nov. 18, 2014. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

There are two ways you can slice Elise Stefanik’s biography. The first, the version that features in her stump speeches, is that of an outsider, someone born and raised in upstate New York who was the first in her immediate family to go to college, whose parents built their family-owned plywood business from scratch.

In the second version of the story, the one that helped to pave a path to a job at the White House at the age of 22, Stefanik went to a prestigious college preparatory school, the Albany Academy for Girls, and then on to Harvard University.

Friends from Stefanik’s college years remember her as an ambitious student who cared deeply for her friends and partied as hard as she studied. “She’s the one who goes all in on karaoke,” said a college friend.

Much of Stefanik’s undergraduate life centered around the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, which seeks to prepare students for careers in public service. “I think she genuinely was extremely proud to be part of it,” said Morgan Grice, Stefanik’s college roommate. In 2004, she ran on a ticket with David Kaden—a Democrat who later went on to work in the White House under President Barack Obama—and was elected vice president of the institute.

After graduating, Stefanik served on the institute’s senior advisory board, until she was removed early last year for her vote to overturn the election. Her response to the board’s decision was pure Trump, a mishmash of right-wing talking points. “The Ivory Tower’s march toward a monoculture of like-minded, intolerant liberal views demonstrates the sneering disdain for everyday Americans and will instill a culture of fear for students who will understand that a conservative viewpoint will not be tolerated and will be silenced,” she said in a statement.

Stefanik is part of a curious cohort of Trump devotees—along with Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; and others—who graduated from Ivy League universities but have spent much of their careers railing against the elite institutions from whence they came. In later years, Stefanik would joke that she went to Harvard a Republican and a Yankee fan, and graduated as a Republican and a Yankee fan. “It was saying that she came [into Harvard] with her principles intact and left with them intact,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center think tank.

When Stefanik graduated, a teaching fellow at the Institute of Politics who had recently left the George W. Bush administration helped secure her a job at the White House. Once in Washington, Stefanik settled into a job on Bush’s domestic policy council and an apartment in the leafy neighborhood of Woodley Park.

During the 2012 election cycle, Stefanik worked on the presidential campaign of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an old-school Catholic conservative, and helped lead debate preparation for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. After Mitt Romney and the Republicans lost out on the White House to the incumbent, Obama, party chairman Reince Priebus ordered what came to be known as the “autopsy.” It was a root-and-branch review of the party’s campaign strategy and messaging after losing the popular vote in five of the six most recent presidential races. Stefanik served as a kind of managing editor of the report, juggling its various contributions.

Released in 2013, the report—formally known as the “Growth & Opportunity Project”— sought to expand the Republican Party’s reach to younger voters, women, and minorities. “We must be a party that is welcoming and inclusive for all voters,” it concluded.

Stefanik appears to have taken the report as a call to action. “I think in a lot of ways she was very much seeing this document as her launching pad,” said Tim Miller, a longtime Republican strategist. She moved back to upstate New York with a thick rolodex of Republican power players and donors, took a job with the family business, and planned her own career in politics.

Stretching from the suburbs of Albany through the spruce thickets of the Adirondacks to the Canadian border, Stefanik’s largely rural congressional district has grappled with many of the post-industrial anxieties more commonly associated with America’s rust belt. While a sprinkling of college towns function as liberal anchors, the district—the largest in New York—has swung for both Republican and Democratic candidates over the past 30 years. It voted for Obama twice, before electing Trump by a double-digit margin.

Elise Stefanik takes a selfie with members of the North County, N.Y., 4H delegation during a visit on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Oct. 23, 2015.
Elise Stefanik takes a selfie with members of the North County, N.Y., 4H delegation during a visit on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Oct. 23, 2015.

Stefanik takes a selfie with members of a 4-H delegation from her upstate New York district during a visit on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 23, 2015.Al Drago/CQ Roll Call

On the campaign trail before her first election, Stefanik talked about a broken Washington. “We desperately need new ideas and a new generation of leadership,” she said in her opening remarks at a candidates’ debate. Her platform, said Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, “exemplified what you might call 2014 conservatism. Really passionate about national security and defense issues. But,” he added, “her district had a working-class flavor, and I think even at that time she was attentive to that.” That type of conservatism “formed in opposition to Barack Obama, his Obamacare, his regulations, his foreign policies,” Continetti said.

In researching his book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, Miller, the Republican operative, said he spoke to several people who worked on Stefanik’s 2014 campaign. “To a person, they said, ‘This was an inspiring campaign, it was meaningful for me, it was what I hoped for the party,’” he said. “I think all of that’s important when you understand just how dramatic her flip has been.”

Once elected to Congress, Stefanik quickly impressed colleagues on both sides of the aisle for her smarts and willingness to work across partisan lines. “You could tell she was a high-caliber, good-quality individual who was obviously passionate about politics and has used those skills to become very successful within the Republican Party,” said Tom Reed, who represented New York’s 23rd congressional district until stepping down earlier this year.

Stefanik’s tendency toward moderation and bipartisanship is borne out by her voting record during her first two terms in Congress. According to the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index, a nonpartisan ranking of how often a member works across party lines, Stefanik was the 31st, then 19th, and then 13th most bipartisan member of the House during her first three terms. (In the first session of her current term, she had dropped to 100th.)

A second former congressional colleague recalled Stefanik pushing back in meetings on some of the more extreme members of the House Republican conference, the Freedom Caucus.

Then came the 2016 presidential election and the Trump juggernaut. Many moderate Republicans found themselves torn as their party’s nominee made derogatory remarks about women, immigrants, veterans, and Muslims. After initially supporting the candidacy of John Kasich, a Midwestern moderate, Stefanik vowed to back Trump, though she appeared reluctant to say his name. “I’m supporting my party’s nominee, but I’ll continue being an independent voice for the district and critical when I disagree with both,” she said after being pursued by local TV news journalists shortly before the election.

While far from a never-Trumper, Stefanik proved willing to speak out on select issues during the first years of Trump’s presidency. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, she supported Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia as a means of “getting to the apolitical truth.” In a 2018 interview with the Watertown Daily Times in her district, she acknowledged that Russia had sought to undermine the Clinton campaign and said she was “concerned” about contacts between Moscow and the Trump team ahead of the election (although she would later, like Trump, come to refer to it as the “Russia hoax”). In 2019, she opposed the Trump administration’s effort to broker an agreement with the Taliban.

When you ask people what happened to Elise Stefanik, they often start with the story of when Trump came to her district. In 2018, shortly before she was elected to a third term in office, Stefanik invited the president to visit the U.S. Army base at Fort Drum in upstate New York to sign the next year’s bumper defense spending bill into law. In a speech at the base, Trump said of Stefanik, “She called me so many times. I said, ‘I don’t want to take her call.’”

“I think the Fort Drum event was a big trigger,” said former Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, who held Stefanik’s seat before announcing his retirement in 2014. “I think she was also watching what was happening nationally as Trump would go to rallies and get humongous crowds, and she realized, this guy has got a spark that is lighting people up,” he added.

Aside from a flurry of profiles that followed her election in 2014, Stefanik had not attracted much national attention. Trump’s first impeachment trial beginning in the fall of 2019 would provide her with a primetime opportunity to make her name.

As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Stefanik questioned witnesses to Trump’s alleged efforts to leverage U.S. military aid over Ukraine with prosecutorial zeal. It helped that the hearings were televised nationally. The impeachment investigation, led by Democrats, became the subject of a bitter partisan battle. “I think among normal, sensible Republicans, people thought the Democratic impeachment effort was unjustified,” said a House Republican aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. Stefanik emerged as the Republicans’ most effective envoy, taking committee chairman and Trump foe Adam Schiff to task.

“A new Republican Star is born,” Trump tweeted in November of that year.

It was around this time that she appears to have developed a “disdain” for the media and left-wing elites, Miller said. “I think what I saw from her was very similar to what I saw from other people in the Trump bubble. You become very defensive, you start to believe your own b.s., you start to become resentful of the fact that you’re being called these names,” he said.

Stefanik’s campaign war chest reaped the benefits of her newfound fame, pulling in $3.1 million in donations in the final months of 2019. That amount represented a near eightfold increase on the $400,000 she made in the third quarter of that year. In years gone by, members of Congress were expected to spend hours a day on the phone with donors, fundraising for their campaigns and parties. But the rise of cable news, which was then supercharged by the advent of social media, has enabled politicians to take snappy soundbites and quickly package them up as campaign material.

“I think that it has, in its own way, been as corrosive as anything else because it’s very effective,” said the former Democratic congressional aide. Data from the watchdog site OpenSecrets shows that between 2014 and 2018, Stefanik’s campaign contributions hovered between $2 million and $3 million per election cycle, just above average for a member of the House. By 2020, her fundraising had exploded, pulling in $13 million.

“Elise is not more conservative or a more loyal Republican than any of these other Bush-era Republicans who are now completely sidelined,” Miller said. “The only difference between her and them is that she was willing to go along with the cruelty, the lib-owning, the conspiracy-mongering. And that has paid off for her.”


Elise Stefanik speaks with reporters in the Senate subway before the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump resumes at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 23, 2020 in Washington.
Elise Stefanik speaks with reporters in the Senate subway before the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump resumes at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 23, 2020 in Washington.

Stefanik speaks with reporters in the Senate subway before Trump’s impeachment trial resumes at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 23, 2020. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The past two decades have seen a profound shift in the party affiliation of college-educated voters in the United States. As those with higher education levels have been increasingly drawn to the Democrats—once the party of blue-collar workers—non-college-educated whites have migrated the opposite direction. By 2019, 59 percent of white voters without a four-year college degree identified as Republicans, while just 34 percent leaned Democrat.

Trump was able to tap the raw political power of this aggrieved constituency, one that felt increasingly sidelined by globalization and evolving social norms. At the same time, he offered little in the way of remedy. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, the party did not issue a platform for the first time since 1856.

The Republican Party is no stranger to surges of populist ideas from the grassroots. From the isolationism of the 1930s, to the conspiratorially minded far-right John Birch Society that rose to prominence in the late 1950s, to the Tea Party of the Obama years, there has long been a push and pull between the governing establishment and more radical grassroots. In the past, when elements of populist movements made it to elected office, getting down to the brass tacks of governance tended to have a moderating effect. That no longer appears to be the case.

“From the Tea Party people onward, they are simply hostile to the whole concept of governance and therefore doing culture war instead of actually working on solutions, which requires some degree of accommodation with the opposing party to get passed,” said the Niskanen Center’s Kabaservice.

When it comes to policy, Stefanik’s voting record has tacked to the right somewhat, according to a scorecard by the conservative Heritage Foundation. But a hint of her bipartisanship remains. She has voted in line with the Biden administration almost 20 percent of the time, according to the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight, ahead of three-quarters of her Republican colleagues in the House.

In many ways, her voting record doesn’t matter, because the wish list of the modern Republican base is short. “It is minorly about policy in this move away from classical liberalism toward a nationalist Republican Party that cares more about these populist issues, immigration, culture wars,” Miller said.

Consequently, Stefanik’s shift has been most stark not in her politics but in her pugnacious rhetoric and, in particular, her embrace of Trump’s talking points on impeachment, Jan. 6, and most recently the Justice Department’s efforts to retrieve classified documents from the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort. “The latest leaked justification that started off as nuclear codes has now morphed into whatever Joe Biden’s corrupt agencies think the media will transcribe as the loyal stenographers they are,” she said in a recent statement to Axios. (The Washington Post has reported that the seized documents include information on a foreign government’s nuclear capabilities.)

Immigration has also become a bugbear. A Stefanik campaign advertisement published on Facebook in September of last year alleged that “Radical Democrats” were planning a “a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION.” The ad went on to claim the Democratic Party granted amnesty to “11 million illegal immigrants,” and that it was doing so in order to “create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” The advertisement echoed—but did not explicitly name—the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which holds that liberals are seeking to bring nonwhite immigrants to the country to replace white voters and force permanent political change in the United States.

While Stefanik has by and large steered clear from dipping her toes further into the darker conspiracy theories peddled by the fringes of the Republican Party, she endorsed QAnon acolyte Lauren Boebert in 2020 and, this year, Republican congressional candidate Carl Paladino, who once described Adolf Hitler as “the kind of leader we need.” She may not be a Marjorie Taylor Greene—the House Republican who has posed for a photograph with a Ku Klux Klan leader and made numerous antisemitic remarks—but there is a sense among many Republicans that Stefanik should know better.

“I really see Elise Stefanik as a dangerous person at this point as she has put her personal ambitions and her loyalty to Trump ahead of everything she knows to be at stake, and that’s what really worries me,” Kabaservice said.

Defending her embrace of Trump, Stefanik has repeatedly said in interviews that she is merely representing the desires of her district, where well over 50 percent of the electorate voted for Trump in 2020. “The biggest reason that the Republican Party has moved toward Donald Trump is Republican voters,” Continetti said. Trump’s popularity hasn’t waned since he left office, with a recent poll showing him to be the most favored 2024 candidate among Republicans at 81 percent.

Ultimately the gravitational force of Trump’s popularity may have left Republicans with a limited menu of options. “I think if you define yourself as a politician as anti-Trump, you’re going to be in trouble in today’s Republican Party,” Continetti said.

Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and his role in whipping up the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, did little to force a break with the former president, which has raised the question of where the limits lie.


Rep. Lauren Boebert (left) and Elise Stefanik during a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on July 1, 2021 in Washington.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (left) and Elise Stefanik during a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on July 1, 2021 in Washington.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (left) and Stefanik during a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on July 1, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Having hitched her cart firmly to Trump, Stefanik looks to have as bright a future within the Republican Party as when she was first elected to Congress eight years ago. She endorsed his still hypothetical candidacy for 2024—and has already been tipped as a potential running mate.

While the former president and his progeny have repeatedly hinted that a third run for the White House may be in the works, some longtime conservative observers see the beginnings of a post-Trump future in the strategies of rising stars such as DeSantis, the Florida governor, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Both DeSantis and Youngkin have toed a careful line, neither embracing the former president nor the suicide vest of never-Trumpism.

In Virginia, Youngkin succeeded in winning back the statehouse from Democrats by vowing to ban the teaching of critical race theory, which posits that racism is woven into the fabric of American life, in schools. (There is scant evidence it routinely features in the classroom.) For his part, DeSantis has restricted discussion of gay and transgender issues in Florida schools; vetoed state funding for the Tampa Bay Rays after the baseball team called for stricter gun-safety measures in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas; flirted with anti-vaccine campaigners; and weighed investigating parents who take their children to drag shows.

Figures like Youngkin and DeSantis “point to the post-Trump future of the Republican Party,” Continetti said. “The GOP will have assimilated many of Trump’s issues and some of his sensibility, but it won’t be attached to his personality.”

Other conservatives are skeptical about this theory. “I do wonder if it’s wishful thinking,” Miller said. “That they can have DeSantis and he can do this Trumpy costume act but they can feel assured that he’s not going to sic [his supporters] on the Capitol or share the nuclear codes with Kim Jong Un.”

While polls show DeSantis to be the most popular alternative, the question of whether the Florida governor could be more disruptive than the former president remains an open debate. Besides, it’s unclear whether Republican voters are ready to ditch Trump for a simulacrum. Recent opinion polls show strong support for the former president, and the congresswoman from New York is ready to ride his coattails.

“I think Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous figure in American life,” Kabaservice said. Elise Stefanik is counting on him.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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