The rapid rise of Representative Elise Stefanik of New York to the post of chief pro-Trump messenger in the ongoing battle for the soul of the G.O.P. has sparked a flurry of media reports about how a supposed onetime moderate Republican metamorphosed into a full-fledged fire-breathing far-right conservative.
But for those who have been following Ms. Stefanik’s career since she emerged on the political scene in the 2014 battle for an open congressional seat in New York’s North Country, her embrace of Trumpism and elevation on Friday to the No. 3 role in the House G.O.P. don’t come as any big surprise.
The reality is that Ms. Stefanik has always been a shape-shifter, driven more by the political zeitgeist than any strongly rooted ideology.
Her single-minded drive to succeed has long been well known, starting from her first congressional run, at the age of 30, when she successfully sought to be the youngest woman elected to the House at the time. Her ambition, a trait for which her male colleagues are frequently praised, sparked routine — and frankly sexist — comparisons to Reese Witherspoon’s cutthroat student politician character Tracy Flick in the 1999 film “Election.”
Ms. Stefanik has a well-established track record of recognizing opportunities and seizing them, molding herself and her message to fit the moment. When her Democratic predecessor Representative Bill Owens abruptly announced in January 2014 he would not seek re-election, she was already six months into her campaign — positioning herself as a fresh-faced newcomer who would usher a new generation of Republican leaders, especially women, into office.
Ms. Stefanik ran as a self-described “independent voice,” even though she was strongly backed by the national G.O.P. — from the House speaker at the time, John Boehner, on down. She espoused conservative positions on a host of litmus test social and fiscal issues: opposing most abortions, the complexity of the tax code, gun control and the Affordable Care Act.
She also ran on an anti-establishment platform — declaring that she understood “firsthand that Washington is broken” (sound familiar?) — despite the fact that she was steeped in the establishment. She previously served in George W. Bush’s White House and was a campaign adviser for the former vice-presidential candidate and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Ms. Stefanik’s path to victory in 2014 was made easier by the fact that her Democratic opponent was unusually weak — Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker who was a first-time candidate, like Ms. Stefanik, and a transplant to the district. Ms. Stefanik routinely touts her significant margins of victory in that race and each of her re-election bids, but the reality is that the national Democrats have never truly made ousting her a top priority.
Ms. Stefanik criticized Donald Trump on personal and policy fronts in 2016 and in the first years of his administration, but she read the political tea leaves — not only the rightward shift of her district but also the full tilt of the House G.O.P. to a pro-Trump caucus.
As she chose the Trump side in the national G.O.P.’s internal power struggle, a similar intraparty battle has been taking place in her home state at a time of political flux. Multiple scandals and investigations plaguing Gov. Andrew Cuomo present the Republican Party with its best chance to regain the Executive Mansion since the last standard-bearer to hold it, George Pataki, departed at the end of 2006.
As recently as late April, Ms. Stefanik was reportedly considering a challenge to Mr. Cuomo in 2022, with a senior staff member releasing a statement touting her status as the “most prolific New York Republican fundraiser ever in state history” and insisting she would “immediately be the strongest Republican candidate in both a primary and general gubernatorial election.”
Yet Republicans are coalescing around a pro-Trump challenger to Mr. Cuomo, Representative Lee Zeldin of Long Island. And a 2022 race for governor is looking tough for any Republican, given how New York is leaning steadily leftward and democratic socialist candidates are expanding the left’s electoral power by attracting new progressive voters.
With Republican registrations dwindling across the state, Ms. Stefanik’s political options back home are increasingly limited. Against that backdrop, a short-term gamble that propels her up the D.C. food chain is a classic Trumpian power grab — one requiring that she cast off the moderate mantle she was perceived to wear.
New York has a long history of shape-shifting elected officials who willingly and even eagerly changed their positions — and in some cases, their party affiliations — based on how the political winds were blowing.
Mr. Pataki, for example, was elected on an anti-tax, pro-death penalty platform, defeating Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo, a national liberal icon, in 1994. Over his 12 years in office, Mr. Pataki shifted steadily leftward, embracing everything from gun control to environmental protection to assure his re-election by the increasingly Democratic-dominated electorate.
Another prime example: Kirsten Gillibrand. She was once a Blue Dog Democrat infamous for touting how she kept two guns under her bed. But when former Gov. David Paterson tapped her, at the time an upstate congresswoman, to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, Ms. Gillibrand quickly changed her tune. Critics accused her of flip-flopping, much the way a different set of critics is currently targeting Ms. Stefanik.
Ms. Gillibrand at the time said her evolution signaled political courage and a willingness to “fight for what’s right.” Ms. Stefanik, by contrast, has thrown her lot in with a former president who was impeached not once but twice and consistently sought to undermine — if not outright overthrow — the very democratic foundation of this nation. It is no doubt a dangerous game for the up-and-coming congresswoman, and one that could well cut short her once promising political career in a re-election bid in New York. But given her history, was this choice surprising? Not in the least.
Liz Benjamin is a former reporter who covered New York politics and government for two decades. She’s now the managing director for Albany at Marathon Strategies, a communications and strategic consulting firm.
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