Elise Stefanik’s overwhelming victory to replace Liz Cheney as chair of the House Republican Conference came as little surprise on Friday: She had been maneuvering to replace Cheney since it became clear that the Wyoming Republican had uttered one Trump criticism too many to keep her mostly ceremonial role among House Republicans.
Stefanik faced only one speed bump due to a last-minute effort from some conservatives to find an alternative to her: her moderate record. The first millennial ever elected to congressional leadership from either party, she represents a district that Barack Obama won twice and supports LGBTQ rights and opposed Trump’s signature 2017 tax cut. As a result, Stefanik faced an effort to draft an alternative to run against her, led by archconservative Texas Republican Chip Roy. It ended with Roy receiving only 46 votes to the 134 received by Stefanik.
Stefanik was able to assuage conservative doubts about her for a number of reasons. She had pledged to only serve in leadership for one term before trying to become the top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee. She also had devoted significant effort to getting more Republican women elected in 2020, helping the House GOP pick up a number of seats in swing districts. But most important, she was the Trump candidate.
Starting with the first impeachment in 2019, Stefanik transformed herself into a zealous defender of Trump. It enabled her to lock up the former president’s support for the position, shared in emailed statements in which he hailed her as a “gifted communicator.” She voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election on January 6 and falsely claimed that over 140,000 votes in a single Georgia county alone were fraudulently cast. After her win on Friday, Stefanik went out of her way to praise Trump and thanked him for his support. “I also want to thank President Trump for his support,” she told reporters. “He is a critical part of our Republican team.”
In contrast, Roy voted to uphold the results of the election on January 6 and said Trump committed “clearly impeachable conduct” that day. However, the Texas Republican did not support impeachment because he thought that articles drafted by House Democrats were “flawed.”
Stefanik’s rise shows that intraparty fights are now occurring in a second dimension. It’s no longer just a fight between Establishment Republicans and conservatives but also one between hard-core MAGA acolytes, Never Trumpers, and a wide range of gradations in between.
But her victory also makes clear that the GOP is still Trump’s party, and for now, the momentum lies with those Republicans who don’t just assume his populist rhetoric but his personal obsessions with the 2020 election as well. In 2019, former Speaker Paul Ryan praised her in Time: “Elise isn’t just the future of the Republican Party. She is the future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America.” Stefanik is just as much the future of the Republican Party now as she was when Ryan praised her two years ago — it’s just that the party has changed, and she has changed with it.