WASHINGTON – House Republicans elected Rep. Elise Stefanik to their third-ranking leadership position Friday, completing a shift from Rep. Liz Cheney, a fierce critic of former President Donald Trump who voted to impeach him, to a lawmaker who vocally defended him.
Stefanik of New York was elected conference chair, to serve with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Cheney was ousted from the post by a voice vote Wednesday.
“I was focused on unifying our conference, making sure that every member has an opportunity to shine – rank and file members – and that we win the majority in 2022,” Stefanik told reporters after a candidate forum Thursday.
Stefanik, 36, represents a generational change from Cheney, 54, as the party strives to regain control of Congress in 2022. But the change in Republican leadership derived more from their relationship to Trump than to customary political gauges, such as conservative credentials or seniority.
Cheney had been rated more conservative than Stefanik, with an 80% lifetime rating from Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group, compared to 48% for Stefanik. Cheney was also rated more supportive of Trump, voting with him 92.9% of the time, compared to 77.7% for Stefanik, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, jumped into the race late Thursday evening after conservatives within the conference argued for someone more legislatively conservative and against the speed of the process.
Speaking to reporters after a candidate forum Thursday, Roy said he “highlighted policy issues” and said “you see a pretty clear distinction” between himself and Stefanik. Roy declined to discuss how he distinguished himself from Stefanik. But he said the debate was a healthy way to discuss what Americans care about, such as “gas prices, open borders and China, Israel getting attacked.”
“This is all about having a robust debate and discussion about the issues for the Congress for the House Republicans and our visions where we’re leading the country forward,” Roy said. “We’re having a robust debate about issues here and it’s a good thing. This is a healthy thing.”
Earlier in the week, he had circulated a memo to Republican colleagues arguing against placing Stefanik in leadership. Roy’s three-page memo noted a dozen times Stefanik voted against Trump’s agenda, including against his signature tax cut and border security measures. She also voted in favor of a drilling ban in the Gulf of Mexico.
Several conservative Republicans said this week they preferred competition to Stefanik. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said he was “always for having multiple choices.” Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said Stefanik shouldn’t run unopposed.
McCarthy said Thursday it was “healthy” that members got to debate the leadership position and the conference’s future.
Cheney was one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted Jan. 13 to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection a week earlier at the Capitol. The Senate acquitted Trump in both impeachments.
Trump endorsed Stefanik and blasted Cheney as “a bitter, horrible human being.” He also predicted she would lose her seat representing Wyoming, where Trump supporters are campaigning against her.
The hostility is mutual. After the leadership vote, Cheney said she would “do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.” She told the “Today” show if Trump wants to campaign against her, “bring it on.”
Stefanik, in contrast, became a vocal defender of Trump from her seat on the Intelligence Committee through Trump’s two impeachments.
“I’m proud of President Trump’s support,” Stefanik said. “He’s an important – the most important leader – in our party for voters and it’s going to be important that we work as a team to win the majority in 2022.”
During the first impeachment, which dealt with Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, Stefanik asked a former ambassador about the State Department prepping her for questions about Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, serving on an energy company’s board.
When another lawmaker tried to give her more time to ask questions, Stefanik got into a heated exchange with the chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who refused to recognize her.
Stefanik became one of Trump’s informal defenders on the Hill.
“Trump has fought tirelessly to deliver results for all Americans, despite the Democrats’ baseless and illegal impeachment sham and the media’s endless obsession with it,” she said in August.
Stefanik’s prominence benefited her fundraising. She raised $13.3 million during the 2020 election cycle, compared to $2.8 million during the 2018 cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.
After Thursday’s candidate forum, Stefanik told reporters she highlighted this to her Republican colleagues, as well as well as the fact that she flipped her district when she won in 2014.
“I was proud to highlight my success, raising money as well as supporting our women candidates” in conservative and moderate wings of the party, Stefanik said. “I did highlight my status of flipping a district in 2014, but also bringing a double digit Obama district to a double digit Trump district.”
In a reflection of her growing national reputation, Stefanik sent out fundraising emails Thursday for the Republican National Committee. The solicitation invited contributors to join the America First 1000 Club.
Stefanik had been elected in 2014 at 30 – the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at that point.
She graduated with honors from Harvard University before joining the White House staff of former President George W. Bush. She served on the Domestic Policy Council staff and in the office of the chief of staff. She also helped former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., prepare in 2012 for debates against then-Vice President Joe Biden.