Elise Stefanik's rapid rise as Trump supporter highlights the Trump takeover of the GOP

Published May 5, 2021, 9:27 p.m.

The New York congresswoman's rise within the party and embrace of Trump in recent years represents an evolution that mirrors that of her party, which coalesced behind Trump and remains loyal to him even with the former President no longer in office and after he attempted to overturn the last presidential election and incited a deadly attack on the US Capitol.

The GOP's decision to elevate Stefanik and reject Cheney makes clear that Trump is still in the driver's seat of the party and illustrates the consequences that Republicans, even those who have been in leadership positions or have a storied family history in the GOP, can face if they choose to vocally oppose the former President.

In 2016, Stefanik backed Trump as the party's presidential nominee, but worked to portray herself as an independent voice for her district. She aligned herself at the time with House Speaker Paul Ryan, another Republican leader who carefully tiptoed around Trump's more outlandish comments and spoke out occasionally when he believed the President crossed the line. In those early years, Stefanik largely kept out of the Trump fray, focusing instead on work on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, though she broke with Trump over some key priorities, including his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord and the 2017 GOP tax bill.

When House Democrats moved to impeach Trump for the first time in 2019, however, Stefanik emerged as one of the President's most outspoken defenders, earning Trump's praise in the process with the President calling her "a new Republican star."

Amid Trump's false claims over voter fraud and the 2020 election, Stefanik supported an objection during the Electoral College vote count in Congress held to certify President Joe Biden's win. She also signed on in support of an amicus brief backing a lawsuit from Texas to the Supreme Court that sought to overturn the results of the election in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.

Now, Stefanik has Trump's backing to replace Cheney with the former President saying on Wednesday that she "is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair."

In February, Cheney faced an earlier attempt to oust her from the GOP conference after she voted to impeach Trump in the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack. She survived in part because of the backing of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. But, in the weeks that followed, McCarthy encouraged Cheney to turn the temperature down, according to aides. When Cheney kept speaking out against Trump, leadership's patience wore thin. And aides tell CNN that Cheney's comments were becoming a frequent topic of calls rank-and-file members were having with McCarthy. The question, however, was if Cheney was ousted, who would replace her.

Stefanik has been working behind the scenes to lock down the support to replace Cheney as the No. 3 in GOP leadership, multiple Republican sources told CNN, moving swiftly to clear the field to ascend to the powerful position.

The New York congresswoman has long had a reputation as a moderate within her party and still touts her record of bipartisanship. Her current status as a prominent Trump ally underscores that it is not just traditional conservatives who have rallied around Trump and shows how far-reaching support for the former President is within the GOP.

The congresswoman, who represents New York's 21st Congressional District, was first elected in 2014, when she was 30 years old, becoming -- at the time -- the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

A Harvard graduate, Stefanik previously was an aide to former President George W. Bush, later working for then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- now a US senator from Utah and outspoken Trump critic -- and Ryan, Romney's running mate during the 2012 presidential campaign.

In another sign of her strength within the party, the congresswoman has become a prolific fundraiser and has worked to recruit and raise money for female Republican candidates.

Stefanik raised nearly $15 million combined during the last election cycle for herself and through E-PAC, a political action committee that the congresswoman set up to help elect more Republican women to Congress, according to a source familiar with the fundraising efforts.

In the past year, the source told CNN, Stefanik has also raised and donated over $2 million to GOP candidates, more than $1.5 million of which went to women.

Those efforts have also helped bolster her standing with many Republicans who see her as actively engaged in working to help the party's electoral prospects and diversify its ranks.


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