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The rapid rise of Representative Elise Stefanik from New York to head the pro-Trump ambassador in the ongoing battle for the soul of the GOP has sparked a series of media reports about how a supposedly once moderate Republican has turned into a full-fledged fire – right-wing conservative breathe .
But for those who have followed Ms. Stefanik’s career since she emerged on the political stage in the 2014 battle for an open congressional seat in New York’s north country, her embrace of Trumpism and her rise to number 3 in the House of Representatives on Friday GOP isn’t a big one Surprise.
The reality is that Ms. Stefanik has always been a shapeshifter, driven more by the political zeitgeist than by a deeply rooted ideology.
Her resolute pursuit of success has long been known, beginning with her first run of Congress at the age of 30 when she successfully tried to be the youngest woman elected to the house at the time. Her ambition, a trait her male counterparts are widely praised for, has sparked routine – and frankly sexist – comparisons with Reese Witherspoon’s breakneck student politician Tracy Flick in the 1999 film Election.
Ms. Stefanik has many years of experience in recognizing and using opportunities and adapting herself and her message to the moment. When her Democratic predecessor Bill Owens abruptly announced in January 2014 that he would not seek re-election, she had already been campaigning for six months and positioned herself as a fresh-faced newcomer who would usher in a new generation of Republican leaders, especially women. into office.
Ms. Stefanik ran as a self-described “independent voice”, although she was strongly supported by the national GOP – from the then Speaker of the House, John Boehner, downwards. She took conservative positions on a variety of litmus test social and tax issues: against most abortions, the complexities of tax laws, gun control, and the affordable care law.
She also ran on an anti-establishment platform and stated that she “understood firsthand that Washington is broken” (sounds familiar?) – despite the fact that she was engrossed in the establishment. She previously served in the George W. Bush White House, serving as a campaign advisor to former Vice-President and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Ms. Stefanik’s road to victory in 2014 was made easier by the fact that her Democratic opponent was unusually weak – Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker who, like Ms. Stefanik, was a first-time candidate and a transplant to the district. Ms. Stefanik routinely touts her significant profit margins in this race and each of her re-election offers, but the reality is that the National Democrats have never really made it a top priority to oust them.
Ms. Stefanik criticized Donald Trump in 2016 and in the first years of his tenure in personal and political terms, but read the political tea leaves – not only the right shift of her district, but also the full inclination of the GOP of the house to a professional trump caucus.
When she opted for the Trump side in the internal power struggle of the national GOP, a similar intra-party struggle took place in her home state at a time of political change. Several scandals and investigations against Governor Andrew Cuomo offer the Republican Party the best chance of regaining the Executive Mansion since the last standard bearer, George Pataki, left in late 2006.
As recently as late April, Ms. Stefanik was reportedly considering challenging Mr. Cuomo in 2022 when a senior executive issued a statement announcing her status as “the most prolific New York Republican fundraiser in state history,” insisting that she would “Immediately be the strongest Republican candidate in both primary and general governor elections.”
Still, Republicans are teaming up in a pro-Trump challenger with Mr. Cuomo, Long Island representative Lee Zeldin. And a race for governor in 2022 looks difficult for any Republican as New York is steadily leaning to the left and Democratic socialist candidates expand the electoral power of the left by attracting new progressive voters.
As the number of republican registrations across the state declines, Ms. Stefanik’s political options at home are increasingly limited. With that in mind, a short-term gamble propelling her into the DC food chain is a classic Trumpian power grave – one that requires her to shed the temperate cloak she should be wearing.
New York has a long history of form-shifting elected officials who willingly and even zealously changed their positions – and in some cases their party affiliations – as the political winds blew.
Mr Pataki, for example, was elected on a platform against taxes and the death penalty in 1994 and defeated the democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo, a national-liberal icon, in 1994. During his 12-year tenure, Mr. Pataki steadily moved to the left and embraced everything from gun control to environmental protection to ensure his re-election by the increasingly democratically dominated voters.
Another prime example: Kirsten Gillibrand. She was once a Blue Dog Democrat who was notorious for keeping two guns under her bed. But when former Governor David Paterson approached her, then an upstate Congressman, to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat, Ms. Gillibrand quickly changed her mind. Critics accused her of flip-flops, much like another group of critics is currently targeting Ms. Stefanik.
Ms. Gillibrand said at the time that her development signaled political courage and a readiness to “fight for what is right”. In contrast, Ms. Stefanik has teamed up with a former president who has been charged not once but twice and has consistently tried to undermine – if not overturn, the very democratic foundation of this nation. It is undoubtedly a dangerous game for the aspiring Congresswoman that could end her once promising political career in a re-election in New York. But was this choice surprising given its history? Not in the least.
Liz Benjamin is a former reporter who covered New York City politics and government for two decades. She is now the managing director for Albany at Marathon Strategies, a communications and strategy consulting firm.
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