How Elise Stefanik became an overnight conservative hero

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) told Roll Call she wants to "play big" in the primaries to support women, despite NRCC leadership calling her engagement a "mistake."

Posted: Nov 19, 2019 2:00 PM
Updated: Nov 19, 2019 2:00 PM

Elise Stefanik isn't the most likely hero of the Trump era.

The New York Republican spent several years in the George W. Bush White House before running for Congress in 2014. The Upstate New York seat she won that year -- it stretches from Saratoga Springs all the way to the border of Canada -- was previously held by a Democrat, and Barack Obama had carried it in 2008 and 2012.

Stefanik drew some national attention in that first race -- she was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at the time -- and has been seen as a rising star among establishment Republican types.

But something big happened last week during the first days of the public impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's conduct toward Ukraine: She became a viral sensation in Trumpworld.

Stefanik was attempting to speak and/or ask questions of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was testifying in front of the House Intelligence Committee about her removal by President Trump as the top diplomat in Ukraine. She was gaveled to silence by Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (California). Ranking member Devin Nunes (R-California) then interrupted Schiff to say that he had recognized Stefanik to use some of the 45 minutes of question time allotted to him and Schiff. Schiff continued to bang the gavel, noting that Nunes, under the rules of the inquiry, was not allowed to give his 45 minutes to any other member.

Here's the whole minute-long back-and-forth:

"You're gagging the young lady from New York?" Nunes said to Schiff.

Now, under the established rules, Schiff was right. Both he and Nunes have 45 minutes to question the witnesses in the impeachment hearings. (All other members have five minutes.) But the only person that either man can allow to use that time -- other than themselves -- is the committee lawyer sitting next to them on the dais. Allotting any part of that 45 minutes to another member of Congress is forbidden under the rules.

No matter! The image of Schiff gaveling down a young female member of Congress and refusing to allow her to speak was catnip for the Trump wing of the GOP.

When Stefanik did get to talk -- in the five minutes she was allotted -- she raised questions about the appropriateness of Hunter Biden serving on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company and focused on the fact that anti-tank weapons were delivered to Ukraine under Trump, not Barack Obama.

She also strongly defended Trump in a news conference after the hearing, after much of the hearing time had been spent talking about whether Trump had badgered Yovanovitch in a tweet.

"These hearings are not about tweets, they are about impeachment of the President of the United States," Stefanik said at a contentious press briefing following Friday's hearing. "This is a constitutional matter. You can disagree or dislike the tweet, but we are here to talk about impeachment and nothing in that room today, and nothing in that room this week, nothing rises to the level of impeachable offenses."

Stefanik herself had told CNN earlier on Friday that she disagreed with the tweet in question.

"A new Republican Star is born," tweeted Trump on Sunday. "Great going @EliseStefanik!" And, as Politico has noted, both of the President's sons -- Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump -- recently began following Stefanik.

Stefanik's viral moment continues to linger in the political consciousness thanks to George Conway, the husband of senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and one of the most outspoken and harsh critics of Trump and his Republican allies.

Conway called Stefanik "lying trash" following last week's impeachment hearings and called on people to donate to her 2020 opponent. Stefanik replied in kind -- saying that Conway was in need of "serious help" and labeling him a "sick misogynist." Nikki Haley, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, got in on the act tweeting: "George Conway is the last person that can call someone "trash". #Pathetic"

Whether you like it or not, the upshot of all of this for Stefanik is nothing but good. She clearly has her eye on leadership roles within the House GOP and it's become abundantly clear since Trump's election that the only path to success within the GOP is to be an ardent ally of the President.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) rushed to praise Stefanik in the wake of the hearing, tweeting: "@Repstefanik is a young, powerful, conservative woman—and Democrats are threatened by that."

You can be sure that McCarthy will be looking for ways to bring Stefanik more into the leadership fold -- to please Trump, help the party raise money from its small dollar donor base and to break up the largely male-dominated leadership ranks within the House (and Senate) GOP.

How did Stefanik do it? She learned a critical lesson of the Trump era: It doesn't matter if you're right (she wasn't, according to the rules of the hearing). It matters if you are loud.

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