Donald Trump has called Elise Stefanik “a new Republican star,” a “smart communicator” and — perhaps his highest praise — “tough.”
But the MAGA faithful aren’t so sure.
Within minutes of Trump’s endorsement of the New York congresswoman for GOP conference chair on Wednesday, top MAGA voices erupted in anger — a rare break with the former president. The invective aimed at Stefanik, who was perceived to be insufficiently conservative and a relative newcomer to the Trump cause, continued to zoom through the MAGA-sphere on Thursday.
The Columbia Bugle — an anonymously-run Twitter account with nearly 179,000 followers, including high-profile Trump movement influencers — described Stefanik as “a slightly less annoying America Last Republican.” Lou Dobbs, the former Fox Business show host who was one of Trump’s fiercest cable television supporters, dismissed her as a “RINO.”
Others, like pundits Ann Coulter and Raheem Kassam, editor in chief of the populist online outlet National Pulse, went on a retweeting spree, highlighting writer after writer, tweet after tweet, questioning Stefanik’s commitment to the Trump movement’s core tenets, particularly on immigration.
.@RepStefanik? Comment?— Jenna Ellis (@JennaEllisEsq) May 6, 2021
Thread ⬇️ https://t.co/xBnl6lDdLg
“.@RepStefanik? Comment?” Jenna Ellis, formerly Trump’s senior legal counsel, pointedly asked on Thursday, retweeting a thread highlighting Stefanik’s record.
Popular MAGA news and opinion sites were less sparing, with Revolver calling her a “neocon establishment twit”, and Big League Politics, founded by Breitbart alumni, slamming her for only getting on the Trump defense train in 2019 and characterizing her as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Though she received praise and support from other MAGA-friendly politicians — Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and, of course, Trump himself — it was a hostile grassroots reception for the congresswoman pitched as a MAGA-worthy option to replace Rep. Liz Cheney in GOP leadership.
Cheney’s ouster from the no. 3 Republican position in the House appears almost certain following her sustained criticism of Trump and his baseless claims of election fraud, a politically suicidal position in a party where the former president remains popular with the GOP base.
“[Stefanik] is the identity of a swamp creature, and she has probably the most liberal voting record of anybody who represents a strong Republican district,” said Ryan James Girdusky, a conservative political consultant and the author of the National Populist newsletter.
While Stefanik is seen within the party as a rising star and prolific fundraiser — particularly after aggressively defending Trump during his impeachment trials — Trump’s populist base views her quite differently. If they don’t eventually come on board, that could mean a limited tenure for Stefanik as a member of the leadership team.
Several MAGA news sites cited Stefanik’s voting record, where she backed the then-president’s position only 78 percent of the time, making Cheney’s record of 93 percent look slavishly loyal in comparison. Stefanik compiled that record despite representing a comfortably Republican district that Trump won easily in 2020.
Even worse, she started her career working in the George W. Bush White House. “I’ve heard from several conservative members of Congress this same concern over her voting record. We need answers,” Ellis tweeted Wednesday.
Stefanik’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But on Thursday morning, the congresswoman made an appearance on Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room to tout her most important MAGA bona fides: supporting the Arizona recount and promising to investigate false claims of election fraud. “We want transparency and answers for the American people — what are the Democrats so afraid of?” she said.
After the interview, Bannon sang her praises, comparing her political evolution from the establishment to MAGA to that of “fire breathing populist” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “You’ve got Hawley in the Senate and Stefanik [in the House]. You’ve got to look at the journey,” he said.
The interview started getting pickup among MAGA influencers soon thereafter. “Excellent job by Rep.@EliseStefanik on Steve Bannon’s War Room this morning,” Trump adviser Jason Miller tweeted that afternoon, praising her stance on the Chinese Communist Party and calling her a “massive upgrade” over Cheney.
The backlash against Stefanik didn’t surface out of nowhere. For years, she’d been viewed with suspicion by hardcore elements of the MAGA base, with Big League politics running several pieces slamming her for her disloyalty to figures such as provocateur Laura Loomer. She criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and failed to pass the MAGA smell test on several key issues: immigration, border control, abortion and the war in Afghanistan.
“She ties with a couple other Republicans for the worst career voting record on immigration in New York,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the anti-immigration Center on Immigration Studies, ticking off a few of her previous positions: a yes on H-2B visas, the Farm Workers Modernization Act, and the Hong Kong Refugee bill, and a no on Trump’s child border separation policies.
“Obviously, Republicans in New York are likely to be more liberal, just because that's the environment they're in,” Krikorian said. “I think everybody understands that. But even by the standards of New York state Republicans, she's bad on immigration.”
Another issue that could harm Stefanik among MAGA supporters is her record on Afghanistan. As recently as 2019, she co-sponsored a bill with Cheney to keep 10,000 troops in the region for a year and stop troop reduction — a bill that was highly controversial among anti-war MAGA voices, who had backed Trump’s talks with the Taliban at the time.
“I understand that everyone hates Liz Cheney. I am not a fan of Liz Cheney. She should have never been in House leadership,” said Girdusky. “However, we are exchanging Liz Cheney, who at least votes correct, even though she bashes Trump publicly, [for] somebody who doesn't bash Trump publicly but votes with them almost none of the time.”
Representatives for both Trump and McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.
Krikorian, whose institute is not weighing in on the conference chair election, noted that while Cheney’s downfall was sparked by her criticism of Trump, what had truly tanked her was her ideology, bolstered by her family name: The Wyoming congresswoman’s neoconservative beliefs have no place in today’s GOP.
Stefanik’s positions weren’t much more palatable to the party base, in Krikorian’s view.
“Trump, in his gut, does think we should get out of Afghanistan, he does think there's too many illegal aliens coming over the border,” he observed. “It's not that he doesn't believe any of that stuff. It's just that he's kind of a narcissistic guy. And if people flatter him, he's for them, regardless of what they believe. And so the question is: Do you go for Trumpism? Or do you go for Trump?”