Elise Stefanik poised to become highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress

FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2021, file photo Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., speaks to Army 10th Mountain Division soldiers in Fort Drum, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus, File)

NEW YORK — There was a time when Elise Stefanik would not say Donald Trump’s name.

He was simply “my party’s presidential nominee,” she would say. The pragmatic New York congresswoman was far more focused on welcoming a new generation of voters to what she hoped would be a more inclusive Republican Party.

Today, Stefanik is one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in the House of Representatives, where her loyalty to the former president — and the support he returned — has carried the 36-year-old to the brink of becoming one of the most powerful women in Congress.

Stefanik’s rise is linked to her commitment to bringing more Republican women to Congress, an effort that helped make the House GOP’s 2021 first-term class one of the most diverse in history. But those close to Stefanik suggest there is one moment above all that solidified her political transformation and rise in Republican politics — and that moment had little to do with diversity.

It was a Thursday night in November 2019, and Trump’s first impeachment inquiry was raging on Capitol Hill. Stefanik had emerged as a leading Trump defender in committee hearings, but on that night, she brought her message to Fox News’ Sean Hannity for the first time.

After attacking the Democrats’ case for impeachment, she asked Fox viewers to send money to a website designed to protect her from a growing wave of political attacks.

Within 15 minutes, she had raised $250,000, aides later tweeted. Several hundred thousand more flowed into her campaign by the next morning. Her team had never seen anything like it, according to people with direct knowledge of her operation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In total, Stefanik raised more than $13 million over that cycle, almost twice as much as the combined fundraising totals from her previous three elections. She raised an additional $2 million for Republican candidates and assembled what her office now describes as one of the five strongest donor email lists among 212 House Republicans.

She never wavered in supporting Trump again.

Those who have worked closely with Stefanik describe her as a hardworking, smart and disciplined messenger, tenacious in her pursuit of energizing Republican voters and framing the terms of the debate.

She became a policy aide in the Bush White House after graduating from Harvard University in 2006. By the time the 2012 presidential election arrived, she was a well-regarded political operative with strong ties to the Republican establishment. She joined former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s short-lived presidential campaign before going to work for Mitt Romney.

After the election, Stefanik moved from Washington to her parents’ home in upstate New York with an eye on the U.S. House seat left open by Democrat Bill Owens’ retirement. In what was considered a swing district, the 30-year-old Stefanik won the race and became the youngest woman, at that time, ever elected to Congress.

Jeff Graham, the former mayor of Watertown, New York, remembers meeting Stefanik a year before the election. He quickly became a supporter.

“At first I said, ‘Who the hell is she?’ I went on Google, couldn’t find a lot about her,” he said. “Even though she was young, she had a rich background — being in the Bush White House and being pals with Paul Ryan.”

“She put politics aside,” said Carl Zeilman, chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Committee. “She knows how to roll up her sleeves and get things done.”

Facing her first reelection test in 2016, she was reluctant to embrace Trump. She initially backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential bid.

Stefanik became a vocal Trump supporter as the election approached, but she regularly reminded voters that she disagreed with him at times. She warmed to Trump further after he took office. She also started a political action committee, Elevate PAC, designed to bring more Republican women to Congress. She was widely praised for the effort last fall, when 18 of the 30 women she endorsed won.

One was Rep. Ashley Hinson, an Iowa Republican who says she was in constant communication with Stefanik throughout her election. Beyond offering strategic guidance and moral support, Stefanik helped connect Hinson with her network of donors and political contacts in Washington.

“It was an important and very pivotal year for the GOP in terms of telling the story that we were a party of women, minorities and veterans,” Hinson said. “And Elise had a great hand in that.”

Trump was impressed, too.

“Elise Stefanik has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair,” Trump said in a written statement. “Elise is a tough and smart communicator!”

Back in upstate New York, longtime supporters have noticed Stefanik’s evolution.

“Our members of Congress up here have not had much time on the national stage,” Graham said. “We’re proud of most of it.”