House minority leader Kevin McCarthy announced Sunday that he wants to replace House Republican Conference chair Liz Cheney with Elise Stefanik.
The leadership shuffle, which is now all but certain to be complete this week, has a small measure of drama associated with it because breathless commentators imagine this as the next stage in the Trumpification of the Republican Party. But the Cheney-Stefanik contest is less than it seems.
McCarthy has struggled to form a relationship with Trump ever since the hapless representative from California said the former president “bears responsibility for [the January 6] attack on Congress by mob rioters.”
That was a view that Cheney shared. When the House voted on January 13 to impeach Trump for his incitement of insurrection, Cheney, a Wyoming representative who by virtue of her last name is something akin to Republican royalty, voted to impeach.
McCarthy lacked the courage to vote for impeachment, but he did, at the time, support Cheney’s continued role in caucus leadership.
Now, the minority leader has joined Trump in supporting Stefanik, another foe of impeachment, to replace Cheney.
Much of the reporting on the musical chairs act would have us believe that Stefanik is an all-in Trump loyalist and that Cheney is a maverick in the tradition, say, of John McCain.
But that’s not the case. While Cheney has clearly fallen out with Trump in recent months, she enthusiastically supported him for president in 2016 and 2020. And she absolutely and unapologetically embraced his agenda when he served as president. Stefanik, on the other hand, was a doubter.
In 2016, in one of the last stands of Never-Trump Republicanism, Stefanik was an outspoken backer of the Republican presidential bid of John Kasich, the shamelessly self-promotional former governor of Ohio who tried to position himself as the last man standing in the way of Trump’s nomination. After Kasich crashed and burned, Stefanik grudgingly said she would back the party’s nominee in November, but, famously, refused to say Trump’s name.
When the new Republican president took office in January 2017, it was Cheney who jumped on board the Trump train. Stefanik, on the other hand, established a reputation for going her own way.
Consider the FiveThirtyEight “Tracking Congress in the Age of Trump” tally of how often members of Congress voted with or against the former president. Cheney scored a striking 92.9 Trump loyalty rating. That was higher than Trump pitchmen such as Florida Republican Matt Gaetz (85 percent) and Ohio Republican Jim Jordan (88 percent). Cheney even rated above Alabama Republican Mo Brooks (88.6 percent), who actually appeared at the January 6 rally where the incitement of insurrection occurred.
What of Stefanik? She rated just 77.7 percent on the Trump loyalty scale.
Throughout Trump’s term, Stefanik proved to be far more of a maverick than Cheney. Though she is certainly no liberal, Stefanik was one of eight Republicans in the 116th Congress who sided with Democratic advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in support of the Equality Act. She was one of just 26 Republicans who joined Democrats in supporting legislation to sustain the Postal Service during the coronavirus pandemic.
Stefanik called Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord “misguided” and “a mistake,” and she joined the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in 2017. That year, she voted 43 percent with the program of the League of Conservation Voters—a quite respectable record for a Republican. She argued that it was possible to be conservative and at least somewhat green, saying, “If you ask very conservative millennials who say they’re very conservative, they believe that we need to tackle climate change and that we need to truly be conservative in terms of conserving our environment.”
When Trump issued his infamous executive order barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Stefanik condemned the move, saying the president’s xenophobia was “not who we are as a country.”
Those stances and votes earned Stefanik a meager 22 percent conservative score from the right-wing group Heritage Action for America in the 115th Congress, and just 56 percent in the 116th. In those same sessions, Cheney was, respectively, at 61 percent and 82 percent.
As recently as 2018, when Cheney was cheering on Trump, Stefanik used a town hall meeting in her upstate New York district to tout herself as an independent Republican who frequently broke with Trump. She called for the removal of Scott Pruitt, Trump’s appointee to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, criticized Republican tax policies, and spoke about supporting at least some gun regulations. Most notably, according to Northeast Public Radio, the House Intelligence Committee member “also said she fully backs the Russia-probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller.”
Yet now, with Cheney on the outs with Team Trump, Stefanik’s star is rising.
Republicans love hypocrites, and Stefanik is the hypocrite du jour. She was a maverick when it was convenient—standing up to Trump as a candidate and as a president so vociferously that the New York media used to note how much time she spent “distancing herself” from Trump and the GOP. But Stefanik now recognizes that her political ambitions are best served by positioning herself as a Trump loyalist in what is now the Party of Trump. She’s willing to bend to that new reality—as is McCarthy—and she will be rewarded for her shamelessness.
In the Republican Party, as it has reassembled, voting records are afterthoughts. The only measure that matters at this point is the embrace of Trump’s Big Lies about the 2020 election result and the insurrections that the former president’s supporters engaged in at his behest.
Cheney’s uncomfortable giving Trump cover as much cover as he demands, Stefanik isn’t.
Good on Liz Cheney for getting one thing right. But don’t fool yourself. The representative from Wyoming has an overall record of being far more loyal to Trump and to the extreme right-wing agenda that has transformed the Republican Party in recent years than the suddenly surging representative from New York is.
What distinguishes Elise Stefanik is not her record or her vision. It’s the fact that she is more in tune with her own hypocrisy—and that of her party.