Elise Stefanik Is Now a MAGA Star

Elise Stefanik waves from the stage at the annual CPAC meeting.

Stefanik at CPAC on February 23.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

It was one of the biggest Trumpist gatherings of the year, and Elise Stefanik was a rock star. Cheered for her speech and celebrated afterward, the New York congresswoman was one of the biggest draws at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. The former Establishment stalwart had become a MAGA hero. She was definitely never this popular when she worked for Tim Pawlenty.

The representative has become the model for the ideological transformation of the Republican Party under Donald Trump. Elected to Congress from an upstate New York district when she was just 30 as the prototype of the Republican Establishment, she has since become one of Trump’s most ardent supporters in Washington — racing to be the first member of Congress to endorse the former president when he announced his candidacy in November 2022.

Now she’s one of the top figures in the favorite Washington parlor game of trying to pick who Trump will select as vice-president. It’s the last real suspense in American politics in a presidential race where Trump has all but sown up the Republican nomination and incumbent Joe Biden has only faced nominal opposition in his reelection bid.

After she spoke in the cavernous hotel conference room on Friday, Stefanik was mobbed. Reporters, attendees, everyone wanted to see her, get a quote from her, get a selfie with her. The crowd chanted “Elise, Elise, Elise” after she finished a Newsmax interview, and Stefanik continued to be swarmed as she slowly worked through the talk-show hosts who had camped out at the event. A Scranton shock jock got time with her, but an NBC News reporter’s question about Alabama’s ban on IVF was left unanswered in the maelstrom. (Stefanik eventually answered it: “Like President Trump, I strongly support IVF.”)

At an event that has become increasingly devoted to the cult of the MAGA faithful, rather than the broad church of the conservative movement, Stefanik got one of the most rapturous receptions of any of Friday’s speakers. Attendees stood and cheered her as she celebrated that she had turned a district that Obama won twice into one that was now “Trump and Elise Country.”

She was also somewhat stilted. As Stefanik celebrated January 6, a day where she “stood up for the Constitution and election integrity” when she voted against certifying the 2020 election, and took aim at familiar bugbears like Adam Schiff and Liz Cheney, there was always a note that seemed somewhat off. She spoke the language of MAGA fluently — always invoking the full name of “President Donald J. Trump” and insisting that the real threat to American democracy came from “the radical left and the Democrats” — but she did so with a slight accent. It was not her native language.

The crowd didn’t care, offering periodic shouts of “We love you, Elise!” Though Nigel Farage and Matt Gaetz, both native speakers of Trumpism, maybe have gotten even more applause, Stefanik is the one who’s legally eligible to be Trump’s VP. (Farage is a foreigner and Gaetz, as a fellow Floridian, faces 12th Amendment issues in addition to his personal scandals). And the center-right sins of Stefanik’s past, her ties to the pre-Trump GOP when she worked for George W. Bush and Paul Ryan? They don’t seem to matter to the Trump loyalists either.

Joe Casais, an attendee from New Jersey, praised Stefanik as a successor to Trump. “I feel like when you want someone who’s gonna step into the role. Are they still gonna fight back the way Trump is going to fight? Or are they just gonna be a pushover and you’re gonna go back to the pre-Trump years?”

Terry Schilling, the leader of the social-conservative group American Principles Project, gushed over Stefanik as well. “I 100 percent trust Elise Stefanik and will go to the ends of the earth to support her,” said the prominent activist who has played a leading role in pushing state legislatures to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

For Schilling, despite whatever Stefanik had done in the pre-Trump era, “she has really stepped into her role as a conservative leader for this country, and I think she has a bright future in the Republican Party.”

The only question now is whether that future will include being Trump’s No. 2.

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