Elise Stefanik Takes the Reins at GOP Issues Retreat
Republican House members are praising Stefanik for a unified, anti-Biden message nearly one year after Liz Cheney’s ouster as conference chair.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.—Leaders at last year’s House GOP issues retreat in Orlando, Florida, maintained publicly that the event’s message was unity. In reality, the party was divided over former House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney and her role in House Republican leadership, given her desire to move the party away from former President Donald Trump and the optics of the January 6 Capitol riot.
But fissures among House Republican leaders were nowhere to be seen—at least publicly—at this year’s three-day House GOP issues retreat just over 100 miles away in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Taking Cheney’s place as conference chair was GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, who was elected by her colleagues after they removed Cheney by voice vote for her continued criticisms of Trump, including while onstage during the 2021 Orlando retreat. She hinted at her spontaneous rise to leadership during a Thursday morning press conference.
“When I ran for conference chair about a year ago, I had three main goals,” Stefanik told reporters in the media center of Ponte Vedra’s Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort. “Number one, deliver a laser-focused, disciplined, unified message, focused on key issues that are important to voters. Number two, to go on offense against the far-left socialist Democrat policies every single day. And number three, to empower all of our incredibly talented members.”
Her comments seemed to be directed not just at voters but also at her predecessor, who would often speak at length against Trump during press conferences in her capacity as a conference chair. Cheney’s former leadership colleagues now see Stefanik as better suited for the role.
“It has been very member-driven,” House GOP Vice Chairman Mike Johnson said in an interview Thursday of Stefanik’s messaging strategy. “It is a big contrast to our previous conference chair,” he said of Cheney, who did not attend this year’s retreat.
At this year’s retreat GOP leaders gave reporters a sneak peek of their conference’s legislative agenda titled “Commitment to America,” a spinoff of former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract for America.” Ahead of a midterm cycle that is looking increasingly bright for Republicans—who only need to flip five seats to retake the majority—House Republican leaders are trying to keep their members focused on President Joe Biden’s policy failures.
“The problem with Liz—she couldn’t stop talking about Trump,” moderate GOP Rep. Don Bacon said in a Thursday interview, adding that there are many areas where he, too, disagreed with the former president’s rhetoric. “At some point, our goal is to take back the House.”
“I don’t dislike her voice, but it wasn’t to be the representative of this conference,” Bacon said.
That intra-leadership dissonance became clear during last year’s retreat. “If you’re sitting here at a retreat that’s focused on policy, focused on the future of making America’s next century, and you’re talking about something else, you’re not being productive,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters during the unusually turbulent 2021 retreat when he was asked whether Cheney made a good fit for GOP leadership. Less than three weeks later, she was removed as conference chair by voice vote.
A Cheney spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
As tensions began brewing over Cheney’s role in leadership last spring, House Republicans began seeking a new conference chair less inclined to criticize Trump in front of the camera and more sympathetic to some voters’ insistence that Biden was not duly elected president. They found promise in Stefanik, who objected to the certification of the Electoral College results in Pennsylvania alongside the majority of House Republicans who also voted to decertify Biden’s victory in at least one state.
But she only achieved that milestone after kicking off her congressional career the way most aspiring House leaders do: as a rank-and-file member with little name recognition but a whole lot of ambition.
“I am honored and humbled to be the youngest woman ever elected to the United States Congress, and to add an additional crack to the glass ceiling for future generations of women here tonight,” then-30-year-old Stefanik said in her acceptance speech on election night in 2014, years after having already served as a White House policy staffer under President George W. Bush and director of debate prep for former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Her leadership ambitions took shape during her first term in office, when she joined House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s advisory team. After leading recruitment for the National Republican Campaign Committee in 2018 she then launched Elevate PAC, an organization dedicated to recruiting Republican women to serve in the House.
She climbed the House GOP’s leadership ranks faster than most. Nearly eight years after delivering her first public remarks as congresswoman-elect of New York’s 21st District, she now speaks for the entire House Republican conference.
But that leadership trajectory was not always certain. Early on during her career, she established herself as a bipartisan member, as reflected by the conservative nonprofit’s Club for Growth lifetime score of 37 percent, significantly lower than the lifetime scores of McCarthy (70 percent), Scalise (80 percent), and even Cheney (64 percent.) The group scores politicians based on how they vote on economic legislation.
That moderate voter score led some to question her bid for conference chair ahead of Cheney’s ouster from leadership. Now, though, Republican leaders say that her focus on keeping members on message has boosted conference unity, especially after last year’s retreat.
“Liz Cheney, I knew her father really well, there’s a relationship there” GOP Rep. Mike McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday. “But I really think Elise is a breath of fresh air.”
That’s not to say there are no cracks in conference morale. Even in a year that looks to be historically favorable to Republicans, fringe members of the House GOP seem to be doing everything they can to make headlines and undermine perceptions of a unified conference.
That list includes GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy a “thug” after Russia invaded Ukraine. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar both spoke at a conference organized by white nationalist sympathizer Nick Fuentes last month (Greene attended in person and Gosar recorded a video message for the event).
McCarthy has since condemned all three members for their comments and conference appearances. But as of right now, he still supports their reelection campaigns. The same can’t be said for Cheney, whose Trump-endorsed primary opponent, Harriet Hageman, McCarthy endorsed in February.
“This is a very special case,” McCarthy told CNN when asked about his Hageman endorsement.
House GOP leaders are so at odds with Cheney that McCarthy is hosting a fundraiser for Hageman on March 30 alongside Stefanik and roughly 100 other House Republicans. That move follows another institutional condemnation of her stature in the GOP from members of the Republican National Committee in February for her decision to co-chair the House Select Committee investigating January 6.
Some leaders still bristle when asked to contrast Stefanik’s leadership style with her predecessor’s. “I’m not going to get into a comparison,” House Republican Policy Chairman and Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer said in an interview on Wednesday.
“But I will say this about Elise—she is a team player,” Palmer said. “She has the toughness to lead and she also has an incredible capacity as an encourager and a promoter. And she really is trying to elevate the conference through the individual members, which is exactly the way the conference ought to operate.”
“Promoter” is a key theme of Stefanik’s leadership style, House members and staffers say in interviews. Johnson, who works closely with Stefanik as vice conference chair, praised a new initiative spearheaded by Stefanik that encourages members to use more floor time for messaging sound bites.
“We’ve been having sort of these contests in the conference—competitions for floor speeches where we can amplify the message,” he told The Dispatch. “They’ll come to the floor. They’ll give their three-minute speech. We take the clip of the video real quick, we send it to their office, they send it immediately to the local news broadcasters. They turn them into op-eds.”
Under Stefanik’s leadership, House Republicans now also receive key message alerts from the conference’s rapid response team instructing them what to prioritize on social media and during TV appearances. “You’ll see House GOP [members] tweet very similar things, and it’s because we get these key message alerts that we did not get under Cheney,” one House Republican staffer said in an interview ahead of the retreat.
“She’s just—I think—a little bit hungrier to prove that she is a good messenger for the conference, and that trickles down to making sure all of her members are singing the same song on TV and on radio and on social media,” the staffer said of Stefanik.
At this year’s retreat she also organized the Republican Party’s first ever bilingual press conference alongside four Spanish-speaking members.
Newer members are quick to defend her messaging strategy. “She’s done a great job,” South Carolina GOP Rep. William Timmons said in an interview Thursday. “I think making sure that we have the best information possible as quickly as possible is critical. There was some of that previous, but not to the same degree.”
Stefanik’s leadership ambitions beyond House GOP conference chair are unclear. She has vowed to serve just one term as the third-ranking Republican, but there are murmurings that she has her eye on the House whip role in the event that Republicans retake the majority, when McCarthy is expected to become speaker and Scalise will likely become majority leader.
Her current aim, though, is clear: Keep the focus on Biden’s shortcomings ahead of the midterms. “She’s had a very thoughtful approach,” Johnson said. “This is one of the big reasons that we’ve been so unified.”