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Stefanik's pro-Trump transformation has fueled her rapid rise. Her voters seem just fine with that.

NBC News logo NBC News 5/11/2021 Adam Edelman
Elise Stefanik sitting in front of a mirror posing for the camera © Provided by NBC News

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. — Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, poised to become the third-ranking Republican in the House, has ascended by tying herself to former President Donald Trump, whose rhetoric and false claims of election fraud she’s supported in recent months.

Hers is a political evolution that mirrors others in the GOP. And her constituents in New York's 21st Congressional District, who re-elected her in 2020 by a substantial 18 percentage point margin over her Democratic challenger, appear to approve.

Conversations with a dozen voters in Stefanik’s largely rural, upstate New York district on Monday suggest that the politics of the area have moved in a pro-Trump direction along with her, giving her the freedom to track hard toward the former president, and to reap the benefits.

“She’s for us. And she’s good to us. He was for us and he was good to us," Don Ross, a retired police officer from Argyle, a town about 12 miles east of Glens Falls, said of Stefanik and Trump. "There’s no question about either of those things."

Said Frank Lee, of Glens Falls: “It just really feels like the majority of Democrats...are against what’s in the Constitution, and she, just like Trump, loves this country and the people in this [district].”

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First elected in 2014 as a right-of-center Republican promising independence and bipartisanship, she didn't immediately support then-candidate Trump's 2016 White House bid. During Trump's presidency, she made good on those campaign promises, staking out numerous positions that didn’t align with his. But she has risen rapidly in the party as one of his most vocal and visible defenders.

Both Ross and Lee, pro-Trump Republicans, said they’d supported Stefanik in the past due to her own support of traditionally Republican positions, like gun rights and tax cuts.

But both also lauded her for her embrace of untrue claims made by Trump about the 2020 election, which they said they also believe.

“There seem to be a lot of irregularities. All these votes in Arizona and Georgia, we really can’t tell where a lot of them came from,” said Ross.

“I believe it was fixed,” added Lee.

There is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

A transformation

Stefanik, all but assured to replace Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as chair of the House Republican Conference, said last week said on the podcast of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon that there had been “unprecedented, unconstitutional overreach” by election officials in 2020.

In a separate interview with Sebastian Gorka, another former aide to Trump, she said she backed the controversial audit of ballots in Arizona's Maricopa County and said continued attempts to question the vote in Pennsylvaniawere “valid” and “important” ones that “the American people deserve policy proposals and answers on.” By all official accounts, the 2020 election was secure, and the results — President Joe Biden's win some six months ago — were certified as accurate.

Stefanik has not explicitly said that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. But earlier this year, she voted against the certification of the 2020 election in certain states. She’s also supported lawsuits that sought to overturn the election. Cheney is expected to be ousted as the most powerful Republican woman in the House Wednesday after continuing to contradict Trump on the legitimacy of the election. Trump, out of office for months, has continued to push the lie that the election was stolen from him.


Video: A look at Rep. Elise Stefanik’s rise in the Republican party (NBC News)

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Prior to 2019, Stefanik bore many markings of a traditional Republican. She worked in George W. Bush’s White House and with Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and during her first 2014 congressional race, she pitched herself as an independent thinker and voice.

She won that race, becoming at 30 the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and flipping the district, which stretches from Saratoga Springs across northern New York to the Canadian border, into the red column.

During the 2016 race, she initially expressed wariness about Trump. She first endorsed former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the GOP primary, and, later on, when she finally did endorse Trump, she refused to mention him by name, referring to him simply as "my party's nominee."

Early into Trump’s term, she defied the president on several occasions, most notably voting with Democrats to block him from withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and against his 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, due its cap on the deduction for state and local taxes.

But in 2019, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, she emerged as a staunch defender of Trump during his first impeachment hearing, and was one of the Republican House members who defended him during his Senate trial.

“A new Republican star is born,” Trump tweeted in November 2019.

Stefanik offered a full-throated endorsement of Trump for his 2020 re-election campaign, even speaking at the virtual Republican National Convention, and fiercely opposed his second impeachment after Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Her pivot toward Trump has been rewarded at the ballot box in her district, handily winning re-election three times. All four of her margins of victory have been substantial. After winning her first election in 2014 by 21 percentage points, she won the next three in 2016, 2018 and 2020 by 35, 14 and 18 percentage points. Trump easily carried the district in 2016 and 2020, though by smaller margins than Stefanik, after Barack Obama had won it twice.

John Baker, a 54-year-old office cleaner, said Stefanik was merely “speaking her mind” when it came to suggesting that there had been numerous irregularities in the 2020 election.

“She has the right to do that, just like Trump does,” said Baker, who said he is a political independent.

Nevertheless, other independents in the district who remain opposed to Trump said they saw Stefanik as a polarizing figure.

“I cannot stomach her,” said 63-year-old retiree Lois Karhinen of Queensbury. “She’s lost my respect. I voted for her in 2014 and 2016, but not in 2018 and 2020. “She is not the independent thinker she used to be.” Karhinen, a self-described independent, voted for Biden in 2020.

Karhinen praised Cheney, who Stefanik is expected to replace, for having aggressively criticized Trump's lie that the election last year was stolen and lamented that Stefanik’s loyalty to Trump was being rewarded.

“He’s operating her like a puppet,” she said. “I don’t get why she let that happen.”

Meanwhile, some conservative groups have drawn attention to the fact that Stefanik’s record in office has, in many respects, been a moderate one.

“Elise Stefanik is NOT a good spokesperson for the House Republican Conference,” the conservative Club for Growth tweeted last week. “House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House majority.”

However, prominent pro-Trump Republican lawmakers have in recent weeks offered insight into why they feel it’s necessary to maintain such an intensely favorable focus on the former president.

"I would just say to my Republican colleagues, 'Can we move forward without President Trump?' The answer is no," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said last week.

Stefanik herself has conveyed the same message.

“We have to work with President Trump to win back the majority, and we’re going to, and that’s what the members of Congress want who are Republicans, and that’s what the voters want in this country,” she said last week on “The Rush Limbaugh Radio Show.”

Many Republican voters interviewed by NBC News suggested that’s exactly what they wanted to see from her.

“[Trump] knows liberals aren’t helping this country. [Stefanik] knows liberals aren’t helping this country. And I know liberals aren’t helping this country,” said Ross, the retired police officer. “He delivered for us and he’s still our best shot” in the 2022 and 2024 elections, Ross added.

“Republicans should all be getting behind him,” he said.

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