Politics Rising GOP star thrust into spotlight with Trump defense
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Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) has long been lauded by GOP leaders as a rising star in the party, and her new role as one of President Trump's chief defenders during the impeachment hearings has thrust her into the national spotlight.
But with that higher profile comes concerns from some Republicans that her shift toward becoming a highly visible Trump ally could make her a bigger target for Democrats in 2020.
Stefanik, the lone GOP woman on the House Intelligence Committee, was featured prominently during the public impeachment hearings over the past two weeks. She clashed with Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in an early exchange that became a rallying cry for conservatives, pointedly questioned witnesses about the connection between the Bidens and Ukraine and stood at the front of the pack of GOP lawmakers during press conferences.
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She also appeared alongside House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) on Sean Hannity's prime-time show on Fox News on Thursday.
Trump has taken notice. He recently praised the 35-year-old on Fox News.
"Every once in a while you meet a new star," Trump told "Fox & Friends" on Friday. "I know a lot about stardom ... but I'll tell you what, this young woman from upstate New York, she has become a star."
While she's garnered praise from conservatives in recent weeks, Stefanik is also known for her independent streak, breaking at times with the GOP on certain issues.
She voted to block Trump's national emergency declaration to secure funding for his border wall and was one of just 13 Republicans to oppose the GOP's landmark tax reform bill in 2017.
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She has been outspoken in her opposition to the administration's use of tariffs and most recently chastised the White House strategy in Syria.
"She's got an important role on [the Intelligence] committee, so the thing that I've been struck by a little bit is the fact that her critics have been really rushing to label this as an ideological shift when I don't view it as that at all," said Jessica Proud, a Republican strategist based in New York.
Top Republicans have identified her as a prime candidate to move up in the party, praising her for working with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and launching a PAC to get more female Republicans elected, in addition to her work in the House. Some observers have recently suggested that the support she's received from conservatives during the impeachment process could position her for a House leadership position, a top spot on committees or even higher office.
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"When Elise came into office being the youngest woman ever elected, she got elected not based upon being young and a woman but her own skills," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told The Hill.
"I mean, you think about what she's been already able to accomplish. She could have been on a leadership track right there. She's really focused on her district. I think the only thing that the Intel Committee has allowed is for America to actually see the work she does every single day: that she does her homework, she can ask the tough questions and she can stand up even to bullies."
But even her allies in the House have acknowledged that while her accelerating rise may put her on a faster leadership trajectory, it has also raised the profile of her Democratic opponent.
"You know, certainly it [her role in impeachment hearings] could help her with some relationships [with conservatives] that she may not have had in the past," Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) told The Hill.
"But, as you see, it also brings a spotlight on her nationally, and it also spotlights her opponent because of the far-left activists from all over the country see a strong woman like Elise, who's going to be a great voice for the Republican Party for years to come, and they want to take that voice out."
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Democratic congressional hopeful Tedra Cobb, whom Stefanik defeated by 14 points in last year's midterm elections, saw an influx in donations after George Conway, the outspoken husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, tweeted that Stefanik was "lying trash" for claiming Schiff had tried to silence her.
Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Chelsea Handler have also urged their followers on social media to support Stefanik's likely 2020 opponent.
Cobb's campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but it has garnered a national following over the last week, thanks in large part to Stefanik's embrace of Trump during the impeachment hearings. Cobb boasted a fundraising haul of more than $1 million over the previous weekend and was aiming to raise another $500,000 this past weekend.
"President Trump believes he's above the law, and Rep. Stefanik has gone all in on defending him, exposing her true colors as a typical Washington-first, partisan politician," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Christine Bennett said in a statement, adding that voters are "looking for a representative who will fight for their families and values, and are ready for a change."
With the uptick in Democratic attacks against Stefanik - once viewed as one of the most centrist GOP members of Congress - the conservative group American Action Network is already taking steps to help ensure she keeps her seat.
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The group announced Friday it would spend $150,000 on television and digital ads thanking the congresswoman for defending the president from impeachment.
Stefanik's office on Saturday said the congresswoman "is 100 percent focused on representing" her district.
"She has been lauded by many this week for asking some of the most effective questions during the impeachment hearings and focusing on the facts," her office added.
Don Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute in central New York, pointed to polling numbers that show a majority of voters in upstate are against impeachment, an indication that Stefanik's leading role in Trump's defense may not cost her politically.
"I think the money flowing into Cobb's election campaign will give her significant wind," Levy said. "But it would be difficult at this point to say that Stefanik does not remain a strong favorite to hold that seat."
NRCC spokesman Chris Pack blasted the rhetoric used by her critics, like Conway, since the launch of the impeachment inquiry and said he remains confident Stefanik will retain her seat. He pointed to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which doesn't list Stefanik's district as a competitive race for 2020, and said it "isn't even remotely close to being a competitive district."
"I think the biggest lie in politics is that Democrats are anything but hateful people when it comes to any sort of woman that isn't a Democrat. Just the way that Elise has been treated by the left is absolutely disgusting," he said. "That being said, her opponent raised a bunch of money, so it's important for her to do the same to make sure that she has the resources she needs to let people know all this stuff she's been doing on behalf of her district and on behalf of the president."
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