The Congressional GOP’s Millennial Whisperer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s part of a new generation of moderates.
Rep. Elise Stefanik’s job as a subcommittee chair is to help the military adapt to the next generation of threats facing America. These days, she’s doing the same for the Republican Party. While party leaders fret about what the record 41 House Republican departures mean for their electoral chances this fall, Stefanik, 33, is excited about attracting new GOP blood to shake things up.
While many committee chairs stage contentious hearings with an eye toward going viral, Democrats say Stefanik, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, actually works with them and builds consensus. She bucked the GOP on tax cuts but toed the party line on the vote to repeal Obamacare, part of the Trump-era triple-axel many vulnerable Republicans are attempting this year — even though her seat appears relatively safe.
“I always think it’s good when we have new generations of candidates stepping forward. And hopefully they’ll tap into this yearning for new styles of leadership.”
Stefanik has only served for two terms, but she’s not new to Washington. Born in Albany, New York, she was the first member of her family to graduate from college. At Harvard, she worked as a fellow under Ted Sorensen, the legendary speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, and landed a job in 2006 serving as an aide to former President George W. Bush before distancing herself from his brand at home. She helped craft the Republican National Committee platform in 2012 while helping prep Paul Ryan for the vice presidential debate. In 2014, after returning home to upstate New York and working in the family plywood business, Stefanik was elected to Congress at age 30.
Now she’s playing defense as nine Democrats compete to see who will face her this fall, but the Harvard-educated newlywed maintains she’s not running scared. “They are running farther and farther to the left, getting out of touch with voters in my district,” Stefanik tells OZY. Meanwhile, she plays up her opposition to the Republican tax cut. “I also have an independent record,” she says. “I voted ‘No’ on the tax reform bill because I was concerned about the elimination of state and local tax issue and how that would impact New York state.”
Democrats believe her vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act is ample ammunition, even though the bill died in the Senate. They desperately try to tie her to President Donald Trump and Republican leaders’ record of unwinding regulations and passing highly partisan bills. “Congresswoman Stefanik is nothing but a rubber stamp for Speaker Ryan’s destructive agenda,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Evan Lukaske tells OZY. While the DCCC has put New York’s 21st District on its list of 101 targets this year, nonpartisan analysts so far rate it as safely in Stefanik’s hands.
Meanwhile, Stefanik is focused on more than her own seat since GOP leaders tapped her to help them with millennial outreach as the National Republican Campaign Committee’s vice-chair for recruitment, the first woman to hold the role. Stefanik, still the youngest current member of Congress, says the Republican retirement stampede is actually a positive. “I always think it’s good when we have new generations of candidates stepping forward,” she says. “And hopefully they’ll tap into this yearning for new styles of leadership.” Among the young Republicans who could fit the bill: 35-year-old businesswoman and conservative activist Lena Epstein, who is running in Michigan, and Ohio’s Christina Hagan, who made the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in 2016 for her work in the state legislature.
But Democrats say Republicans in leadership positions like Stefanik are deceiving themselves, and they predict the tides are turning in their direction. If they’re right, Stefanik seems to be insulating herself from a possible Democratic tsunami by showcasing her national security résumé — a natural move for someone whose district includes Fort Drum, home to more than 19,000 active duty military members.
She’s on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, chairing the latter’s Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee. That’s where she’s garnered bipartisan praise for bringing a different approach to leadership than many on Capitol Hill. “Elise is a badass,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) says. “She’s very inclusive. Her subcommittee, when they take intelligence briefings, they invite every member of the full committee whether you’re on her subcommittee or not. That’s atypical.”
And it’s not just Republicans praising her. Stefanik’s subcommittee’s portfolio includes assisting the Department of Defense in developing new technologies, and she’s built a reputation for staying the course in the face of cyber breaches or terror attacks that often tempt lawmakers to hold high-profile hearings for the cameras. “Elise is doing a great job of, I think, keeping us focused on the committee’s agenda,” says Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). He recalls a hearing on cybersecurity last year — a topic frequently used by both parties to bludgeon opponents — that was shockingly amicable. “We all agreed we’re going to stick to what our business is,” Larsen says. “She led that.”
While Stefanik is respected by Democrats in committee rooms, national Democratic leaders have nonetheless put a target on her back, considering that her seat was held by a conservative Democrat as recently as 2009. But at the presidential level, the blue-collar district — where less than a quarter of adults have bachelor’s degrees — swung from voting narrowly for Barack Obama in 2012 to comfortably backing Trump in 2016. As a leader of the moderate Tuesday Group of House Republicans, Stefanik hasn’t been a major Trump cheerleader, but she has avoided public feuds too. It’s an approach GOP leaders are confident will hold the seat. “She is a talented, young, dynamic member,” says Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, who heads the NRCC. “I think she’s going to be just fine. I’m not worried about it, but she’s got to work and we all have to work.”