New York Rep. Elise Stefanik stood out with her hard-nosed interrogation of Democrats’ star witnesses during two weeks of public hearings on impeachment of President Trump, emerging as a rising star in the Republican Party but also putting a national target on her back.
The three-term Republican congresswoman delivered a counter punch to Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who presided over the hearings, repeatedly challenging him on the dais.
“She came across as a well-prepared person who was skeptical or opposed to the idea of impeachment,” said Michael Malbin, a political science professor at the University of Albany and director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “But she did not come across to me, as the way Devin Nunes did or Jim Jordan, as people who are going to attack the witnesses and defend the president at all costs.”
Ms. Stefanik became an internet sensation with a viral video from a hearing in which Mr. Schiff blocked her from questioning former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
Republicans on the dais slammed the California Democrat for “gagging the gentlewoman.” Democrats later criticized Ms. Stefanik for engaging in what they called partisan theatrics.
She also stood out as the only woman among the nine Republicans on the committee.
When Ms. Stefanik got the opportunity to speak, she commanded the hearings with sharp, rapid-fire questions of witnesses that established two pillars of the GOP defense: that Hunter Biden’s position with Ukraine natural gas company Burma Holdings posed a potential conflict of interest as his father was vice president, and that the Trump administration delivered lethal aid for Ukraine to fight Russia-backed forces, aid that the Obama administration denied.
The impeachment case against Mr. Trump hinges on his pushing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Hunter, which Democrats argue was intended to help Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.
The elder Mr. Biden is a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Trump asked for an investigation of Hunter Biden’s placement on the Burisma board of directors in 2014, when his father led Obama White House policy in Ukraine, a country notorious for corruption, especially in the energy industry.
Mr. Trump, watching the hearings from the White House, was wowed by Ms. Stefanik’s performance, singling her out in his commentary on social media.
“A New Republican Star is born,” he tweeted. “Great going Elise Stefanik!”
The newfound fame also came with a tidal wave of criticism and national scrutiny.
Some have accused the moderate lawmaker of being a turncoat and embracing Mr. Trump to raise her national profile.
Indeed, Ms. Stefanik has not always sided with her party, particularly during the last partial government shutdown. She also voted against the president’s attempts to siphon money from the Pentagon to pay for his border wall.
“No matter what party is represented in the White House, I will stand up against executive action that circumvents Congress,” she said at the time.
During the hearings, she denounced the president’s tweet attacking Ms. Yovanovitch as she testified.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” tweeted Mr. Trump, who fired Ms. Yovanovitch in May.
“I disagree with the tweet,” Ms. Stefanik told reporters after the hearing. “I think Ambassador Yovanovitch is a public servant, like many of our public servants in the foreign service.”
She then pivoted away from the distraction of Mr. Trump’s tweets, saying lawmakers were not there to “talk about tweets.”
Back home in her upstate New York district, Republican Party insiders note that Ms. Stefanik has not deviated from her brand as a businesslike politician — not a crusader — who has appealed to independent voters.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why she’s respected is that it hasn’t been all or nothing with her,” Republican strategist Thomas Doherty, a former aide to New York Gov. George E. Pataki, told The Washington Times.
It’s a position that shields her from some of the downside of being allied closely with Mr. Trump, though her district backed Mr. Trump 54% to 40% in 2016.
Ms. Stefanik’s rapid ascension to the national stage sparked a fundraising frenzy by Democrat Tedra Cobb, who is running to challenge Ms. Stefanik.
After the viral moment from Ms. Yovanovitch’s testimony, Ms. Cobb launched a fundraising drive on Twitter that linked Ms. Stefanik to conservative TV pundits and accusing her of “performing partisan political theater.”
Garnering support from Star Wars actor Mark Hamill and model-activist Chrissy Teigen, Ms. Cobb raked in $1 million over three days.
Ms. Stefanik started her own fundraising drive on Twitter and TV last week that highlighted her push back against Mr. Schiff. The effort netted $500,000 in two hours, according to her campaign.
The national attention is bound to attract outside money to the vast rural district that stretches across the northern tip of New York between the borders with Vermont and Canada, a region known as North Country.
“If Cobb looks as if she’s going to make a contest out of it, I would expect both parties to come in with substantial amounts of money — over and above the sizeable war chest that I think each candidate will have,” Mr. Malbin said. “Therefore I do not think this race will turn on the amount of money the candidates raised.”
Still, political odds-makers believe Ms. Stefanik is a safe bet in her 2020 reelection bid.
She is already an influential player in GOP recruitment, using her Elevate PAC to recruit Republican women to run for Congress.
She announced the first 11 candidates for 2020 who are backed by her political action committee, including Nicole Malliotakis’ run to unseat Democratic Rep. Max Rose in the New York City swing district that includes Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn.
Though 2018 wasn’t a great year for Republicans and New York is generally shifting to the left, GOP strategist Jim McLaughlin said North Country remains a safe place for a conservative such as Ms. Stefanik.
“Upstate New York is like a different animal,” he said. “Up there they’re very pro-life and pro-Second Amendment. I tell people, once you get out of Albany, upstate New York is very much like the Midwest.”
Ms. Stefanik, first elected in 2014, was the first Republican to hold the seat since 1993. Mr. Trump handily won the district in 2016, although it had sided with President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
Ms. Stefanik won her last election with 52% of the vote, defeating Ms. Cobb’s 42% and third-party candidate Lynn Kahn’s 1.5%.
Having Mr. Trump on the ticket next year likely would be a boon, with more voters typically turning out for a presidential election.
Not only is she expected to retain her seat, but her performance in the impeachment hearings is setting the stage for her to ascend in the GOP’s House leadership.
Mr. McLaughlin pointed out that “going to bat for the team” and raising as much money as she did not only made her a household name but made a lot of friends within the caucus.
“There’s no question she’s put herself in a position to be a huge voice in the Republican Party,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “I’m sure folks are going to be looking at her as a possible leadership figure.”