Elise Stefanik’s Winning Bet on Trump

Stefanik insisted to me that she had “no five-year or 10-year plan,” unlike many in politics. “I’m only 36 years old,” she said. But she noted that because of the high turnover in the House in the past few years, she was steadily gaining seniority. “She has one attribute that very, very few other members have, and that’s time,” an ally of hers in the House, Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, told me.

That Stefanik would benefit politically from her vigorous defense of Trump wasn’t immediately clear. Some in her district were turned off by her move. “I never saw a Republican flip so far,” Frances Kerr, the owner of a print shop in her district, told me. She called Stefanik an “opportunist”—a word that several of her critics used to describe her positioning toward the president.

“I was surprised,” a former House GOP colleague who worked closely with Stefanik told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. “Her embrace of Trump really did not jibe well with the narrative that she had built up over the years about herself.” The lawmaker surmised that Stefanik was reacting to Trump’s popularity in her district in 2016, as well as trying to ingratiate herself with fellow House Republicans with an eye toward moving up the leadership ranks. “I would always caution my colleagues: You shouldn’t be looking at the last election,” the former colleague said. “You ought to be looking at the next one.”

But that argument “misreads” the situation, McHenry told me. “There’s this challenge for those that are uncomfortable with the president, which is that the Republican Party will not revert back to the pre-Trump Republican Party,” he said. “It is informed and changed by his imprint.”

For better or worse, so is Stefanik. And as it turns out, she knew what she was doing.

When we spoke last month, she told me she believed that Trump was “in a stronger position than the national media makes it seem”—an assessment that was borne out across many areas of the country where the president outperformed the polls. As for her assessment of Trump, Stefanik said: “I measure people on the results they are able to deliver, and when it comes to the results, the president has delivered.” She ticked off a list of examples, including (pre-pandemic) job creation; the revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico; higher military spending, which helped Fort Drum; and more. “These are wins after wins after wins that have had a very positive impact on my voters,” Stefanik told me. “So I reflect, I would say, the voters in my district.”

This month’s NY-21 election results proved her right, but in the weeks leading up to the vote, there was little doubt that the North Country was still Trump Country. Stefanik’s campaign had pointed me to Poopie’s, a luncheonette and local landmark in Glens Falls, a small city an hour north of Albany which is one of the relatively few Democratic parts of the district. There I found a mini-shrine to Trump by the entrance, complete with signed photos, campaign tchotchkes, and a mannequin head (topped with a Trump hat) whose passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton was apparent only in context. “The eyes light up,” Jerry DiManno, the owner of Poopie’s, added helpfully, as he sipped coffee from a cup protected with a Trump koozie. He showed me a stash of Trump-themed masks he kept under the counter, although none of his patrons at the time were wearing them (or any other face covering). As we spoke, a burly, middle-aged man came up to the counter and asked DiManno, “Hey Jerry, when is the media going to start covering Joe Biden’s corruption?” DiManno told me that customers had given him most of the Trump gear. On another wall was a picture of Stefanik, whom DiManno spoke highly of. “She’s a real down-to-earth girl,” he said, recalling that when the congresswoman came in for a photo op a while back, she insisted on flipping eggs with him at the grill.