Sarah Gonzalez: I'm Sarah Gonzalez in for Tanzina Vega.
Elise Stefanik: I'm very excited for this opportunity. We are unified working as one team and the American people know that the stakes are incredibly high. We are going to fight for them each and every day against the destructive radical far-left socialist agenda of President Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi that's destroying America.
Sarah Gonzalez: That was Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York after being elected on Friday as the third-ranking Republican in the house. She's replacing Liz Cheney who was voted out as chair of the House GOP Conference earlier this week. Cheney had drawn ire from her Republican colleagues for denouncing President Donald Trump. She was one of 10 Republican members of the House that voted to impeach him for incitement of insurrection.
Stefanik, who was elected in 2014, as a young, moderate Republican has, in recent years, embraced Donald Trump and has participated in attempts to sow doubt about the results of the general election. How did Rep Stefanik go from moderate Republican to staunch Trump ally? What does her rise signal about the direction the party is heading in? Here with us to answer these questions is Charlotte Alter, a senior correspondent for Time Magazine and author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For, for which she spoke to Rep Stefanik. Charlotte, thank you for joining us.
Charlotte Alter: Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah Gonzalez: Charlotte, how did Representative Elise Stefanik get in the running for Cheney's old position?
Charlotte Alter: Well, Representative Stefanik is somebody who has been considered a rising star in the GOP for almost her whole career, but the meaning of that has changed. She is somebody who, in the last two years, or really the last 18 months, has really emerged as a staunch Trump advocate that started during the 2019 impeachment hearings where she was one of his most vociferous defenders, and it continued through the 2020 election when she co-chaired his New York campaign and gave a speech about him at the DNC-- Sorry, at the RNC.
She's somebody who as soon as it became clear that Liz Cheney was out of step with the Republican line on the election, her refusal to embrace Trump's conspiracy theories about a stolen election really put her at odds with the reality of the Republican base. It was clear the party was going to want to replace her. It would be very bad optics for them to replace the only woman in party leadership right now with another man and so Stefanik was the obvious replacement since she's this up and coming young woman who has really made it her business to try to get more women elevated within the GOP.
Sarah Gonzalez: How is the Rep Stefanik that sits in Congress now different from the one that was elected to office in 2014?
Charlotte Alter: They're almost entirely different people. [chuckles] Here's the way to think about it. I talked to representative Stefanik for my book in 2018 and 2019, and back then, she was still this sort of more moderate millennial Republican. That was pretty similar to why she ran for office in the first place. She, back then, was somebody who was certainly not a MAGA Trump supporter. She had been a Bush Republican, she had been a Paul Ryan Republican, and early in Trump's presidency, she had a tepid relationship with Trumpism.
She supported the Republican nominees, she supported the president, but every time Trump would do something really outrageous or controversial, she would issue these mild statements rebuking him. She wouldn't really get into the fray on Twitter in his defense. She was really moderate on issues like climate change, and immigration, and LGBTQ rights, and college affordability. That's partly because she recognized early that the Republican Party had a big problem with young people, women, and people of color, and so her first two terms were really about trying to bring the Republican Party in line with her generation.
At a certain point, and I track this in my time profile of her, at a certain point, around 2018 and then, finally in 2019, she really saw the writing on the wall as her fellow young moderate conservatives who had been critical of Trump fell in the midterms, and she saw that the only way to rise within the Republican Party was to embrace Trumpism wholeheartedly.
Sarah Gonzalez: In an article, you published recently, you wrote that her evolution mirrors the transformation of her party while her rise within its rank is a fall from the modern millennial conservatism she once was on track to define. Who is the modern millennial conservative? What policies do they support? How are they different than the rest of the party?
Charlotte Alter: One of the big challenges for the Republican Party right now is that in 2014, 2015, early 2016, there was this cohort of young moderate conservatives who were essentially trying to offer conservative solutions to common millennial priorities and problems. One of the things that was a big takeaway in my book, which covers millennial leaders on both sides of the aisle, is that this generation largely agrees on what most of the big problems are, it's just that people on different sides of the aisle were offering different solutions to them.
For example, Elise Stefanik, she believes in the science of climate change. She introduced a resolution in 2017 saying that the Republican Party needed to take climate change more seriously, that it was a conservative principle to defend the environment. She obviously has a very different policy solution than something like the Green New Deal, which is what millennial progressives embrace. My takeaway from reporting on this was that most millennials agree on the problems but not the solutions, so Elise Stefanik seems to have really abandoned that model in favor of fully embracing Trump and Trumpism.
Sarah Gonzalez: Charlotte, thank you so much for joining us.
Charlotte Alter: Thanks for having me.
Sarah Gonzalez: Charlotte Alter is a senior correspondent for Time Magazine and author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a Generation of Leaders Will Transform America. The paperback version of her book will be available next week.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.