WASHINGTON: US Republicans on Friday elected congresswoman Elise Stefanik, an outspoken defender of Donald Trump, as their new House conference chair, as the party scrambles to unify amid an explosive debate about its direction.
Stefanik, a 36-year-old former moderate representing upstate New York, easily overcame a late entrant to the race and won strong support from the Republican conference in a closed-door vote of 134 to 46.
“My focus is on unity, because that’s what the American people and that’s what our voters deserve,” she told reporters after vaulting into the number three House Republican position – becoming the party’s most powerful woman in Congress.
“We are going on offence and are going to win back the majority in 2022” in the House of Representatives, said Stefanik, the party’s new top messenger.
The vote came two days after the conference ousted Liz Cheney, a conservative stalwart and daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney, from the post over her repeated criticism of Trump and her refusal to embrace his false claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election.
With Trump retaining enormous influence, Republicans have been desperate to tamp down swelling discord within party ranks over its future.
Conservatives aim to craft a coherent message heading into next year’s midterm elections, but some Republicans fear that failing to reject Trump’s rhetoric about voter fraud could hurt the party at the polls.
But Stefanik made clear that Trump and Trumpism will remain vital in the effort to turn back the “radical, far-left socialist agenda” of President Joe Biden and his Democrats.
Trump an ‘important voice’
“I support president Trump, voters support president Trump,” Stefanik said. “He is an important voice in our Republican Party and we look forward to working with him.”
Trump, whose grip on the party has tightened with Stefanik’s elevation, congratulated her for the “overwhelming” win.
“The House GOP is united and the Make America Great Again movement is Strong!” the former president said.
Stefanik’s ascension was the singular bright spot for Republicans in an otherwise difficult week.
On Thursday after a meeting with Biden and top congressional Democrats, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made the dubious assertion that “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election.”
One day earlier during a contentious House hearing, Republicans downplayed the seriousness of the deadly Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters, with congressman Andrew Clyde saying footage from the day of the insurrection appeared to show “a normal tourist visit” to the building.
And in a sign tensions still haunt Congress months later, Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused wild conspiracy theories, aggressively confronted Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, heightening concerns about security on Capitol Hill.
Ousted from leadership, Cheney has vowed to continue fighting for conservative principles and against a defeated leader who keeps spreading “the big lie” of voter fraud.
After Stefanik’s election, Cheney reiterated her opposition to having Trump lead the party.
“I think that there are some very big issues that we need to grapple with as a party,” she told CNN.
“We need to be in a position where we can get back voters who left us in 2020, where we can convey to people how important it is to come together around a set of principles that we know are the right ones for the country.”
Stefanik is unapologetic in her defence of Trump and has promoted the ex-president’s falsehoods about the 2020 election, but some Republicans have openly questioned her conservative credentials.
She voted against Trump’s 2017 tax plan, dismissed his border wall as not “realistic” and worked hard to build a more diverse party and get more Republican women elected to Congress.
While the congressman who challenged Stefanik for the conference chair post, Texas Republican Chip Roy, has received a 100% lifetime rating from the Club For Growth, the conservative group gave Stefanik a rating of just 35%.
Asked whether there was a place in the party for vocal Trump critics like Cheney or congressman Adam Kinzinger – both of whom voted to impeach Trump in January – Stefanik sought to strike a unifying note.
“They are part of this Republican conference,” she said, then added: “We are unified in working with president Trump.”