Politics

Elise Stefanik faces increased conservative headwinds in rise to leadership

Stefanik is now working to try and reassure conservatives that she won’t buck them on key votes despite a more moderate voting record, members say, but the effort comes as she is facing increasing pressure from members of the House Freedom Caucus.

It’s not expected to end or even seriously imperil Stefanik’s rise to be the next House Republican Conference chairwoman, but it’s a headache for leaders who are hoping to quickly unite the party after weeks of turmoil.

“I think it’s premature to talk about that,” Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania said when asked if he backed Stefanik. “There could be other candidates. We are just getting started. We had to get past today and now that we are, let’s see where we are. I don’t want to predetermine anything. It is disrespectful for anyone who might be considering the position.”

Stefanik said Wednesday afternoon she “absolutely” has enough votes in the House GOP Conference to secure her election to the position, even if someone else decides to jump in the race.

“We have great support conference-wide, from members of the Freedom Caucus to (the Republican Study Committee) to Tuesday Group,” she said, referencing factions of Republicans that range from very conservative to more moderate.

The House Freedom Caucus, a group of Trump-aligned far-right Republicans led by Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, held a forum with Stefanik on Wednesday evening, which the New York congresswoman called “a great conversation” after it concluded.

“My message was I’m focused on unifying the conference and beating Democrats and we have an opportunity to do that that is historic in beating the most radical socialist agenda in this country,” Stefanik said after the meeting. She did not answer when asked if she had won over the support of the caucus.

Rep. Russ Fulcher of Idaho said the meeting featured a lot of “blunt questions” from the group and that Stefanik was given the opportunity to explain her voting record, which he said is the caucus’ greatest concern about her, even though she has the backing of Trump.

Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, who has already endorsed Stefanik, praised her performance. “I think Elise acquitted herself well. She took the questions from the members,” he said. “She was very poignant, she was very direct,” the freshman Republican said, adding that it’s possible she “won some hearts and minds.”

The meeting came after Rep. Chip Roy, a member of the group, sent a letter to colleagues casting doubt on Stefanik’s qualifications earlier in the week.

Roy suggested the GOP Conference should hit “pause” after ousting Cheney and assess the leadership team.

“I think what’s past is prologue,” Roy said of Stefanik’s voting record. “I give people a lot of grace for disagreements on votes. It’s not any one vote. It’s just the body of work.”

Roy told CNN ahead of the Wednesday evening meeting he has had a “few conversations” with other possible candidates for the No. 3 job but was uncertain if a challenger would emerge.

“I think there’s a lot of great folks in the conference (who could run). I think Elise is a great human being. I just disagree with her general positioning. I think she’s well out of the sort of mainstream of the conference — at least where most voters are in terms of advancing an agenda that reflects our electors,” he said.

There are also rumblings that Roy himself could mount a long-shot bid for the post, though Roy was cagey when asked directly if he would seek the job. “Everybody keeps asking these questions,” he said.

Fellow Freedom Caucus member Ben Cline, a Virginia Republican congressman, also told CNN ahead of the Freedom Caucus forum with Stefanik that he still had reservations.

“The lack of any challenger doesn’t remove any questions I have about her voting record and whether her positions are going to interfere with our ability to look to message for the conference,” Cline said.

Rep. Mike Johnson, vice chairman of the conference, refused to comment on Stefanik and whether he backs her for conference chair. CNN has reported he has raised concerns behind the scenes about her quick anointment.

“I’m trying to stay out of it,” he said.

For now, Freedom Caucus members are looking to delay Stefanik’s vote even if they can’t ultimately stop it.

“I want those who are interested, being able to put their face forward,” Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona said. “I thought that’s what vice chairman was for, to step in when the chair couldn’t do it. I want an open race.”

On the other side of the conference, some Cheney allies have also argued that they weren’t sure they could back Stefanik. Rep. Adam Kinzinger told CNN that he would only support someone “who would tell the truth.” Pressed on if that was Stefanik, he said “I don’t know. I haven’t heard her say that.”

Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado, also told reporters he doesn’t support Stefanik to replace Cheney in House leadership.

“I think she’s a liberal,” he said about Stefanik.

But despite what he sees about her, Buck conceded that with Trump’s support, it’s clear she will have the votes as GOP conference chair.

“You now have President Trump’s support. You have Kevin McCarthy’s support, you have Steve Scalise’s support, I don’t think there will be anybody that wants to risk a future chairmanship or a future role than the party to take on Elise Stefanik, which I think is terribly unfair,” he said.

Several members are arguing they just want to give it time to see if anyone else enters the race.

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“We have a deep bench of people who can message pretty well here,” Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican from Florida, said. “As an example, I ask myself everyday why Jim Jordan isn’t in our leadership team. Elise could do a great job, but so could a number of others.”

Jordan, a conservative Ohio Republican, told CNN he was not interested in the position.

For some members, Stefanik’s voting record — specifically on the tax vote — is a nonissue. Rep. Kevin Brady, a Republican who led the House Ways and Means Committee that wrote the tax bill, told CNN that Stefanik was supportive. She voted against the bill.

“She is a strong supporter of our tax reforms,” he said.

Stefanik voted against the GOP’s 2017 tax bill because it lowered the cap on how much of their state and local taxes American families could deduct on their federal taxes.

While initially bristling at Trump as a candidate when he made comments about Gold Star families, the Muslim ban and comments about groping women, Stefanik eventually became a chief defender of the President on Capitol Hill during his first impeachment. She fundraised off of defending him and like many Republicans began to see that support for Trump translated into a clearer path for her future place in the party.

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

CNN’s Kristin Wilson and Ryan Nobles contributed to this report.

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