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  /  News   /  How Elise Stefanik became a top Trump VP contender

How Elise Stefanik became a top Trump VP contender

This is part of The Hill’s ongoing series looking at Donald Trump’s possible vice-presidential picks.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) has been steadily rising in the ranks of the GOP for years, but it took an off-the-cuff question about antisemitism on college campuses to send her public profile through the roof.

“It wasn’t a prepared question,” Stefanik said in an interview with The Hill last month. “I wrote it down in pencil five minutes before.” 

The chair of the Republican conference, Stefanik is one of the most influential women in her party and one of only a small handful of female candidates on the list of former President Trump’s potential running mates.

Although she has been a rising star in the GOP for a decade, the congresswoman from New York has seen her name recognition grow considerably over the past two years.

In particular, Stefanik has grabbed headlines for her grilling of university presidents in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.

In December, she was taking part in the House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on antisemitism that had flared up following the attacks.

Toward the end of the hearing, a junior member yielded their time to Stefanik. That time resulted in one of the most watched exchanges in congressional hearing history. 

“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?” Stefanik asked the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. 

The three presidents did not give direct answers, leading to widespread condemnation from both sides of the aisle. 

Stefanik said she was shocked by the university presidents’ responses. 

The backlash led to the presidents of Harvard and Penn stepping down from their posts, but it also catapulted Stefanik, long seen as a rising Republican star, further into the spotlight and stoked speculation she could be Trump’s vice presidential pick in November.

Since then, Stefanik has made efforts to raise her profile globally, as well as nationally.

In May, she became the highest-ranking House Republican to address the Knesset since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Stefanik blasted the Biden administration’s policy toward Israel during the address, resulting in the White House hitting back against the Republican’s remarks.

The House Republican has also made it a mission to increase the number of GOP women serving in Congress, establishing Elevate PAC, or E-PAC, in 2018. She made headlines that same year when she tweeted, “I wasn’t asking for permission,” in response to criticism from then-incoming National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) over her calls to get involved in primaries to help more GOP women get elected. 

Stefanik has climbed the ranks in the House Republican conference steadily since becoming the youngest person to be elected to Congress in 2014.

Stefanik dived into the political and policy realms following her graduation from Harvard in 2006, serving in former President George W. Bush’s administration. She went on to support the Republican presidential ticket in 2012, playing a leading role in prepping then-Republican presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). 

One year later, Stefanik ran for office in New York’s 21st Congressional District. Stefanik ending up winning, flipping the district and becoming the first Republican to win the seat in 21 years. Her victory was part of a Republican wave across the country. 

“She had to turn that into solid Republican territory,” said Ed Cox, chair of the New York Republican Party. “She had to at the very start have political moxie to do it and she had that.” 

The rural upstate New York district includes Plattsburgh and Glens Falls, and stretches to the borders of Vermont and Canada. The district has swung between both parties during presidential cycles. Former President Clinton won the district twice, while Bush won it in 2000 and 2004. Former President Obama flipped the district in 2008 and won it during his reelection in 2012, but Trump flipped it back in 2016 and won it again in 2020. 

Stefanik said it was during the 2014 midterm elections that she began to see what she says were the changing winds within the Republican Party. 

“If you look at the cycle I ran in 2014, that was the start of the seismic shift that has happened within the Republican Party under President Trump’s leadership,” she said. “We’ve been able to win those blue collar, pro-Second Amendment voters where today’s radical, socialist Democrat Party — particularly in the state of New York that’s based out of New York City — has left them behind.” 

Stefanik has proven herself to be one of Trump’s most vocal advocates on Capitol Hill. She was among Trump’s other vice presidential hopefuls at the RNC’s spring meeting at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida earlier this month. The former president reportedly spoke highly of Stefanik and the prospect of her being a running mate at a private Mar-a-Lago dinner late last year, saying — approvingly — that “she’s a killer.”  

Stefanik says she’s “honored” to have her name mentioned as part of Trump’s running mate discussions, but her focus is working to elect Republicans up and down the ballot. 

“I think there is lots of opportunities for so many Republicans to make sure we’re working as a team to win the presidency by electing Trump, to flip the Senate, and gain seats in the House,” she said. 

But it’s the same praise that Stefanik and Trump have for each other that has resulted in criticism from those who argue she sold out for the former president. On Sunday, Fox News Sunday host Shannon Bream cited a 2022 New York Times report that included years-old anecdotes about comments Stefanik reportedly made criticizing Trump. Stefanik pushed back on Bream, calling the quotes “false smears” and said it was a “disgrace” the anchor cited the report. 

The chair has also faced criticism for saying she would not have allowed the 2020 presidential election results to be certified if she were in former Vice President Mike Pence’s position. She voted against certifying the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania but voted to certify the election in Arizona. 

“These journalists who write that, they should actually take the time to talk to voters in my district who know that I’ve reflected my district since day one,” Stefanik told The Hill when asked about the criticism she’s faced over her support of the former president prior to Sunday’s Fox News interview. 

Like most lawmakers, Stefanik points to her district as shaping her agenda in Congress. The district, which is home to Fort Drum, boasts a large military population, leading Stefanik to zero in on national security issues. 

“What happens in the district, the North Country, impacts the world on a greater scale than a lot of people realize,” said one Republican aide familiar with Stefanik’s work. 

In addition to having a seat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, Stefanik also sits on the Armed Services Committee and Intelligence committees. 

Stefanik has zeroed in on the areas of missile defense, emerging technology, and countering Chinese government influence as part of her work on the committees. She and her allies have touted her efforts in calling to spare Fort Drum from cuts in 2015, as well as taking part in a continuing years-long effort to establish a missile defense system at the military base. 

She also touts her early work in examining artificial intelligence, introducing legislation in 2018 that helped establish the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Stefanik has also delved into the work of quantum information science, which has played out in her district at the Air Force Research Labs in Rome, N.Y. 

Stefanik in May led a group of House Republicans in introducing legislation that increase tariffs on Chinese-made dronemakers, including DJI. 

“I fight to make sure our district has a seat at the highest level,” Stefanik said. “President Trump respects that fight and respects that strength.”

The New York congresswoman spoke proudly of one moment in 2018 when Trump visited Fort Drum to sign the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. 

“That was really the first high profile experience that President Trump and I had on national security issues,” she said, referring to the signing in 2018. “He referenced that even two weekends ago in Mar-a-Lago about how that was an important moment not only for his record but specifically for my district.” 

“No district tells the story of today’s Republican Party better than New York’s 21st congressional district,” she said.