Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Actually, the GOP Needs More Elise Stefaniks

Stefanik isn't the Republican we deserve, but she's the Republican we need.
January 11, 2019
Actually, the GOP Needs More Elise Stefaniks
Congresswoman Elise Stefanik speaks during Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fortune/Time Inc)

Earlier this week, conservative writer—“conservative” writer?—Neil Dwyer decided to attack Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik. In a piece at the Washington Examiner, Dwyer wrote that “There’s nothing wrong with recruiting more women candidates for Congress . . . is Stefanik the mold we want to see the party’s candidates being shaped from?”

Dwyer’s gripe is that Stefanik has led the Tuesday Group of moderate Republicans in the House, and is a member of the Main Street Partnership. In addition to these heresies, she opposed Trump’s travel ban, didn’t want Trump to pull out of the Paris climate change accords and, perhaps worst of all, was ranked the 27th most bipartisan member of the 115th Congress. On Wednesday she voted with seven other Republicans in favor of a Democratic bill to fund the Treasury Department, the Small Business Administration, and the IRS while the rest of the government is shutdown.

Dwyer thinks that this is all quite awful because he’s positive that “the voters” don’t want representatives finely-calibrated for the desires of their districts, but rather fully-onboard with Trumpism. “More than anything,” Dwyer says, “voters appreciate when their representatives stand for a platform.” This is a strange observation to make about Stefanik since she won reelection in 2018 with nearly 57 percent of the vote in a district Obama won twice while the national environment was +8 Democratic. Does Dwyer think that Stefanik would have gotten to 60 percent in her district if she’d gone full-Trump? Surely no one could be that stupid.

Although, perhaps not.

Dwyer seems to legitimately believe that Republican losses in 2018 were caused by candidates not being Trumpy enough:“Closer analysis,” he writes, reveals that “mostly establishment and moderate Republicans, not conservative ones, were more likely to lose re-election.” He lists members such as Carlos Curbelo and Barbara Comstock who lost swing districts before noting that Andy Barr made it through his “expensive and grueling” race in Kentucky. The fact that Hillary Clinton won Curbelo’s district by 16 points and Comstock’s by 10 points, and that Trump won Barr’s district, is lost on Dwyer.

But what is it, exactly, that inspired Dwyer to pick on Stefanik, of all Republicans? One suspects it has been her willingness to challenge Republican complacency after the GOP lost 40 seats. And Lord, do men not like it when women ask them to swallow hard truths.

Having served as head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee (the first woman to do so), Stefanik stepped down after the GOP’s 40 seat midterm loss. She was not only disappointed in her party’s losses in suburban areas long represented by Republicans, but also that after recruiting more than 100 women to run, only one of these challengers won.

In Stefanik’s “2018 NRCC Strategic Assessment Letter” (co-signed by three male colleagues), she directly addressed the party’s liabilities. “Neither our Republican caucus, nor our party as a whole, can afford further erosion among key demographics,” she wrote, warning that “minimizing or ignoring the root causes of these historic losses will lead us to repeat them.” She suggested that addressing this crisis candidly was “the first step toward ensuring Republican candidates better reflect America, and to winning more elections.”

The response from GOP leaders was a wall of denial. Incoming NRCC chair Rep. Tom Emmers said the party had not lost significant support in the suburbs where women decided the 2018 elections. “There’s a narrative that people are trying to build out there that somehow there’s been this shift, this political realignment in the suburbs,” Emmer told National Journal. “That’s not true. It isn’t there.”

Oh really?

In 2018 Republicans lost seats in the suburbs of Richmond, Houston, Kansas City, Charleston, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, Virginia Beach, Des Moines, Orange County, Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Salt Lake. You may recall that in 2010 Democrats lost their “Blue Dogs”—the Dems who had represented small towns and rural areas in the south—and now may never see those seats again. Republicans are now in danger of having the same kind of permanent shift in the suburbs. And it will be permanent if party leaders refuse to recognize that the GOP is losing everyone but old-ish (and older) white men.

The reason people like Dwyer don’t like Stefanik is because she’s right. The GOP is facing a demographic crisis by turning its back on more than half of the voting population. Only 25 percent of women fully identified as Republicans in 2017, down from 27 percent in 2016. And small changes matter when 52 percent of the votes cast in these last midterms were by women.

And none of this has been lost on Democrats. The House GOP conference now has only 13 women in its ranks—the least since 1994—while Democrats have 89. The House GOP conference is now 90 percent—read that again: 90 percent—white and male.

This isn’t an issue of PC diversity bean counting. It’s about electoral realities. Republican party leaders may not like how voters respond to such things. But then, the Diebold machines don’t care about your feelings.

In a strange way, the more obvious it is that Stefanik is right, the more people like Dwyer resent her. After Stefanik announced she would work outside the system, through an expanded effort with her own political action committee (E-PAC) to help more Republican women win primary elections, Emmers was openly dismissive. “If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right,” he said. “But I think it’s a mistake.”

Contra Dwyer, Stefanik is precisely the kind of candidate the GOP needs. She’s a Harvard graduate with foreign policy experience gleaned from her years in the Bush 43 administration. She landed on the House Armed Services committee as a freshman, and became a vice chairwoman of the subcommittee on Readiness her second month in office. Since arriving in Congress she’s been a stand out member and leader. She does not spend her days popping off on Twitter or grooming herself to be a media celebrity. She’s a workhorse, not a showhorse.

Stefanik is determined to help Republicans grow their party, in spite of themselves, no matter how much people like Neil Dwyer would rather be part of some sort of glorious lost cause.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.