ALBANY, N.Y. — Steve Scalise. Tom Emmer. Gary Palmer. Jim Jordan. Mike Johnson.
Everyone in the House GOP’s leadership ranks — plus a host of other rank-and-file members — has taken a shot at replacing Kevin McCarthy, with one curious exception: Elise Stefanik.
The highest ranking Republican woman in the House, Stefanik has been conspicuously absent from the speakership discussion. While she has remained highly visible in running the conference meetings and offering enthusiastic endorsements of various failed nominees, the GOP conference chair has avoided throwing her own hat in the ring or even offering public comment about her intentions.
It’s a potentially savvy move, allowing her to steer clear of the career-killing chaos now engulfing the GOP. And yet it’s also likely that she would struggle to win the votes, underscoring how difficult it will be to rise in the party in its current form.
The Upstate New York Republican declined to be interviewed this week about the speaker saga. Asked in the House hallway Tuesday if she plans to run for speaker, Stefanik said she had “no updates.”
Her senior advisor, Alex DeGrasse, said she is “laser-focused on unifying the House Republican Conference to elect the next speaker of the House.”
In an August interview with POLITICO, the 39-year-old lawmaker did not rule out one day seeking the gavel. But the devoted ally of former President Donald Trump has thus far shown no inclination for getting sucked into the speaker fight, as the powerful men ahead of her have fallen through trap doors in pursuit of the job.
“It’s resisting a lot of contrary temptations and just doing your job and doing it well,” New York Republican Party Chair Ed Cox said. “That gains you a lot of respect, and quiet respect is the coin of the realm in the House of Representatives.”
People familiar with her thinking note she is just becoming comfortable in the conference chair post and doesn’t want to have her stature diminished if she makes an earnest bid for the speaker job and loses. House GOP leadership has also been something of a meat grinder for women in recent years, with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers deciding not to run for reelection as conference chair in 2019 and her successor in the number three slot, former Rep. Liz Cheney, being ousted from the post in 2021.
Stefanik was elected to replace Cheney, a leading Trump critic within the party.
No one doubts the ambition of Stefanik, who was elected to the House in 2014 as the youngest woman ever to win a congressional seat at the time. And by biding her time during the speaker crisis, she is sidestepping what could be a thankless job with a short-lived tenure.
Some see a strategic dimension to her positioning, with Stefanik — a political power broker in New York and D.C. — playing what amounts to a long game.
“She’s in a safe seat. She showed long-term savvy staying out of it and don’t think she’ll regret that, because who wants to be speaker right now?” Republican political consultant Bill O’Reilly said.
Stefanik has also kept busy behind the scenes, acquiring leverage by setting herself up as someone for speaker candidates to cultivate.
“If I were a potential candidate running for the speakership, Elise Stefanik is the first person I would want on my side,” former Rep. John Sweeney said.
Stefanik interned for Sweeney, a New York Republican who represented parts of the Adirondacks and the Albany area from 1998 to 2006. Sweeney recalled her being bright and ambitious as a high school student. He has also watched Stefanik’s evolution from a striving student at Harvard, to Paul Ryan staffer and, finally, a staunch Trump supporter.
That transformation has made Stefanik a partisan lightning rod, with critics blasting her as a political contortionist, especially when it has come to her support for Trump. That has fueled some skepticism on the hard right and outright hostility from the left — and potentially could have undercut any efforts to seize the speakership amid the House GOP’s civil war.
Sweeney considers her ability to morph politically an asset.
“She was a Paul Ryan person,” Sweeney said. “But politics, especially when you come from a blue state like New York and you not only survive but thrive, the fluidity is not necessarily a pejorative. It’s not necessarily a negative.”
There is a belief in some quarters of the party that Stefanik could emerge as one of the GOP’s chief fundraisers since she’s so far been left unscathed by the speakership battle. She's already started to play a critical role helping vulnerable Republicans in the New York City suburbs win second terms — which would go a long way toward saving the party’s narrow majority in the process.
New York is home to an estimated half dozen battleground seats next year, and five are represented by first-term Republicans on Long Island, the Hudson Valley and Central New York.
With so many pivotal seats in New York and a narrow House majority at stake, the importance of the GOP delegation has increased. During the speakership battle, Stefanik has served as a sounding board for her home state Republicans and, over the weekend, facilitated question-and-answer sessions between speaker candidates and fellow New York members.
“In a difficult circumstance, she has stayed above the fray and put the conference, party and country ahead of other considerations,” Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, a moderate from the northern New York City suburbs, said.
Stefanik has already turned on her considerable fundraising network for Republicans like Lawler, as well as first-term Reps. Anthony D’Esposito, Nick LaLota and Brandon Williams. Earlier this year, she announced a $100 million plan to support those endangered first-termers. Her stature could be further enhanced now that McCarthy, an unparalleled rainmaker for the House GOP’s fundraising arm, is out of leadership.
All of it could pay big dividends in the future, either in Washington or back home in New York.
“Elise has provided in what has been a chaotic situation there one of the few stabilizing centers of power,” Gerard Kassar, the chair of the influential New York Conservative Party, said. “She is playing the role of getting us back together. I suspect in the end she’ll get a lot of recognition for a good job done and that will help down the road.”
Anthony Adragna and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.