Even as Rep. Elise Stefanik has consolidated her position as the likely replacement for Rep. Liz Cheney as the No. 3 House Republican, her voting record has raised concerns from some conservatives in the House and around Washington.
During a Wednesday night conference call, multiple members of the far-right Freedom Caucus voiced deep reservations about Stefanik as the consensus choice for Republican conference chair – even as they conceded she has the votes to succeed Cheney. A House member on the call told CNN the Freedom Caucus has concerns about Stefanik’s moderate voting record and her uneven stance on a wide range of issues the group prioritizes, including immigration and LGBTQ rights. Given those concerns, Stefanik is expected to address lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus on Monday, according to a person familiar with the plan.
Meanwhile conservative outside interest groups are also expressing trepidation about Stefanik’s rise, especially since her record is less conservative than Cheney’s. But even skeptics of Stefanik’s conservative credentials say she’s preferable to Cheney on the most important factor: her loyalty to former President Donald Trump.
“Liz Cheney is a true conservative. She has better ratings across the board. Elise was a moderate and a Trump skeptic who realized she had to pivot to Trump – and she did,” said one prominent conservative activist who was granted anonymity to speak more freely. “Elise satisfies the litmus test that she is pro-Trump. And that’s all that counts these days in our coalition. And I think we are a coalition, not a party today, because there are plenty of the Trump folks, the MAGA folks who are not true Republicans.”
The reaction from conservatives inside and outside Congress around Washington reflects the speed with which House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has moved to oust Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, from her position in leadership. Despite Trump’s own endorsement of Stefanik, some activist groups are making their displeasure known.
The pro-market Club for Growth tweeted on Wednesday that Stefanik is a “liberal” and has just a 35% lifetime score with the group. And social conservatives were turned off by Stefanik’s past support for legislation that would have extended non-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans.
“Not a fan,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the American Principles Project, a social conservative advocacy group, when asked about Stefanik.
But that distaste for Stefanik does not reflect an affinity for Cheney among conservative activists.
“I think we could find someone else for leadership (other) than Stefanik, but I’ll take her over Cheney any day,” said Schilling.
Activists say they are wary of how quickly Republicans have lined up behind Stefanik, even if there is no apparent alternative to the New York congresswoman when it comes to replacing Cheney.
“This train is headed down the tracks. The only way to stop it is to blow up the tracks and nobody seems to have the willpower or desire to do that at this point, so we’re going to have to pray this doesn’t turn out to be a mistake,” the head of one prominent conservative advocacy group told CNN.
Despite some grumbling among more conservative House members and outside groups about the quick push to anoint Stefanik – especially given her more moderate voting record – there’s still wide expectation that she will win a secret ballot election, given that she has the support of Trump, House leadership and a wide cross-section of the conference. And so far, no challenger has emerged to take her on.
Trump fealty over voting record
Few have argued Cheney, a loyal supporter of Trump’s agenda in Congress during most of his presidency, should be booted from leadership over her positions on issues.
The Wyoming Republican’s voting record is more rigidly conservative than Stefanik’s. In the scorecards for multiple conservative groups – the Club For Growth, Heritage Action, and the American Conservative Union – Cheney receives a higher rating than Stefanik. As the Club noted on Twitter on Wednesday, Stefanik’s rating is the fourth-lowest among current House Republicans.
But for Cheney’s support among the House conference, only one vote has really mattered: her support for the second impeachment of Trump.
Despite her ability to overwhelmingly survive an attempt in February to remove her as conference chair, Cheney’s impeachment vote and her consistent defense of it has enraged the former President. And by continuing to argue that the party should move on from Trump and correct his lies about the 2020 election, her position has weakened with members who publicly remain in Trump’s camp.
Stefanik’s outspoken loyalty to Trump and his effort to claim the 2020 election was illegitimate, on the other hand, appear to be insulating her from anything beyond perfunctory criticism from the conservative activist wing of the party.
“She’s not a hardcore conservative, and I maybe would have liked to have had some input, but there absolutely needs to be a woman in that role,” said the head of the advocacy group. This person described Stefanik’s likely elevation to GOP conference chair as “something to be cautiously optimistic about.”
And the prominent conservative activist told CNN that “the perception is that Elise is a lot more solid than Liz on Trump.”
Stefanik did not return a request for comment from CNN. When asked about these criticisms during a Thursday morning appearance on “War Room,” a podcast and radio show hosted by former Trump White House aide Steve Bannon, Stefanik pivoted to tout her pro-Trump credentials.
“My vision is to run with support from the President and his coalition of voters,” she said, referring to Trump.
For the most dedicated conservatives, Stefanik’s expected turn in leadership is just part of the compromise of politics.
“This is basically asking conservatives to choose between two people that aren’t really our friends. But at the end of the day, Elise Stefanik isn’t going to join the chorus of people saying ‘Republicans are evil,’ whereas Liz Cheney seems to believe that,” Schilling added.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.