At CPAC, Elise Stefanik Auditions to Be Trump’s VP

Elise Stefanik waves from the stage at the annual CPAC meeting.

Stefanik at CPAC on February 23.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

CPAC is one of the biggest Trumpist gatherings of the year, and on Friday the rockstar was Elise Stefanik, the New York congresswoman and former moderate who has turned herself into a MAGA hero.

Stefanik got one of the most rapturous receptions of any of the day’s speakers. Her big speech was practically an audition to be Donald Trump’s running mate. Attendees stood and cheered her as she boasted that she had turned a district that Obama won twice into one that was now “Trump and Elise Country.” She always invoked the full name of “President Donald J. Trump” and insisted that the real threat to American democracy came from “the radical left and the Democrats.” She celebrated January 6 as a day where she “stood up for the Constitution and election integrity” (she voted against certifying the 2020 election) and took aim at familiar bugbears like Adam Schiff and Liz Cheney. She also made sure to take credit for ousting two Ivy League presidents after grilling them over antisemitism during a House hearing. Still, she could be somewhat stilted, speaking MAGA fluently but with a slight accent. It is not her native language.

The crowd didn’t care, offering periodic shouts of “we love you Elise!” And the center-right sins of Stefanik’s past, her ties to the pre-Trump GOP when she worked for George W. Bush and Paul Ryan? They don’t seem to matter to the Trump loyalists either.

Stefanik has become the model for the ideological transformation of the Republican Party under Trump. Elected to Congress from an upstate district when she was just 30 as the prototype of the Republican Establishment, she has since become one of Trump’s most ardent supporters in Washington, racing to be the first member of Congress to endorse the former president when he announced his candidacy in November 2022.

Now she’s one of the top figures in the favorite Washington parlor game of trying to pick who Trump will select as vice-president. It’s the last real suspense in American politics in a presidential race where Trump has all but sown up the Republican nomination and incumbent Joe Biden has only faced nominal opposition in his reelection bid.

After she spoke in the cavernous hotel conference room on Friday, Stefanik was mobbed. Reporters, attendees, everyone wanted to see her, get a quote from her, get a selfie with her. After finishing a Newsmax interview, and she worked her way slowly the talk-show hosts who had camped out at the event. An NBC News reporter’s question about Alabama’s ban on IVF was left unacknowledged in the maelstrom but Stefanik eventually answered it by saying, “Like President Trump, I strongly support IVF.”

Joe Casais, an attendee from New Jersey, praised Stefanik as a successor to Trump. “I feel like when you want someone who’s gonna step into the role. Are they still gonna fight back the way Trump is going to fight? Or are they just gonna be a pushover and you’re gonna go back to the pre-Trump years?”

Terry Schilling, the leader of the social-conservative group American Principles Project, gushed over Stefanik as well. “I 100 percent trust Elise Stefanik and will go to the ends of the earth to support her,” said the prominent activist who has played a leading role in pushing state legislatures to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

For Schilling, despite whatever Stefanik had done in the pre-Trump era, “she has really stepped into her role as a conservative leader for this country, and I think she has a bright future in the Republican Party.”

The only question now is whether that future will include being Trump’s No. 2.

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