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Stefanik's win shows old GOP conservative purity tests replaced by a new one

Analysis: The New York Republican cruised to victory in a leadership race against a more conservative rival for one reason — she had Trump's endorsement.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., speaks during a news conference after the GOP Conference Chair election on Capitol Hill on May 14, 2021.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, at a news conference Friday after she was elected the No. 3 Republican leader in the House.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Rep. Elise Stefanik’s overwhelming victory in a leadership race Friday to become the No. 3 Republican in the House came against an opponent who has aced the conservative purity tests that used to matter inside the party.

Rep. Chip Roy of Texas boasts lifetime ratings of 96 percent from Heritage Action and 95 percent from the American Conservative Union. Stefanik, from New York, has lifetime scores of 48 percent and 44 percent from the groups, respectively.

But Stefanik passed the only purity test that matters today: Donald Trump’s endorsement.

She won it by being an outspoken defender of Trump during his impeachment in February. She has unapologetically channeled his groundless claims that widespread fraud cost him the 2020 election, and voted to block the counting of Pennsylvania electors on Jan. 6, after the attack on the Capitol.

It all helped secure Stefanik's 134-46 victory, despite pushback from some conservatives for her relatively moderate voting record, which included a vote in 2017 against the GOP tax law, the party’s top legislative achievement of the last decade.

On Thursday, the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth endorsed Roy as “a proven and principled conservative,” assailing Stefanik for her “long record that includes supporting big government spending and opposing Trump’s tax cuts.”

The Club for Growth gives Stefanik a lifetime conservative rating of 35 percent, lower than that of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a frequent target of right-wing ire, who had a rating of 38 percent. (Roy, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has a perfect rating of 100 percent; Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, ousted this week as chair of the GOP House caucus, has a score of 65 percent.)

For traditional conservatives, the contrast seemed to be evidence of the Republican Party abandoning its commitment to ideological principles and conservative policy.

“I have spent the past 27 years working in the conservative movement at all levels (grassroots, state & federal govt, campaigns, think tanks), and at this point I really couldn't tell you in much detail which policies the GOP exists to advance,” Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said on Twitter.

Stefanik knew whom to thank.

“I believe that voters determine the leader of the Republican Party, and President Trump is the leader that they look to,” she said after the vote. “I support President Trump. Voters support President Trump. He is an important voice in our Republican Party.”

Stefanik replaced Cheney, who was ousted by voice vote on Wednesday after she kept rebuking Trump’s lies about the 2020 contest. Cheney has higher lifetime scores than Stefanik from Heritage Action, American Conservative Union and Club For Growth.

“We have to be about ideas, not about a cult of personality to one man who launched a violent attack on the Capitol who continues to say the election was stolen,” Cheney said Thursday on Fox News. “Too many people are embracing the former president and enabling that lie. And that lie is toxic to our democracy.”

In past years, as recently as Barack Obama's presidency, Stefanik’s voting record might have been enough to drum up insurmountable conservative opposition for an ascent to a plum position to craft Republican messaging. Scorecards from groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth had currency with staunch Republican voters in conservative primaries and intra-party jockeying.

Those groups' scorecards and “key votes” were wielded as weapons to nudge party leaders away from compromising with Democrats on matters of taxes and spending, serving as a frequent headache to then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and ultimately contributing to his retirement in 2015.

Democrats called the news of Stefanik's election proof that the GOP had become a cult of one man. In a statement Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office labeled Stefanik a “conspiracy theorist” who “voted to overturn American democracy.”

Kevin Madden, a former Boehner aide, said Cheney's ouster showed that “Trump is more likely than not poised to shape the profile of the party” for the next decade."

"Leadership races aren't influenced the same way other electoral contests are by outside groups. They are much more of an inside game," Madden said. "Scorecards were never going to matter as much when stacked up against [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy's and [House Minority Whip Steve] Scalise's support for Stefanik, as well as Trump's endorsement."