In 2018, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan sat next to his friend and ally Rep. Elise Stefanik and predicted a bright future for the New York Republican.
"This is the future of the Republican Party, the future of our country — people like Elise," Ryan told CBS.
With Stefanik now the newest member of the House GOP leadership team, his statement seems a prescient one.
But Stefanik's rise in today's Republican Party has relied in part on her rejection of the establishment conservative credentials that got her to this moment.
Her climb to the No. 3 Republican spot required forcing out Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, whom Stefanik nominated for the job twice and once praised as a "huge asset in the role."
Since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Cheney has split with Stefanik — along with most House Republicans — on former President Donald Trump, whom she has publicly and forcefully criticized for his role in inciting the insurrection and his ongoing efforts to falsely discredit the 2020 election.
The vote this week on Cheney's removal and Stefanik's installment could represent a watershed moment for the GOP as it navigates its identity and allegiance to Trump ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
A star from the beginning
Stefanik entered Congress a star in 2015 following a race that brought her national attention due to her age. At 30, she was the youngest woman elected to Congress at the time.
After her election, she told C-SPAN she takes being a female role model "very seriously."
"Parents started bringing their elementary school-aged daughters to events, these were nonpolitical families — Republicans, Democrats, unaffiliated voters — just to show their daughters an example and a role model of what they can achieve," she said.
Stefanik was better connected than most congressional freshmen, with a résumé that included a Harvard University degree, stints in the George W. Bush White House, the 2012 Romney-Ryan campaign and a worldview that aligned neatly with the establishment conservatives of the era.
"I'm a Republican because I believe in limited government," she told C-SPAN in 2015. "I think Republican principles help the vast majority of all Americans achieve the American dream and I believe in the Constitution."
It was Ryan who inspired her to run for Congress.
"When the odds were stacked against me 100 to one, Paul encouraged, stood by and supported me," she said at a 2016 Capitol Hill event. "Still, the best piece of advice I have received is from Speaker Ryan, who told me: 'You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio.' "
Transformation to Trump loyalist
In Congress, Stefanik accumulated a moderate voting record — she voted against the 2017 Trump tax cuts — and was often recognized as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress. She has worked to translate her own election success to other women, helping to recruit and raise money for hundreds of female candidates over the years.
It wasn't until the Trump era that Stefanik stepped into the partisan fray.
Her political conversion to Trump loyalist was forged in the fire that was the former president's first impeachment trial, where her full-throated defense led to several viral moments.
"What is the interruption for this time?" she pointedly asked House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., during the 2019 impeachment hearing.
"This is the fifth time you have interrupted members of Congress, duly elected members of Congress," she said as Schiff insisted she wasn't recognized to speak.
Trump was delighted and lavished Stefanik with praise at a White House event following his acquittal.
"You know, I was up campaigning for her, helping her, I thought she looks good, she looks like good talent," he mused. "But did I not realize when she opens that mouth — you were killing them, Elise, you were killing them!"
Trump's praise quickly translated to financial support for Stefanik from the MAGA movement. She hauled in over $13 million, nearly five times the amount she had previously raised for reelection on her own.
Her shift toward Trump also aligned with her changing upstate New York House seat. Her district voted twice for former President Barack Obama but shifted hard in favor of Trump, delivering him double-digit victories in 2016 and 2020.
By the time the Jan. 6 insurrection took place, Stefanik was firmly in Trump's camp, joining the 138 House Republicans who voted to object to Electoral College counts in Pennsylvania and echoed Trump's doubts about the 2020 election on the House floor that night.
"Tens of millions of Americans are concerned that the 2020 election featured unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges ignoring state election laws," she said. "We can and we should peacefully and respectfully discuss these concerns."
Attempts to oust Cheney
That day ultimately became the breaking point between Cheney and her GOP colleagues. She beat back an effort to remove her from leadership in February by a 2-to-1 margin on a secret ballot, but since then Cheney has been unrelenting in her effort to remind the public that Trump's repeated claims that the election was stolen from him are "the big lie."
Her efforts have landed her a censure from the Wyoming state Republican Party, a growing list of 2022 primary challengers, severed her relationship with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and derailed her once-bright political future in the House.
Despite it all, Cheney doubled down on her criticism of Trump last week.
"We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be," she wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post.
McCarthy formally threw his support behind Stefanik in a Sunday interview on Fox News.
In a letter to colleagues announcing a vote to recall Cheney as conference chair on Wednesday, McCarthy said that "internal conflicts need to be resolved so as not to detract from the efforts of our collective team."
"Each day spent relitigating the past is one day less we have to seize the future," he wrote.
Stefanik also has the public support of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Trump.
Cheney's views on Trump have put her out of step with the GOP conference, a reality that made it untenable for her to continue to serve in a leadership position tasked with cultivating and driving party messaging.
Stefanik won't have that problem. In interviews with right-wing media outlets last week, Stefanik made it clear she won't use the leadership position to break with or criticize Trump.
"I'm committed to being a voice and sending a clear message that we are one team, and that means working with the president and all of our excellent Republican members of Congress," Stefanik told Steve Bannon on his online radio show.
The president she was referring to is Trump.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik is on the verge of becoming the newest member of the House Republican leadership team. She's on track to take the job from Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who's expected to be forced out as conference chair for speaking out against former President Donald Trump for lying about the results of the 2020 election. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports that won't be a problem with Stefanik.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Elise Stefanik entered Congress a star. She received national attention during her first run in 2014 because at 30 years old, she was then the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She told C-SPAN how seeing young girls at her campaign events affected her.
(SOUNDBITE OF C-SPAN BROADCAST)
ELISE STEFANIK: It's something that I take very seriously as a role model in this country.
DAVIS: She was better connected than the average freshman lawmaker, with jobs in the George W. Bush administration and the 2012 Romney-Ryan presidential campaign, which led to a close friendship with former Speaker Paul Ryan, who told CBS this in 2018.
(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)
PAUL RYAN: This is the future of the Republican Party, the future of our country, people like Elise.
DAVIS: Stefanik has accumulated a mostly moderate voting record and has worked to recruit and raise money for hundreds of Republican female candidates over the years. It wasn't until the Trump era that Stefanik embraced the partisan fray. From her seat on the House intelligence committee, she levied a fierce defense of President Trump during his first impeachment hearings. And she didn't shy away from petty fights with the president's nemesis, Chairman Adam Schiff, along the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STEFANIK: I want to thank you for being here today...
ADAM SCHIFF: Gentlewoman will suspend. You're not recognized.
STEFANIK: This is the fifth time you have interrupted members of Congress - newly elected members of Congress.
SCHIFF: Gentlewoman is not recognized. Gentlewoman will suspend.
DAVIS: Trump was delighted by her performance and lavished Stefanik with praise at a White House event following his Senate acquittal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: But did I not realize, when she opens that mouth, you were killing them, Elise.
DAVIS: The MAGA movement took notice. Ahead of the 2020 elections, Stefanik hauled in $13 million, nearly five times the amount she had ever raised for reelection on her own. Her embrace of Trump aligned with her upstate New York district, which had swung from a seat that voted for former President Obama twice to delivering double-digit margins for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. By the day of the January 6 capital riot, Stefanik was firmly in Trump's camp, joining the majority of House Republicans who voted to object to Electoral College results. She echoed Trump's doubts about the 2020 election on the House floor that night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STEFANIK: Tens of millions of Americans are concerned that the 2020 election featured unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges ignoring state election laws.
DAVIS: January 6 became the breaking point between Stefanik and Cheney, who Stefanik once admired enough to nominate for the leadership job twice.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STEFANIK: Liz, I was very proud to nominate you to serve as our conference chair. That is the highest position of women in the Republican conference. And we think you're a huge asset.
DAVIS: But Cheney blames Trump for what happened on January 6. She voted to impeach him. And she wants to erase him from the future of the Republican Party for his ongoing effort to falsely discredit the 2020 election. For that, Stefanik, like most House Republicans, now wants to take away Cheney's microphone. In interviews with right-wing media outlets last week, Stefanik made clear she will not use this leadership platform to deviate from the party line. This is what she told Steve Bannon's online radio show.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "BANNON'S WAR ROOM")
STEFANIK: I'm committed to being a voice and sending a clear message that we are one team. And that means working with the president and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress.
DAVIS: That president she's referring to is Trump.
Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.