By Gabriella Borter and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik's first turn in the national limelight came when she mounted an impassioned defense of Donald Trump at his first impeachment trial in 2019, leading the then-president to declare that "a star is born."
Stefanik's star could rise higher as Trump now pushes for her to be elected the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, which is set to vote on Wednesday to remove Representative Liz Cheney from that role for rejecting his continued false claims that the 2020 presidential election was marred by widespread fraud.
It is a profound change for Stefanik, a New York state Republican first elected in 2014 on a moderate platform, who avoided saying Trump's name publicly during the 2016 campaign season and did not vote for him in that year's Republican presidential primary.
The change won over party leaders in the House, Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise – who along with Trump endorsed Stefanik to replace Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney – as well as many people in her rural district, which encompasses much of the Adirondack Mountains.
"Here in Fulton County, we're proud and very happy with the path she's on," said Sue McNeil, chair of the county's Republican committee since 2008. "We're Trump country up here."
Staff for Stefanik did not make her available for an interview. She is one of 147 Republicans in Congress who voted in January to try to block the certification of Democratic President Joe Biden's election win, hours after a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.
Stefanik, now 36, was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress when she first won her district, which had voted twice for Democratic President Barack Obama and had been represented by Democrats in Congress since 1993.
She had worked for establishment Republicans including former President George W. Bush and the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, former House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Michael Steel, who worked with Stefanik on Ryan's campaign, said Stefanik had grown more conservative along with her district. But he also saw no big clash between her previous reputation as a moderate Republican and her embrace of Trump.
"President Trump is not particularly conservative in many policy areas," said Steel, who was a spokesman for Ryan's campaign and for former House Speaker John Boehner.
'NOT ABOUT TELLING THE TRUTH'
The conservative Club for Growth, which rates members of Congress, gives her a lifetime score of just 35% for voting in line with its priorities, one of the worst among House Republicans, and well below Cheney's 65%. That has led some conservative House members to push back against elevating Stefanik.
"Her voting record is atrocious," Representative Chip Roy said last week on radio's "Erick Erickson Show."
Stefanik has worked hard, with some success, to help elect other Republican women to Congress. Last year, she raised and donated over $2 million for Republican candidates. Three fourths of that went to Republican women, who more than doubled their numbers in the House, although they still lag behind the Democrats.
But Olivia Troye, who was an aide to former Vice President Mike Pence before leaving in August, said it had been "disappointing" to see Stefanik potentially elevated into leadership for being a Trump acolyte who advances his voting fraud claims.
"She's not getting it on the merits of being bipartisan, she's not getting it on the merits of her policymaking, her governing," said Troye, part of the Republican Accountability Project. "She's getting it on the merits of lying. It's not about telling the truth. She's rising in power for her lies."
"The more they attack Elise Stefanik, the stronger she becomes," said her senior adviser, Alex DeGrasse.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Gabriella Borter; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)
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