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Liz Cheney and Elise Stefanik represent ‘battle for the soul of the party’

<i>CNN</i><br/>Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming are viewed differently within the Republican Party.
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Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming are viewed differently within the Republican Party.

By Melanie Zanona, CNN

It was a tale of two House Republican Conference chairs.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who currently holds the No. 3 leadership job in the GOP, said at a news conference this week that Americans deserve to know the “truth” about January 6, which is that “Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility, as speaker of the House, for the tragedy” — even though she is not responsible for day-to-day security operations.

Just several hours later, her predecessor, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, was seated alongside her Democratic colleagues at the January 6 select committee hearing and agreed that the country needs to hear the truth. But she had a vastly different vision for what that might look like: “We must overcome the many efforts we are already seeing to cover up and obscure the facts,” she said, taking a shot at her GOP colleagues. “No Member of Congress should now attempt to defend the indefensible, obstruct this investigation, or whitewash what happened that day.”

The night and day contrast between the current and former conference chairs — who were both dubbed rising GOP stars early on in their congressional careers — perfectly encapsulates the bitter rift in today’s Republican party, where lawmakers are still duking it out over the direction of the post-Trump GOP.

But in a sign of where the party is headed, Stefanik is earning high marks from all across the Republican Conference for her job performance thus far. And Cheney, who was already booted from leadership earlier this year for repeatedly criticizing Donald Trump over his lies about the election, is now facing calls to be expelled from the GOP Conference entirely — proof that those who embrace Trump are rewarded, while those who rebuke him are excommunicated from the GOP.

Stefanik declined to be interviewed through her office. But she has made crystal clear how she now feels about Cheney — a woman whom Stefanik formally nominated for the Conference chair position in 2018 and 2020.

“[Cheney] is a Pelosi Republican, a Pelosi pawn at this point,” Stefanik told Fox News’ Sean Hannity this week. “She does not represent the Republican Conference, or Republican voters, or the American people.”

Cheney dished it right back. When presented with Stefanik’s comments from the press conference earlier this week, Cheney told CNN’s Jake Tapper: “If I were saying the things that you just played, I’d be deeply ashamed of myself.”

Cheney, however, said the fight is much bigger than an internal leadership battle.

“We’re clearly in a battle for the soul of the party. And I think it goes far beyond the House Republican Conference,” she told CNN on Thursday. It’s about “whether our party is going to stand for the truth.”

From moderate to MAGA

Over the past few years, Stefanik — who came up in politics working for establishment GOP politicians — has steadily shed her image as a moderate New York Republican and fully embraced her role as a Trump acolyte. Her defense of Trump during his first impeachment solidified her status as a Trump fan favorite and turned her into a fundraising powerhouse. And on January 6, she joined over 120 of her House Republican colleagues in challenging the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.

So it’s little surprise that since Stefanik has stepped into her new leadership job this May, she has been in lockstep unity with the Trump-loving Republican Conference. In fact, it was one of the reasons her colleagues elevated her to the role.

Stefanik, now the party’s highest-ranking woman, has voted along the party line on every single piece of legislation that leadership has formally whipped, eagerly echoed the party talking points and has continued to bear-hug Trump. That includes a recent visit to one of Trump’s resorts, where Stefanik and the former President posed for a photo together while flashing a thumbs up — something that has become a rite of passage among GOP leaders.

“Awesome. Elise is doing a great job,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and co-founder of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.

Republicans have also praised Stefanik for growing the House GOP’s social media presence and seeking input from other members when crafting the party message — and then staying laser-focused on that message. The conference chair is not only responsible for member services, but also for sending out internal talking points and weekly emails designed to put the party on the same page.

“The playcalls … and the work product feel like they were the results of speaking to others, as opposed to just unilaterally deciding what’s best without caring what the rest of the Conference thinks,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, a fellow New York Republican.

During her leadership campaign, Stefanik faced skepticism from the far-right about her conservative bona fides. ​​While Cheney voted with Trump 93% of the time, Stefanik did just 78% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. But in at least one instance since becoming the No. 3 Republican, she has voted to the right of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise: they both voted to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol last month while Stefanik voted to keep them, even though she voted in the summer of 2020 in support of removal.

Stefanik has explained her shift in stance on the growing calls to tear down statues in her home state. But it’s also another example of how Stefanik has fully leaned into the culture wars, an issue that has animated the GOP base.

“Elise is keeping her head down and supporting the Conference. And I think Liz was seeking controversy,” said Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican and House Freedom Caucus member. “I don’t know how much (Stefanik) shares those values, but I think she’s doing a good job reflecting the Conference.”

Cheney under fire

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cheney has reignited her fierce feud with the Trump wing of the party after she accepted a seat on the January 6 committee from Pelosi.

In Wyoming, pro-Trump primary challengers have already lined up to take Cheney out. But Trump, who is thirsty for revenge after Cheney’s impeachment vote, is now looking to endorse a single opponent to help solidify the anti-Cheney lane in the race. He even entertained a handful of contenders at his golf resort this week.

Meanwhile, in Washington, members of the House Freedom Caucus are ramping up pressure on McCarthy to change their internal rules in order to make it easier to expel her and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who also serves on the January 6 panel. They’ve brought the issue up with McCarthy directly and held a press conference on Thursday to further pound that drum.

Leadership, however, has shown little interest in punishing Cheney and Kinzinger. But Republican leaders — Stefanik included — have had no problem piling on to the public criticism, dubbing the duo as “Pelosi Republicans.”

But even though McCarthy bragged about the GOP being a “big tent” party after Cheney survived the first attempt to oust her from leadership, Republicans rejected the notion that pushing out Trump critics like Cheney and Kinzinger makes the party less inclusive.

“They chose to leave,” said Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, the head of the Freedom Caucus. “The big tent is still there.”

The-CNN-Wire
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CNN’s Annie Grayer contributed to this report.

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