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What Stefanik's rise and Cheney's fall mean for GOP women

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., walks from her office

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., walks from her office on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Credit: The Washington Post/Jabin Botsford

Donald Trump started taking over the Republican Party in 2016, a process ironically accelerated by his 2020 defeat and circulation of false claims that voter fraud cost him the election. The "Big Lie" has become the new litmus test of party loyalty, pushing aside classic conservative issues such as abortion and tax cuts. That shift was vividly illustrated Wednesday, as House Republicans removed conservative Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from the number three position in their leadership, probably to be replaced by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who has compiled a far more moderate voting record.

Stefanik has emerged as the choice of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Trump, in part because they understand the need to replace Cheney with another woman. Stefanik's rise signals a new calculation for the party as it recognizes the need for more women in visible positions if it hopes to attract a younger and more diverse base of supporters. Will this superficial gesture work? Maybe. Historically, this kind of political pivot has sprouted new avenues for growth and power. Now, it advances an agenda ripped from the past and dangerous for the future of democracy.

Partly in response to feminism, the new left and desegregation, the conservative movement surged out of the long 1960s with a vigorous "pro-family" agenda that encompassed a range of issues from opposition to abortion, gay rights, sex education, the Federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children program and federal funding for education. Republicans saw the passion generated by these issues at the grass roots, and recognized an opportunity to build their party, especially with Southern Whites. While they attacked poor Black women, whom they called "welfare queens," they celebrated mothers in heteronormative marriage as linchpins of a stable and moral order.

By the mid-1980s, conservative family values became a litmus test for any Republican candidate running for high office, which is why, for example, George H.W. Bush had to reverse his stance on abortion when he ran for vice president in 1980, as did Donald Trump with his first attempt at the White House in 2012. Bob Dole and John McCain similarly capitulated to conservative pressure by choosing pro-life running mates in 1996 and 2008, respectively.

To capture the White Christian base skeptical of professional women, GOP female candidates had to live as well as represent this conservative orthodoxy - but in doing so, they found a place for themselves in elected office. While White male leaders like Newt Gingrich could have affairs and multiple divorces as they built successful careers and defended "family values" in the Capitol, conservative women had to actually embody the values.

Liz Cheney, mother of five, epitomized this very phenomenon. When challenging an incumbent Republican senator in a 2013 primary, Cheney drew headlines by saying she favored "traditional marriage," effectively invalidating her own sister's same-sex marriage. In contrast, her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, a conservative movement standard-bearer, had openly defied his party and president in 2004 by opposing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage (he came out in favor of LGBTQ marriage after leaving office). Liz Cheney put her conservative principles before her personal relationships, understanding that success in Republican politics required embracing the key issue positions that animated base voters.

Stefanik's rise shows that women have a different role to play in the GOP's new orthodoxy, revealing that the new generation of Republican women need not embrace and represent the White conservative "family values" once so central to the party. The Harvard graduate from Upstate New York spent her first several terms as a moderate, becoming a leader of center-right Tuesday Group, compiling one of the most moderate voting records in the House and supporting the Paris Climate Accords and LGBTQ rights. She chastised her own party for failing to adequately prioritize electing women and launched a PAC to help bolster Republican women.

But then her district, which President Barack Obama had captured twice, voted for Trump overwhelmingly in 2016 and 2020, and Stefanik read the shifting currents of Republican politics. Power, not ideology, mattered. She became a staunch defender of Trump during his first impeachment and after the election Stefanik supported unsubstantiated claims about 140,000 voting irregularities in the crucial Georgia election. Even after the insurrection on Jan. 6, she stood on the floor of the House that had just been attacked to broadcast her vote against the electoral college results.

Groups like the Club for Growth and conservative leaders like Family Research Council President Tony Perkins have opposed her rise in GOP leadership ranks because of this earlier moderate voting record. And now, Stefanik's likely victory is confirmation that Republican orthodoxy now means loyalty to Trumpism and the Big Lie rather than ideological conservatism.

But in another way, Stefanik represents continuity over change for the Republican Party. The United States has a dark history of voter suppression dating to the end of the Civil War, when White supremacists devised tactics, through laws and vigilante violence, to keep Black voters away from the polls. Republicans became the more racially conservative party beginning in the mid- to late 1960s, and in the past few decades, they have pushed new types of voter suppression measures.

Democrats have had an easy time exposing Donald Trump as the inheritor of this tradition, because of his age, masculine bravado and racist ramblings. But now Stefanik is adopting his mantle - but cloaking it in a smoother and more modern package. She is not the type to rail against immigrants on social media and it is hard to imagine her telling congresswomen of color to "go back where [they] came from." Yet, despite her track record of trying to diversify the party, she told the Washington Examiner's David Drucker that Trump was "right to focus on the election integrity and election security issues."

Notably Stefanik also praised the efforts of state-level Republicans who have ramped up efforts to make voting harder. In the Texas legislature, for example, Republicans are working on a sweeping measure to clamp down on early voting, limit hours that polling places are open and restrict votes by mail. Exposing the racism behind phrases like "election integrity" and "election security," Texas Republicans claimed to be working to uphold the sanctity of their state constitution, which contained several provisions designed to protect the "purity of the ballot."

Yet, these officials were forced to backtrack and delete provisions tied to this idea after being informed that protecting "the purity of the ballot" was actually a racist code designed to keep Black Texans from voting and leading to the creation of what became known as "White ballots."

Ironically, then, Stefanik's rise manages to mark the decline of conservatism's ideological grip on the GOP, while simultaneously marking the growing visibility of old-fashioned American racism and voter suppression. If anything, this may make the Republican brand of right-wing politics more popular, not less so, particularly among untraditional partisans who might not share the same visions of marriage and family life, but are united in mutual distrust of immigrants, urban voters, the CDC and liberal politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

Yet, far from being more liberal, their core ideology is still nativist and exclusionary. By circling the wagons around the Big Lie, the Republican leadership in Congress jeopardizes America's most basic institutions of democracy.

Michelle Nickerson is a Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in Germany. She is the author of "Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right."

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