There was a time when Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, one of those unusually young and politically precocious lawmakers party elders see as future leaders, was considered too liberal on immigration policy—a subject that gets the activist base of the GOP energized like nothing else.
You wouldn’t know it by the argument Stefanik, now the House Republican Conference chairwoman, after replacing the apostate Liz Cheney, has been pushing in friendlier corners of the internet. On ads on Facebook, Stefanik is arguing that President Biden and “radical Democrats” are preparing a “Permanent Election Insurrection.”
“Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington,” a version of the ad went on to say.
Warnings about a liberal-fueled undocumented immigration menace is nothing new among Republican politicians looking to rally conservative activists. What is new, though, is Stefanik’s use of the phrase “election insurrection,” a clear attempt to counter criticism lobbed at Republican politicians who tried to block certifying the 2020 election results (Stefanik voted against certifying them).
The ad caught the attention of The Washington Post, which noted that it “echoes that of far-right commentators, including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who have advanced a ‘replacement theory’ that says liberals are seeking to replace white citizens with non-white immigrants who are inclined to support the Democratic Party.”
Stefanik also received blowback in the local press back home in New York. Undeterred, Stefanik’s campaign committee ran similar ads on Parler, the social media site that caters to far-right conservatives as an alternative to Twitter. One read:
This week I was viciously attacked by the DNC and the Washington Post for stating an obvious truth: Mass Amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants is a Permanent Election Insurrection to secure permanent Democratic control in Washington.
That’s exactly what Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and the Squad are determined to do.
The fundraising pitch goes on for eight more paragraphs in the same Trumpian tone (and with similar grammar and oddly capitalized words).
The ads are the latest example of the shift Stefanik has undergone as she’s ascended through the ranks of Republican politics, transforming herself from a comparative moderate, who criticized Donald Trump in 2016, to a Trump sycophant who says things like, “[Trump] is an important voice in the Republican Party” and that “voters determine the leader of the Republican Party, and President Trump is the leader that they look to.”
Her fundraising emails have the same sentiment.
“I’m building the grassroots war chest with President Trump to fund America First conservatives on the front lines to flip Congress and Save America from the dangerous Far-Left,” Stefanik wrote, in bold, in the Parler fundraising email.
It seems pretty clear what’s motivating this letter. Numbers USA, a conservative anti-immigration group, gives her a D– rating for the current Congress and a C– rating for her career (grades that Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, is generally unfamiliar with). During the election to replace Cheney in House Republican leadership, multiple conservative groups also expressed concern over the New York congresswoman’s record on immigration.
“She ties with a couple other Republicans for the worst career voting record on immigration in New York,” Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, another anti-immigration group, said to Politico.
The party has generally followed Donald Trump’s lead in moving to the right on immigration, warning of the perils of amnesty of any type. For an ambitious politician like Stefanik, if she wants to continue to rise within Republican politics, she’s going to have to prove some hard-line immigration tendencies. And indeed, Stefanik worked to tack right on immigration throughout Trump’s presidency.
In 2018, the New York congresswoman trumpeted supporting an immigration compromise bill that, in her office’s words, “would protect the [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] eligible population, prevent family separation at our border, and provide funding for border security.” Family separation, in particular, is something that Trump’s most anti-immigration backers (like Stephen Miller) embraced.
But Stefanik also voted for another bill that would have offered a “path to legal status for undocumented farmworkers,” just as long as they were “certified agricultural workers”—not exactly a pathway to citizenship for all the immigrants living in the United States while undocumented but not quite the total ban on all immigration that hard-line conservatives are increasingly pushing. Years before that, in 2016, when top Republicans were still trying to show interest in some kind of broad immigration compromise with Democrats, Stefanik co-authored a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and then–House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte stressing caution against excessive anti-immigration measures.
“Our farmers and ranchers must have access to a legal and reliable workforce in order to provide the world with a safe and abundant supply of food,” the Republicans wrote in the letter. “It is imperative that any effort to implement mandatory E-Verify be coupled with a solution to agriculture’s unique labor needs. Failure to couple these reforms together would create an unworkable situation for American agriculture.”
In response to a question from The New Republic about whether the congresswoman really thought “amnesty” equaled an insurrection like the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol, Stefanik’s spokesperson, for some reason, sent back a statement arguing against comparisons to “white supremacy.”
“Here are the facts: Republicans support legal immigration and oppose mass amnesty for illegal immigrants. Democrats support mass amnesty for at least 11 million illegal immigrants as well as dangerous legislation that would weaken election security, ban voter ID, and prevent states from properly auditing their voter rolls,” Stefanik spokeswoman Palmer Brigham wrote in the email. “This would disenfranchise the votes of legal American citizens. To equate the Republicans’ long-held policy position to white supremacy is outrageous and shows how desperate the Far Left is heading into the midterms, because they know that the Border Crisis rests solely at the feet of Joe Biden and Democrats.”
Over the years, and as she’s become more prominent in Republican political circles, Stefanik has shifted on immigration. Her new ads broadcast a less tolerant view of immigration of any type. But that’s somewhat par for the course for New York politicians who shift positions as they ascend to higher posts. What’s less normal is Stefanik’s clear efforts to equate her party’s moves to undermine the 2020 election results or their part in egging on activists to break into the Capitol with Democrats’ more liberal views on immigrants. Those are not remotely similar, but Republican messengers have been searching for some kind of response to criticism about how GOP lawmakers handled the last few months of Trump’s presidency. Cheney was pushed out of her role as the chief messenger for House Republicans over that. Clearly Stefanik, as Cheney’s replacement, is willing to test-drive any kind of argument to retain her upward trajectory.