Rep. Elise Stefanik‘s GOP colleagues are largely defending the New Yorker over an incendiary immigration ad that sparked Democratic charges she was nodding to a racist conspiracy theory.
Stefanik, the No. 3 House Republican leader, became the face of Democratic messaging after Saturday’s attack by a racist mass shooter in Buffalo, N.Y., as her opponents lined up to decry past ads she ran casting migrants as a force that would “overthrow our current electorate.” The shooter in a manifesto referenced the “great replacement theory,” which falsely asserts that the white population’s influence is being threatened by a flood of immigration. Republicans avowed zero connection between that racist ideology and the “election insurrection” of migrations that Stefanik’s ad warned of.
Some GOP lawmakers pointed to Stefanik’s work recruiting women and candidates of color as proof of her support for diversity. Others, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have dismissed the criticism as politically motivated.
“Elise has an extensive record,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a key voice in the party on immigration. “When things like that are said about Elise, it just falls flat on its face. It really does.”
Yet even as House Republicans publicly rallied behind Stefanik, who on Tuesday indirectly addressed some of the blowback she’s received, one of her colleagues openly cautioned her about using words that can be easily twisted. It was a warning that reflected a broader awareness within the conference about its messaging chief: She has bigger leadership aspirations and has moved rightward to help achieve them.
“She’s not racist, but you’ve got to be careful about your statements,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents a purple district. “I think you’ve got to … stay on message.”
Stefanik talked about the shooting that killed 10 people, a majority of them Black, calling it an act of “pure evil” at a press conference Tuesday marking the launch of the Hispanic Leadership Trust, a political action committee meant to bolster Latino candidates. And she nodded at the criticism against her specifically, arguing it was not the time to politicize events in the wake of the tragedy.
In digital ads last year, Stefanik claimed that “radical Democrats” were plotting a “permanent election insurrection” by seeking to “grant amnesty” to millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. The ads said Democrats were doing that in order to “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”
Democrats, and some Republicans, have also pointed to a tweet this week from Stefanik that reads, “Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote.”
Stefanik has denied that her remarks were racist.
“I’ve never made a racist comment, and I’m known nationally as expanding the Republican Party by supporting Black candidates and Hispanic candidates,” Stefanik said during a CNN interview on Monday.
“Any implication or attempt to blame the heinous shooting in Buffalo on the Congresswoman is a new disgusting low for the Left, their Never Trump allies, and the sycophant stenographers in the media,” said Alex deGrasse, senior adviser for Stefanik, in a statement. “Despite sickening and false reporting, Congresswoman Stefanik has never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement.”
Diaz-Balart noted that Democrats and other left-leaning groups have made similar remarks to Stefanik’s comments, including a 2013 Center for American Progress article that argued that a pathway to citizenship for the “nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants is the only way [for Democrats] to maintain electoral strength in the future.”
Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) predicted that the criticism would have next to no impact on Stefanik’s standing within the conference at a key moment for the ambitious 37-year-old, who is considered likely to try her hand at a party whip run if Republicans flip the House in November.
“It’s not only one of the most dishonest attacks I’ve ever seen … by the Democrats, it’s one of the stupidest attacks I’ve ever seen,” Palmer told POLITICO.
“Nobody in their right mind believes Elise Stefanik is a racist. That’s insulting to everybody’s intelligence,” Palmer added, characterizing the impact of the criticism within the House GOP conference as “none at all.”
But on the other side of the aisle, Democrats are lampooning Stefanik, using her comments and others to argue that Republicans are comfortable embracing extremist ideologies.
“House Republicans are fanning the flames of hatred and embracing a racist conspiracy theory put forth by a white supremacist,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday. “We’re still waiting for a single House Republican leader to denounce ‘replacement theory.’”
Others sought to link her rhetoric directly to the violence.
“The Republican conference chair is running ads, pushing this theory,“ said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). “Not only is this kind of rhetoric false, it’s beneath the dignity of our offices and getting people killed. But this broken ideology is animating today’s Republican Party.”
The attacks against Stefanik in the wake of the shooting didn’t originate with Democrats — it was a couple of her GOP colleagues who struck first.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) first criticized Stefanik and other Republicans over the weekend saying the No. 3 House Republican “pushes ‘white replacement theory.’” He added in a subsequent tweet that GOP lawmakers should replace a number of their own members, including Stefanik, because “the replacement theory they are pushing/tolerating is getting people killed.”
But Kinzinger and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — outcasts in their own conference — may be the only voices criticizing Stefanik. Others felt it was an effort by Democrats to cast blame on Republicans as a way of distracting from their own woes, such as inflation, formula shortages, the border and more.
“Really? Does anybody believe that Elise is problematic? C’mon. C’mon. … It just doesn’t pass the straight-face test. These are issues that the Democrats are trying to push out there,” Diaz-Balart said.
And Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who acknowledged that he wasn’t tracking Stefanik’s rhetoric or the Democratic criticism, accused Democrats of mounting a “pathetic and exaggerated response … about everything to change the subject from their own failures.”
“That’s just another stretch from the Democrats,” Banks said, pointing to the border as a prime example for why “voters are going to throw Democrats out of power come November.”
Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.
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