Rising Republican star Elise Stefanik is a big booster of Trump - but Canada, too
New York GOP congresswoman elected conference chair, No. 3 leadership job in U.S. House
Rising Republican star Elise Stefanik, whose support for former U.S. president Donald Trump has vaulted her into a key party leadership role, has also been active in boosting U.S.-Canada relations.
Some political observers say her new role as the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives could be a boon to that relationship, by bringing more focus on bilateral issues.
"She's probably the person in the Republican House leadership who is the most Canada-savvy," said Chris Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the D.C.-based Wilson Center. "So I think it's a good thing that she is trying to make sure that [even though] she's a Trump supporter, she's not doing that at the expense of good U.S.-Canada relations."
The New York congresswoman, whose district borders Canada, has been a strong advocate for free trade, an opponent of tariffs and has fought to ease border restrictions, positions that ironically have put her at odds with the former president.
"Canada continues to be our strongest economic ally, and we must actively work to maintain our partnership with them so that it is productive and beneficial for both countries," Stefanik said in 2019, when she became co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, a bipartisan group of House members who focus on policies central to the U.S.-Canada partnership.
While her profile could rise even more if the Republicans retake control of the House in the 2022 midterms, just having someone who "knows something serious about Canada, the importance of trade moving in ... having [her] at the senior level of the party is really a good thing," Sands said.
David MacNaughton, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. from 2016 to 2019, agreed that it's to Canada's advantage to have someone acutely aware of the country in that leadership position.
"Who knows what's going to happen in the future. She's young enough. She could be around for a while," he said.
Has defended Trudeau
Last week, Stefanik was elected conference chair, a job that had belonged to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Republicans tossed Cheney from that post for continually calling out Trump for helping spur the violent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and pushing false claims that voting fraud had caused his re-election defeat last November.
Stefanik has stood by some of Trump's unfounded claims about widespread election cheating. Hours after the Capitol attack, she voted against formally approving Pennsylvania's state-certified electoral votes for Joe Biden.
But Stefanik has been at odds with the former president on issues of trade and tariffs, particularly when it comes to Canada.
In a 2018 interview with North Country Public Radio, Stefanik said she had been "concerned with [Trump's] rhetoric" about trade and threats of tariffs, and that it wasn't "strong economic policy to enter into a trade war with an important ally and economic partner like Canada."
She stressed the importance of strengthening the U.S. trading relationship with Canada and increasing its ability to export U.S. products to Canada.
Stefanik also defended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from Trump's tweeted barbs. The former president had referred to Trudeau as "weak" and "very dishonest."
"This is an example of where I've not supported the president's rhetoric," she told NCPR.
Meanwhile, this January, Stefanik and Brian Higgins, the Democratic co-chair of the caucus, wrote an open letter in a bipartisan push to get the new Biden administration to immediately prioritize reopening the northern border after it was shut due to COVID-19 restrictions.
MacNaughton said that in his dealings with Stefanik, he found her to be "very practical and very focused."
"I knew that she was ambitious and she was an up-and-comer. And all I can say is that I didn't really at that time see her as being somebody who was particularly close to Trump."
Sands, who also worked with Stefanik, said he believes the voters in her district, even the ones that love Trump, "would say, 'Well, but wait a minute, Canada-U.S. relations is pretty important.'"
Sands gives her credit for staying focused on devising a plan "so people can predict when they can go visit their relatives, family, across the border."
Liberal MP Wayne Easter, co-chair of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Association, said that given Stefanik's new chair role, "we need to step up our connections with her."
Easter said that as conference chair, she can bring prominence to issues such as U.S. energy dependence on Canada, and point out how much hydro electricity comes from Canada.
"To even mention those things as chair at least puts it in people's minds. It gives them some thoughts ... that this is a very important neighbour up there, up north."
Reopening border a key theme
Kathryn Friedman, an associate professor of law and planning at the University at Buffalo and an expert in Canada-U.S. relations, said Stefanik's "support of the Canada-U.S. relationship and getting the border opened as quickly and as efficiently as possible will continue to be a main theme of hers, just because of the constituents that she represents."
Friedman was unsure what impact Stefanik's loyalty to Trump will have on those files. Progress will ultimately come down to how well she can work with the Biden administration and her Democratic colleagues on these issues, she said.
Friedman said the tone and tenor of Stefanik's stance on the 2020 election could be a detriment.
"I have to believe, because she is such a strong supporter of the former president, that people, maybe Democrats in particular, may be less inclined" to work with her.
With files from The Associated Press