Congress' newest class set to take their seats

U.S. Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., in Ballston Spa.

ALBANY — Vice President Elise Stefanik?

Speculation that Rep. Stefanik, R-North Country, could end up as President Donald Trump's running mate this year — and thus become the nation's first female vice president — set New York's political world abuzz Monday after it became the centerpiece for an article carried on Forbes' magazine web site.

Stefanik, 36, had a prominent role at Trump's weekend rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump has also showered her with praise on several occasions and regularly retweets her Twitter posts, since she aggressively defended him during the congressional impeachment proceeding.

The scenario of catapulting Stefanik onto the Trump ticket assumes the White House incumbent is willing to drop Vice President Mike Pence as his running mate and a willingness on the congresswoman's part to abandon her quest for a fourth term in Congress.

Interviews with veteran New York political observers suggests the idea of a Trump/Stefanik ticket is based on circumstantial tea leaves as opposed to hard evidence. Still, it's a concept that has appeal to some.

"Elise Stefanik really is brilliant," said Lynn Krogh of Cooperstown, a veteran GOP campaign strategist who served in the cabinet of former New York Gov. George Pataki.

With mounting indications the presumed Democratic presidential nominee will be a woman, Krogh said it would be "a really smart choice" for Republicans to have Stefanik on the national ticket. "She is not an up-and-coming star," she said. "She is a rock star today."

But while Trump may find temptation in recruiting a woman for a top role in his campaign, he would be more apt to select Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, said political strategist George Arzt, a strategist who has advised numerous state and national candidates. Haley, 48, was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for the first 23 months of the Trump administration.

Arzt said Haley "would have far greater appeal" to the national electorate and would be an "ideal" running mate should Trump decide to part company with Pence and offer a ticket with gender balance.

Stefanik is now facing a rematch with her Democratic opponent from two years ago, Tedra Cobb. Both women have sought to capitalize on Stefanik's visibility during the impeachment inquiry, with Cobb making a play for donations from anti-Trump voters while the incumbent has benefited from Trump's base.

Stefanik's office dismissed the VP rumors stirred by the Forbes report. The congresswoman, said spokeswoman Madison Anderson, is seeking re-election and is "proud to strongly support and act as a surrogate for the Trump-Pence ticket."

State University at Plattsburgh political science professor Harvey Schantz said it would be unusual for a sitting president to bring on a new running mate. The last time it happened was 1976, when then President Gerald Ford replaced Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a former 14-year governor of New York, with Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. Ford would go on to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter that November.

On the Democratic side in 1944, party leaders concerned with the poor health of President Franklin D. Roosevelt replaced Vice President Henry Wallace on the ticket with Sen. Harry Truman of Missouri, Schantz said. Roosevelt died in 1945, with Truman ascending to the Oval Office.

Said Schantz: "There is no doubt Trump is very aware of Congresswoman Stefanik and how she defended him. To think she is going to be picked for VP is flattering. But I think it's idle speculation."

In recent weeks, Stefanik has raised her profile across New York, criticizing the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo in managing the coronavirus crisis at state-regulated nursing homes, where more than 6,000 residents have died over the past three months from the COVID-19 contagion. Cuomo, a Democrat, contends such criticism is politically motivated.

Polls released last Thursday by both Fox News and Quinnipiac College showed Biden running ahead of Trump, carrying leads of 12 and 8 points, in those respective snapshots of voter sentiment.

The fact that Stefanik is on an "upward trajectory," while being relatively young and female could make her an "extremely attractive" to Republicans considering a new approach in the 2020 election cycle, said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.

At the same time, Reeher cautioned, "it's far from certain Pence is going to get dumped."

Having Pence on the ticket, he noted, has fortified Trump with the religious right. It's also possible that Trump could offset the argument for keeping Pence if he can make the case to his supporters that having a young woman on the ticket will ultimately benefit the party's chances of keeping the White House.

In Stefanik, "Republicans have the heroine of the party's response to the impeachment effort," Reeher said.

  

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

Recommended for you