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Well wishes, concerns over Stefanik’s rise in GOP ranks

Be careful what you wish for. That’s the main thing we want to say to our North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who is emerging as the likely candidate to replace Rep. Liz Cheney as the House Republican conference chair.

We congratulate her. She is smart and has worked hard, and this is a position of great national responsibility and influence. She would be the first congressional party leader from the North Country since the 1930s, when Rep. Bertrand Snell of Potsdam led the Republican House minority in resisting Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. This could also be a step toward more influential positions, especially if Stefanik is still in leadership whenever the Republicans regain the House majority.

Our congratulations, however, come with a great deal of concern.

The only reason Republicans are turning on Cheney is that she insists on telling the truth that last year’s election was real — that Democrat Joe Biden won. Many Republicans still comfort themselves with the lie former President Donald Trump keeps repeating, even now: that he actually won but Democrats cheated. We think most Republican politicians, including Stefanik, know the truth but cater to the lie to appease their constituents. And that is appalling.

Therefore, the whole reason for Stefanik’s ascent is that she, like much of her party, is rejecting Cheney’s voice of honesty and fair play. We cannot cheer for that. We wish no one did.

Cheney emerged as a Trump critic after he egged on the Capitol riot Jan. 6. When Congress reemerged that night, some Republicans repudiated Trump and the mob for staining our democracy, but Stefanik, while she denounced the violence, stuck with Trump’s lie and voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s election results. She had planned to vote against three other states’ results but didn’t get the chance.

The riot earned Trump his second impeachment in the House, which Cheney voted for and Stefanik voted against. (As with the first impeachment, the Senate acquitted the president.) Cheney survived a vote of confidence shortly after that, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy supporting a “big tent” approach to the party. Now, however, McCarthy is joining others in pulling the tent poles in.

That is because Cheney spoke up for the truth this week after Trump reiterated that the election was “fraudulent” and tried to commandeer the phrase “the Big Lie,” which has come to mean his false claim that the election was stolen from him. Trump tried to call Biden’s victory “the Big Lie” — lying about the lie, as serious liars do. Cheney wasn’t having it.

“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen,” she tweeted Monday, May 3. “Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”

Election challenges have their place, and Trump’s claims had their chance. They were heard in dozens of courts — many by judges Trump appointed — but every one was thrown out for lack of credible evidence. Furthermore, election results were certified by local election officials and state legislatures all across the nation, many of them Republican. Trump’s own attorney general and cybersecurity agency insisted the election result was legitimate.

No election is perfect. A few bad ballots get through, and a few are mishandled. We saw that In New York’s 22nd Congressional District, but we also saw that the numbers of erroneous ballots were too small to make a difference in any but the closest of races — as that one was. The states where Trump objected were close, but not that close.

In a sports game, it’s one thing to challenge the referee’s calls, but if you refuse to accept the outcome, you break the game, ruining it for everyone. Better to accept that you don’t win every match and work hard to win next time — and always play with integrity so you are respected on the field.

Trump is not only a sore loser; he and his followers are now trying to break the game by, in Cheney’s words, “turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.” Our election system relies on people agreeing on the reality of vote counts, following rules both parties have supported for generations, and accepting the outcome. The Capitol riot was perpetrated by right-wingers refusing to accept the outcome. If Republicans keep following Trump down the path of “alternate facts,” we will get worse than the Capitol riot.

Breaking the game can hurt Republicans just as much as it can hurt Democrats, in ways we cannot predict. What goes around comes around.

Cheney is right, but we understand that her steely resistance to many in her party does not make her the ideal leader. Her adherence to truth over Trump is, sadly, a minority within today’s GOP. There is still room for her within the tent — we hope — but maybe holding a side pole rather than the center pole.

Stefanik is very much at the center of today’s Republican Party. She is also a prodigious fundraiser, and she campaigns for her fellow Republicans, especially women. She is young but experienced, in her fourth term. And she plays the game well. It’s easy to see why she might get a leadership position.

We accept that reality. She will continue to push Republican policies, of course, but if she takes on this new position she will have a choice in terms of tone and method. Others will call on her to support more dishonest things. Will she continue to tolerate dishonesty and follow a dishonest man, or will she lead honestly, charting a better path? Either way, there will be a cost to pay. Which cost squares with her conscience?

Going forward, we hope she follows a mission of doing good for all Americans, not just her fellow Republicans, that she stands up for truth and fairness, and that she works to build bridges and counter the bitter politics that have torn our country apart. That will require a change of heart, but how good would the alternative be for her, really? Party leadership may not be so enjoyable in the current environment. Be careful what you wish for.