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How North Country Republican Elise Stefanik peddles racist 'replacement theory' rhetoric

A photo showing a fence with a poster reading "But those who hope in the lord will raise wings like eagles" and paper wings on it, in front of Tops supermarket, which has a row of people wearing neon jackets standing outside.
Joshua Bessex
Associated Press
Investigators stand outside during a moment of silence for the victims of the Buffalo supermarket shooting outside the Tops Friendly Market on Saturday, May 21, 2022, in Buffalo, New York.

A false political talking-point with heavy, racist overtones known as "replacement theory" has migrated from the fringes of America's conspiracy community to mainstream officeholders, as well as aspiring ones.

Among those embracing the theory is the third-highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. House, New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik.

Stefanik has released political ads that falsely claimed Democrats are plotting “a permanent election insurrection by granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.”

VPR's listening audience includes many people within Stefanik's 21st District in New York state. And so, to find out more about how this is playing out in the region, VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell, whose reporting on this and other issues has been heard on NPR, as well as on NCPR. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So, you know, for those listeners not familiar with Elise Stefanik’s rise to prominence within the Republican Party, what can you tell us about her background and the district she represents?

Emily Russell: So, Stefanik has been in Congress since 2015. At that time, she was the youngest member of Congress elected. She was just 30 years old. And she was considered a moderate. You know, she took pride in being one of the most bipartisan members of Congress.

But all of that really changed when Donald Trump took office, particularly during his first impeachment. She was one of his fiercest supporters during that trial. Eventually, she embraced his election lies. She voted against certifying the 2020 election results. And all of that — her loyalty to Donald Trump — really helped propel her to become the third-ranking Republican in the House.

Yeah, in fact, GOP leadership replaced Trump critic Liz Cheney as the GOP Committee Chair. It should be noted, not many, but some in the GOP, including Cheney, say that ads Stefanik ran last year promote a racist anti-immigrant ideology known as “replacement theory.” And that theory was cited by the alleged shooter in the Buffalo shootings, that terrible attack that occurred in Buffalo a couple of weeks ago, in what investigators say is a racially-motivated attack that killed those 10 people.

Why did Stefanik’s political ads get closer scrutiny after that fatal mass shooting in Buffalo?

Yeah, so those were ads that she ran on Facebook last September. One of the ads appears to show a the border wall with Mexico. She says that Democrats, as you said in the intro, are planning a “permanent election insurrection,” suggesting a kind of violent revolt. And the ad says that the plan is to “overthrow our current electorate”.

And journalists from the New York Times in the last few weeks — and the Washington Post, and other national outlets — say that she's essentially echoing “replacement theory” in those ads. That false idea that there's some plot to outweigh white voters with the votes of non-white immigrants.

More from NPR: What is the 'great replacement' and how is it tied to the Buffalo shooting suspect?

Well, how has Stefanik responded to all this coverage and some of the criticism that she is stoking anti-immigrant fear for political gain?

We reached out to her, but her office declined an interview with NCPR. That's not uncommon for her. But one of her senior advisors sent us a statement and it said that Stefanik has “never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement.” And she defends her messaging in those ads by citing a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress. That report says that a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants is “the only way to maintain electoral strength in the future.”

Again, that was nearly a decade ago. And then when it comes to the Buffalo shooting, Stefanik has called it an act of evil. But, interestingly enough, in none of her responses — at least that I've seen on Twitter — does she mention racism behind the attack, you know, she leaves out that entire aspect of the mass shooting out of her statements.

And we should note too, that VPR has reached out to Stefanik’s offices regionally and in Washington. She has not agreed to our request for an interview, echoing what you were just saying.

But you did speak with someone, I understand Emily, from Stefanik’s district, a professor from a college in the Adirondacks who writes about white nationalism. What did he have to say about this?

Yeah, I spoke to Joe Henderson. He teaches at Paul Smith's College. And he told me that there are pockets of people here in the North Country that support racist ideologies. You know, if you drive around the North Country, you will see people flying Confederate flags. You'll see folks that have pro-militia bumper stickers. Henderson lives in Saranac Lake, it's a little mountain village in the middle of the park, and he says he sees that kind of stuff around town:

"I look around at some of the you know, punisher logos in my community and three-percenter flags that are flying around, and you know, there's clearly a taste for that in the area," he said. "And if you look at some of the maps of extremist groups, you know, there are white supremacist groups in the area, there are militia groups in the area."

So, like all House representatives, Elise Stefanik is facing reelection this fall. Is there any indication that this kind of rhetoric and her refusal to speak to reporters like yourself, asking about these things is going to cost her at all with the voters in the 21st District?

The short answer appears to be "no." As Henderson says, there are people here who buy into those racist ideologies that Stefanik appears to be echoing in some of her ads.

The AP put out a poll earlier this month, and it shows that about a third of Americans believe in the “replacement theory,” you know that there is a conspiracy to replace white voters with non-white immigrants.

So, Henderson says he really doesn't think she'll be swayed by any of the pushback, particularly from outside her district.

"I think the only thing that is going to have an effect on someone like Elise Stefanik, is if the voters of this district tire of it," he said. "You know, what is New York 21 going to do about this, about this kind of increasing radicalization of our representative?"

More from Brave Little State: Why Do Some Vermonters Display The Confederate Flag?

Well, Emily Russell, I have to ask, I mean, what's it like for you as a reporter trying to cover Elise Stefanik in her district when she won't get back to you on a lot of these things? You've talked in the field to North Country residents? How do they feel about her when you ask about it? And as you as a member of the media, asking them about these kinds of ads, what's the reaction you normally get?

Yeah, you know, there are pockets of really passionate Democrats and Progressives here that are outraged by what Stefanik says and does and has done over the years. But this district has gone for Trump in the last two elections, and since she was first elected to office, Stefanik has beat her Democratic opponent by a double-digit margin, a really big margin.

So, a lot of folks, they've stayed loyal to her, you know, from her more moderate start to where she is now as a seemingly unapologetic Trump loyalist.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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