Rep. Elise Stefanik speaks to reporters after a caucus meeting where she was elected chair of the House Republican Conference in the US Capitol Visitors Center on May 14, 2021, in Washington.
CNN  — 

Rep. Elise Stefanik has spoken to former President Donald Trump about another leadership bid. She’s built a powerful fundraising machine and is creating a new app for the House Republican conference. And the New York Republican is sizing up the political ambitions of her colleagues as she weighs decisions about her future.

After initially vowing to seek a committee gavel next year instead of pursuing another term as GOP conference chairwoman, Stefanik has spent the past few months quietly laying the groundwork to remain in a leadership role after the midterm elections, according to interviews with over a dozen GOP lawmakers and aides. But the ambitious congresswoman is keeping her options open, and her next moves may ultimately depend on what the landscape looks like post-November.

One post that the 37-year-old has her eyes on if Republicans retake the House is GOP whip. That would likely be an open – and crowded – race if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy becomes speaker and Minority Whip Steve Scalise ascends to majority leader.

“She’s done a good job, and she’s got a future. So, we’ll see what she wants to do,” said Rep. Roger Williams, a Texas Republican. But he added: “It all depends on what she decides. We’ve got a lot of people who are going to be tracking a lot of areas. She, along with many others, will be competitive.”

Whatever Stefanik decides, she has been working to ensure that she has a powerful ally in her corner: Trump.

Stefanik speaks to reporters after House Republicans voted for her as their conference chairperson at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on May 14, 2021.

Stefanik has remained in close contact with the former President, who helped recruit her to run for conference chairwoman after her predecessor, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Stefanik held a fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in December and they speak often by phone, according to a person close to Trump.

Stefanik has also recently spoken with Trump about her political aspirations and next moves, according to three sources familiar with the conversation, who said the former President has said encouraging things to her. The desire to have his blessing is hardly surprising, given that Trump backed her initial bid to become the House GOP’s chief messenger, but nonetheless shows that Stefanik views his continued support as essential for her future in the party.

For her part, Stefanik dismissed the idea she has been positioning herself for any sort of leadership post next year, telling CNN she is solely focused on her job as conference chair, as well as helping the GOP win back a congressional majority this fall.

“I’m not focused on it,” Stefanik said. “I’m focused on serving as the best conference chair. And the proof is in the polling: we’ve never been in a stronger position on every issue that’s important to Americans.”

She also said in a separate statement that she supports McCarthy for speaker and Scalise for majority leader, tamping down any speculation she’d be gunning for anything higher than the No. 3 position in a GOP-led House. McCarthy and Stefanik have enjoyed a strong and close working relationship, while Stefanik noted she’s served on Scalise’s whip team since her first term in office. And the entire leadership has been working as a cohesive unit since Stefanik came on board.

“No one has worked harder than Kevin McCarthy – not just this cycle, but for decades,” she said in the statement. “I am proud to support him and be an integral part of his team working to earn a historic Republican Majority to save America and elect Speaker McCarthy next January.”

Still, it’s clear the moderate-turned-MAGA star aspires to move beyond her current role inside the House GOP – and she’s betting her Trump bona fides will help get her there.

“There’s been lots of rumblings in the last two weeks that she’s got her sights on a higher position,” said one GOP lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak more freely about sensitive internal dynamics. “I have no doubt that that’s what she wants to do.”

The early leadership jockeying – not just from Stefanik, but from multiple Republicans across the conference in recent weeks – comes as lawmakers will descend on Jacksonville, Florida, this Wednesday for their annual policy retreat, which is being organized by Stefanik.

Last year’s gathering was overshadowed by internal leadership drama, with Republicans incensed that Cheney publicly broke with McCarthy over a bipartisan January 6 commission and refused to rule out a 2024 presidential bid, leading the House GOP to ultimately replace her with Stefanik as the No. 3 House Republican.

This time around, though, leaders are determined to keep the retreat focused on policy matters. When pressed by a reporter last week about the upcoming gathering and how it would compare to last year’s intra-party feud, McCarthy responded: “Won’t see any fallout.”

But the prospect of a looming leadership shuffle may be impossible to ignore, with Republicans excited about their chances of winning back the majority and many GOP lawmakers beginning to privately whisper about what that might look like.

Signs of higher ambitions for Stefanik

There’s been a lot of internal interest surrounding Stefanik’s next moves, in part because she remains more of a mystery than McCarthy or Scalise and previously promised to limit her term as conference chair. Her maneuvering could also have down-ballot implications in the November leadership elections.

“She’s a great friend, but she holds her cards close to the vest,” said a second GOP lawmaker.

When Stefanik was making her bid for conference chair last year, some conservatives were skeptical of her more moderate voting record, as well as how quickly McCarthy was working to install her in Cheney’s place. To quell some of those concerns, GOP lawmakers said Stefanik told them she would only serve one term as conference chairwoman and then intended to seek the top spot on the House Education and Labor Committee.

But the panel’s current ranking member, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, has been seeking a waiver to remain in that role next year, which could change Stefanik’s calculus. She also never ruled out running for a different leadership title. And it wouldn’t be unprecedented for a member to violate their self-imposed term limits.

Multiple Republicans say Stefanik is now looking at the whip position. She has inquired about whether another lawmaker plans to run for that post in the majority, according to one source familiar with the conversation, in an effort to size up the potential competition. That interaction and Stefanik’s interest in the whip job was first reported by Politico.

Stefanik attends a press briefing following a House Republican conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol on June 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.

But that could be a crowded race, as several other lawmakers have signaled they’re planning to run for the potential spot and have started to court support from their colleagues. Among the other names in the whip mix: Reps. Drew Ferguson of Georgia, the deputy whip; Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm; and Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Financial Services Committee.

“Well, that can be very wide open. Obviously, we’ve got our deputy whip. McHenry was whip effectively for a while,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who serves on McCarthy’s leadership team, referring to when McHenry filled in for Scalise after he was shot at a GOP baseball practice. “And Emmer is going to do very well.”

Cole predicted Stefanik could still remain as the House GOP’s top messenger or seek the House Education and Labor Committee gavel. He also pointed out that GOP leaders have the option of resurrecting another position – chair of the Elected Leadership Committee – which would create another opportunity for a seat at the leadership table. Privately, Republicans acknowledged they need a woman in the top rungs of leadership.

“Elise has been an outstanding conference chair. … But I also know she’s like a real live legislator,” Cole said. “So, I don’t know which she will choose to do.”

Stefanik and her team have also poured a lot of time and resources into building an app for the Republican conference, which sources say will serve as an internal messaging tool but could also have some public-facing components and is expected to be rolled out sometime this year. Some lawmakers see this effort as another sign she’s not planning on abandoning her leadership perch in the majority.

A third lawmaker added: “I know she’s looking at whip, but she hasn’t ruled out staying where she is, either.”

‘Which Elise is the real Elise?’

Stefanik has earned chits with her colleagues by building a sizable war chest, including announcing a recent $1 million transfer to the House GOP’s campaign committee, and by working to elect more Republican women through her Elevate PAC.

She has also worked to win over some of her doubters on the right with her combative social media accounts, where she frequently attacks Democrats and the media, and a voting record that is more in line with the Republican conference.

Months before she became conference chairwoman, Stefanik voted against the Equality Act, which intends to protect people from being discriminated against based on sexual orientation and gender identity, despite supporting the bill in 2019. And she even outflanked McCarthy and Scalise on one occasion: last summer, Stefanik voted against a measure to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol.

“I think Elise has worked hard to include people from across the conference,” said conservative Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who unsuccessfully challenged Stefanik for conference chair. “I don’t always 100% agree with what leadership does or doesn’t do but … in my view, she’s been honoring her commitment to run the conference as conference chair, and kind of check her votes. She’s talked a lot about the border and other stuff. So, we’ll see.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik walks to an office being used by President Donald Trump's defense team off the Senate floor during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol on January 23, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Stefanik’s allies point out her district in New York has become redder, which might explain the shift in her voting record. She also promised to toe the party line whenever leadership is whipping a piece of legislation.

Still, even some of Stefanik’s supporters acknowledge she could face nagging questions – and doubts – about her political identity. Stefanik came up in GOP politics through the establishment, working as a White House aide for former President George W. Bush and then as a staffer for former Speaker Paul Ryan’s vice presidential campaign. Also potentially problematic for Stefanik, especially if she is vying for whip: her 2017 vote against the GOP tax law, Trump’s signature legislative achievement.

“She’s very ambitious. And I’ve worked with Elise, and she surprised me, to be honest. I was not supportive of her as conference chair because of her voting record. But she’s done like a 180,” said a fourth GOP lawmaker.

But they added: “There’s a lot of lingering doubt amongst conservatives: Which Elise is the real Elise? That’s always gonna haunt her.”

The Trump factor

One factor that helped Stefanik appease her conservative critics the last time she launched a leadership bid was her support from Trump, which could again come in handy if she pursues a higher-ranking leadership role inside the GOP conference.

From her high-profile perch on the House Intelligence Committee, Stefanik became a fan favorite of the former President’s and some of his top allies by vigorously defending Trump during his first impeachment. She has also passed another key litmus test in the eyes of Trump: Stefanik objected to the certification of the 2020 election. (Emmer and McHenry, who are both said to be interested in the whip position, did not).

To keep Trump in her good graces, Stefanik has trekked to his properties at least twice in the past eight months: once for a fundraiser at his Bedminster, New Jersey, resort and then again this winter for another fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago.

Stefanik stands as she's acknowledged by U.S. President Donald Trump as he speaks one day after the U.S. Senate acquitted on two articles of impeachment, in the East Room of the White House February 6, 2020 in Washington, DC.

A person close to Trump said he has an “affinity for her” and “they get along” well, though he has relationships with all the top members of the Republican leadership team. The entire GOP leadership will appear alongside Trump in May for a Texas fundraiser.

Trump has not yet publicly endorsed a candidate for speaker if Republicans do win back the House in November. The person close to him said that he will likely wait to do so until closer to the midterm contest or once the outcome has become apparent. It’s also unclear if he would back anyone for a lower-ranking leadership position, especially if they are contested races.

“Trump likes (Stefanik), but he likes Kevin too,” a Trump adviser said. “At the end of the day, I think he will back McCarthy (for speaker). If he wasn’t going to back him, he would have thrown him under the bus already. That being said, he’s going to wait until the very end to officially back McCarthy.”