WASHINGTON – Rep. Liz Cheney, the House Republican Conference chair from Wyoming, is in hot water with her party. Her refusal to accept former President Donald Trump’s false claims the 2020 election was stolen is angering her Republican colleagues and putting her leadership role at risk.
Major party leaders are dissatisfied with her. Trump and No. 2 House Republican Rep. Steve Scalise want her replaced with Rep. Elise Stefanik, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said House Republicans told him they’re worried about her “ability to carry out the job.”
If Cheney loses her position as the third-ranking House Republican, it would cause more than just a major shakeup in GOP congressional leadership – it would further signal the party’s interest in keeping Trump and his wing of the GOP front and center as they try to flip Democratic control of Congress and push against President Joe Biden.
Cheney herself cast it in more stark terms, writing a blistering Washington Post editorial Wednesday in which she framed the Republican Party as “at a turning point” in whether it will choose “truth and fidelity to the Constitution” or the “cult of personality” of Trump.
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The Republican caucus was expected to meet Wednesday behind closed doors, though Scalise spokeswoman Lauren Fine said no formal vote or discussion on Cheney’s future has been announced.
But the wave of criticism has drawn out support for Stefanik, a pro-Trump Republican who gained wide recognition over her staunch support of the former president during his first impeachment.
On Wednesday, Scalise became the first in Republican leadership to publicly call for Cheney’s removal and endorse Stefanik to replace her. Trump endorsed Stefanik as well in a statement Wednesday.
Cheney has repeatedly said the Republican Party needs to move on from its association with Trump, but the pushback she faces means the party isn’t ready to do that, said Bryan Gervais, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of “Reactionary Republicanism: How the Tea Party in the House Paved the Way for Trump’s Victory.” The pressure to replace Cheney is some of the strongest evidence yet of Trump’s hold on congressional Republicans, he said.
“I was always skeptical that the party would quickly try to break away from Trump and his image, and this is sort of what we’re seeing right now,” Gervais said. “For the time being, it’s still Trump’s party, and Republican elites have made the call that sticking close to Trump is the best bet for retaking Congress.”
Cheney is one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted to impeach Trump the second time after he was accused of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Since then, she has repeatedly pushed back on “the big lie” that widespread election fraud was the cause of Trump’s election loss.
“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system,” Cheney tweeted this week in response to a Trump statement in which he again said the election was “fraudulent.”
Election integrity is now a “cover for the ‘stop the steal’ movement” that Republicans will look to as a midterm election issue, according to former Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., chief strategist for the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks and exposes misinformation on social media.
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The 2022 midterms are expected to be a massive test of whether Trump’s sway translates to electoral wins. Democrats hold just slight advantages in the House and Senate, and Republicans are pushing to win them back to counter Biden’s agenda.
Riggleman said Republican leaders have solidified their 2022 messaging, and it will likely align with Trump’s main messages: election integrity, Second Amendment preservation “and some sort of anti-everything the Democrats are doing.”
“The Trump part of the party believes that the fundraising is much more effective by supporting Trump than not … that culture wars are much more effective for the Republican base than actual policy discussions,” Riggleman said.
Cheney in her editorial pointed out Trump’s influence on those seeking reelection.
“While embracing or ignoring Trump’s statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country,” she wrote.
Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has long resisted calls to resign from colleagues such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who has remained in Trump’s corner and rallied against Cheney in Wyoming. After the impeachment vote and being censured by her state’s party, Cheney said she was not going anywhere.
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In February, Cheney survived an attempt to strip her of her leadership title and was backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said three months ago that she was an “important leader” and had the “courage” to act on her convictions. McConnell dodged questions about Cheney on Wednesday.
But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has taken a different approach. This week he said on Fox News that there were concerns from Republican lawmakers about Cheney’s ability to do her job, and he was caught on a hot mic saying he’s “had it” with Cheney, according to Axios and CNN.
Gervais said McCarthy recognizes that pushing Cheney out and sticking with the Trump faction of the party is necessary to stay in power.
“He has a survival instinct that hits all the right buttons,” Gervais said. “He’s long had the instinct to foster and cater to the more reactionary and extreme elements in his caucus while still maintaining an image that he is not a full-fledged member of that faction.”
Democrats have praised Cheney and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, another of Trump’s detractors, for calling out election fraud claims pushed by Trump and his supporters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office said McCarthy is “punishing members who tell the truth” and “rewarding members who spread the big lie.”
Biden acknowledged the rift among Republicans on Wednesday, saying “I don’t understand the Republicans” when asked about the effort to oust Cheney.
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“They’re in the midst of a significant, sort of mini-revolution going on,” he said. “I’ve been a Democrat for a long time. We’ve gone through periods where we’ve had internal fights and disagreements. I don’t remember any like this.”
Cheney also got flak from Republicans over her friendly fist-bump greeting to Biden during his first address to a joint session of Congress last week. She said that while she does not support the Biden administration’s policies, “we’re not sworn enemies.”
She has doubled down on her opposition to “the big lie” in recent days even as top Republicans have continued to abandon their support for her.
“I think Liz is probably in very good spirits right now. … This is a long-term struggle to bring rationality and facts back to the party,” Riggleman said. “People like myself and others don’t look at this as a career, we look at this as service, and we’re not willing to do anything to get elected.”