WASHINGTON – Donald Trump and his allies lost the first battle for post-election control of the Republican Party Wednesday night – but not without a fight, making clear that the political war within the GOP is nowhere near over.
House Republicans voted Wednesday to keep Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in her leadership position despite her January impeachment vote against the now-former president. The secret-ballot vote was overwhelmingly in Cheney’s favor, 145-61.
Nevertheless, Trump’s backers have vowed to defeat Cheney and other Republicans who voted for his impeachment in their future political races.
Others said the contentious House Republican meeting showed how much the party remains in thrall to Trump, despite his election defeat and his impeachment for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by extremist supporters.
Republican strategist Liz Mair said Cheney’s survival as House leader is “a defeat for the Trumpers,” but the former president and his supporters will continue to put pressure on GOP lawmakers and candidates.
“A lot of these people are very scared of Trump and his backers and fear can often wind up dominating,” she said.
While voting on the demotion of Cheney, the party’s highest-ranking female member, House Republicans did not even consider punishment for far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist whose social media posts have expressed support for violence against political opponents.
The furious intra-party feud will only continue as the Senate opens the second impeachment trial of Trump next week and politicians in both parties gear up for 2022 congressional elections.
Cheney’s victory, Mair said, “should be seen as a sign that the GOP is already moving on from Trump, and that’s a journey that electoral results suggest Republicans would be smart to continue.”
Trump-supporting Republicans had hoped to make an example of Cheney, who will instead remain chair of the House Republican Conference, the third highest position in the House GOP hierarchy.
The Trump faction still plans to back primary challengers to Cheney and nine other House Republicans who voted for impeachment. They have also vowed revenge on any Republican senator who votes to convict Trump in the impeachment trial.
Trump’s base vs. traditional Republicans
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a fervent Trump supporter, traveled to Wyoming to give a speech against Cheney, the state’s sole U.S. House member. Speaking to a crowd of Trump supporters, Gaetz said “we are in a battle for the soul of the Republican Party and I intend to win it.”
Cheney votes to impeach Trump:Read GOP Rep. Liz Cheney’s statement on why she voted for Trump’s impeachment
A number of establishment Republicans rallied behind Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who made a point of telling people he has not spoken with Trump since Dec. 15, put out a statement calling Cheney “an important leader in our party.” McConnell also spoke out against Greene, saying that “loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., while a prominent ally of Trump, also lent his support to Cheney, calling her “one of the strongest and most reliable conservative voices in the Republican Party.”
Charlie Sykes, a conservative critic of Trump and an editor-at-large for The Bulwark news website, called the effort to depose Cheney “the first shot in the post-Trump GOP civil war.”
Even after the leadership challenge, he added, “she’ll face a primary challenge and will probably remain a pariah in right wing circles for years to come.”
House Republicans take no action on Greene; Dems to vote Thursday
The decision on Cheney came amid another test of Trump’s hold on the party: Greene’s political fate.
In the same meeting that saw Cheney retain her leadership role, House Republicans did nothing to reprimand Greene over past comments and social media postings espousing conspiracy theories and questioning whether the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Parkland school shooting were real events.
In a fundraising email, Greene told supporters she is being targeted because she “stood up for President Trump.”
Establishment Republicans, including several who defended Cheney, had urged their House brethren to repudiate Greene. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the lone Senate Republican who voted to convict Trump on his first impeachment charges a year ago, said “our big tent is not large enough to both accommodate conservatives and kooks.”
Instead, Democrats who hold the majority in the House, will vote Thursday to remove Greene from her House committee assignments.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman and now a fierce Trump critic, said the party’s decision to avoid punishing Greene is more telling than the vote to keep Cheney in leadership.
“The most important vote will be the Wyoming 2022 primary,” Walsh said. “If she has a decent challenger, she’ll have a hugely uphill fight. It’s Trump’s party.”
An eye on taking back the House – but no consensus on how
Republicans have high hopes of regaining control of the House and Senate in next year’s congressional elections, but have very different views on how to do that.
Some Republican members say too close an association with Trump and his most extreme supporters will turn off suburban voters who could make the difference in close contests. Other Republicans say the party needs to rally the base of Trump-supporting voters to put enough GOP candidates over the top.
Democrats are planning to raise the same issues in future elections, seeking to tie Republican candidates to Trump, the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, and Trump’s most extremist supporters.
That includes supporters of QAnon, a complex series of conspiracy theories alleging that the world is run by a cabal of devil-worshiping pedophiles who opposed Trump when he was in the White House.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, seeking to protect their slim House majority, is already putting out an ad on these topics.
“Trump and Republicans in Congress sided with the violent QAnon mob,” says the ad running in the districts of seven House Republicans who are considered vulnerable in 2022.
Trump has made clear he plans to get involved in 2022, including in potentially divisive Republican primaries.
A week ago, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. Afterward, Trump’s office issued a written statement indicating that his endorsements will be a major factor in 2022.
“President Trump’s popularity has never been stronger than it is today, and his endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time,” said a readout from his office.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, a conservative barometer, said this week that the way Republicans handle Cheney and Greene will make impressions on many voters.
“If bowing before all things Trump is the litmus test for being a loyal Republican,” the Journal said, “the party should get used to continued losses in the suburbs.”