WASHINGTON – By choosing to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from House GOP leadership, Republicans showed Wednesday they will move forward as Donald Trump’s party, experts said, and Trump’s myth of the “stolen election” of 2020 might as well be a plank in the campaign platform.
Cheney, R-Wyo., lost her position as the third-ranking House Republican after she unapologetically argued the party should move past Trump and stop echoing his debunked claim that a “fraudulent” election cost him the presidency.
The decision to remove Cheney as House Republican Conference chair – little more than three months after Republicans voted to keep her in the job – sets up a future in which GOP candidates will campaign as Trump acolytes and carry on his protests over his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden.
“There is no Republican Party – there’s really just the Trump party,” said political scientist Samuel Popkin, author of “Crackup: The Republican Implosion and the Future of Presidential Politics.”
Cheney’s banishment from leadership suggests Republicans who speak out against Trump’s claims about the election will be punished, despite concerns that those evidence-free accusations helped trigger the attack Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol, analysts said. As the party looks to reclaim control of Congress in 2022, the question remains: Can Republicans win with a message built around Trump?
“If you cross him, what you’re really doing is activating the base to come after you,” said Thomas Patterson, a political scientist and author of a book called “Is The Republican Party Destroying Itself?”
Cheney loses the battle, but the war keeps going
Trump and his allies certainly aren’t finished with Cheney – and she has made clear she isn’t finished with them.
The former president targeted Cheney and the nine other House Republicans who voted to impeach him over the insurrection Jan. 6. Trump’s allies plan to unseat Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump of inciting the riot, though the full Senate acquitted him.
In a statement heralding the House Republican vote against Cheney, Trump said, “Almost everyone in the Republican Party, including 90% of Wyoming, looks forward to her ouster – and that includes me!”
In a floor speech Tuesday night, Cheney described Trump as “a threat America has never seen before.”
“A former president, who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election, has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him,” Cheney said.
“He risks inciting further violence,” she said.
After the House vote to remove her, Cheney said, “The party is in a place that we’ve got to bring it back from.” She addressed the prospect of another Trump presidential bid in 2024: “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.”
Trump’s potential run for president in 2024 threatens political problems for the Republicans if it turns off suburban voters who were decisive in Biden’s victory, said GOP members who back Cheney.
Some Republicans said Trump’s 2020 election challenges reduced voter turnout in January in Georgia, where the GOP lost two crucial Senate runoffs, handing control of the Senate to Democrats.
Liz Mair, a Republican strategist, said candidates may blur their message against Biden in the midterms “if they’re still doing the whole ‘No, Trump really won’ shtick” regarding 2020.
“My secondary concern is that it’s hard to ask voters to turn out and vote for you if they think the election is going to be stolen,” she said, citing “what happened in Georgia.”
Sarah Longwell, executive director of an organization called the Republican Accountability Project, said deposing Cheney means the GOP won’t use its political opportunities “to reform or move on” from Trump.
“They’re committing to lies and conspiracy theories – the same ones that motivated the deadly attack on the Capitol – as their core ideology and political strategy,” Longwell said.
Trump’s false election claims and future elections
Trump’s grip on the party seems to be tightening.
In early February, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly – 145 to 61 – to keep Cheney as conference chairwoman, despite demands from Trump and his supporters to remove her. Cheney’s ouster Wednesday came via voice vote, with no recorded balloting.
“The message is: To be a member of the GOP in good standing, you must be subservient to Trump and willing to go along with the election fraud lie he is perpetrating to protect his wounded ego,” said Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist.
Other Republicans firmly believe Trump – and, more importantly, Trump voters – are essential to electoral success.
“If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved so as to not detract from the efforts of our collective team,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., wrote to GOP members by way of endorsing Cheney’s removal.
Republicans have a good chance of winning control of the House in the 2022 midterms and a decent chance of reclaiming a Senate that is divided 50-50.
History favors Republicans: Voters often go against the party of the president in midterm elections. And new census data means Republican-controlled legislatures in certain states could redraw favorable congressional districts.
Democrats are enjoying the division, noting the spectacle can’t help but be a distraction heading into 2022 and a burden in 2024.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said of the Cheney dispute, “It gives the GOP’s critics a boatload of ammunition.”
In response to Cheney’s ouster, the Democratic National Committee said it planned to project a computer-generated image onto the Trump hotel in downtown Washington, designating it Republican Party headquarters.
“House Republicans are making clear their only priority is to defend Trump and his Big Lie,” DNC chairman Jaime Harrison said.
As for whether Republicans will be hurt by all this in 2022 general election races against Democrats, analysts said it’s too soon to say.
A lot more is going to happen over the next 18 months.
“It all depends on how Biden is doing with the economy,” said Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
Patterson, a professor of government at Harvard University, said it’s apparent that McCarthy and other Republicans are pursuing a “base strategy” aimed at the most conservative and the most Trumpian voters – groups that are pretty much the same thing.
“Almost everything they’ve done since the election,” he said, “is all about their base.”