House Republicans return to Washington this week embroiled in a bitter battle over the direction of the party, the face of its leadership and what role former President Trump should play heading into next year’s elections — and far beyond.
All three of those questions will take center stage Wednesday when the GOP conference will gather behind closed doors in the Capitol to decide the fate of Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, whose sustained attacks on Trump for lying about his election defeat have quickly made her a pariah in the eyes of many colleagues.
“She’s done as a member of leadership. I don’t understand what she’s doing,” said a former House GOP lawmaker. “It’s like political self-immolation. You can’t cancel Trump from the Republican Party; all she’s done is cancel herself.”
Cheney is facing a leadership challenge from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a staunch Trump loyalist who has peddled his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. And GOP leaders hope that purging Cheney from the leadership ranks will move Republicans beyond their civil war over Trump — one that’s raged publicly since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and allow the party to unite behind a midterm campaign message that President Biden and the Democrats are too liberal for the country.
“There are still a few members that are talking about things that happened in the past, not really focused on what we need to do to move forward and win the majority back next year,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the minority whip, told Fox Business in explaining his endorsement of Stefanik. “We’re going to have to be unified if we defeat the socialist agenda you’re seeing in Washington.”
A Stefanik victory would also mark a symbolic shift, signaling in no uncertain terms that Republicans intend to embrace Trump, if only to remain in the good graces of the former president, who remains highly engaged this election cycle and is threatening to topple any remaining outspoken critics in the GOP ranks.
“By ousting her, what we’re saying is we are repudiating your repudiation of the Trump policies and the Trump agenda and her attacks on the president,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, told Fox News. “President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, and when she’s out there attacking him, she’s attacking the leader of the Republican Party.”
Cheney has already survived one challenge to her leadership post, in February, after she infuriated conservatives by voting to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. With the backing of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), she easily kept her seat as conference chairwoman, 145 to 61 by secret ballot.
But that was then.
With McCarthy and Scalise fed up with Cheney and now backing Stefanik, the 36-year-old New Yorker is expected to prevail in Wednesday’s contest — a would-be victory for leaders who have failed to unite the conference behind a post-Trump strategy in the early months of the Biden administration.
Yet for Republicans, the power shuffle also has potential perils.
Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is a party stalwart with a national brand, a loyal following and a much more conservative voting record than Stefanik’s. She’s also the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, sparking concern among some in the party that, by targeting Cheney alone, GOP leaders risk alienating female voters, particularly the educated suburban women expected to be crucial in the 2022 elections.
“You’re not going to win or hold some of these swing seats if it’s all about loyalty to a person,” said former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.). “We certainly know that Trump divided the country and lost the House and lost the Senate — he lost the [popular vote] two times — and you’re now going to hang your hat on the guy who got 47 percent” in 2020?
“That’s nuts,” she added. “He’s not going to get more votes. His people are dying off.”
Even with Cheney gone, there is no guarantee Republicans will be able to get back on message.
Cheney, for one, has vowed not to stay silent, and her name recognition gives her a platform that is sure to attract media attention. A far different group of rabble-rousers may also prove to be a distraction for leadership. Two Trump loyalists, Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), on Friday launched their nationwide “America First Tour,” where they plan to call out GOP Trump critics such as Cheney.
Gaetz is facing a federal sex trafficking investigation, while Greene is under fire for proposing a new caucus that would promote “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
Cheney isn’t the only House Republican facing backlash for taking on Trump. Earlier in the week, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of seven Republican senators who voted this year to convict Trump, was booed and called a traitor at the Utah GOP convention, where he narrowly beat back an effort to censure him.
On Friday, the Ohio Republican Party Central Committee voted to censure Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), Cheney and the eight other House Republicans who backed Trump’s impeachment in January. The Ohio GOP also formally called for Gonzalez’s resignation.
House GOP leadership allies have argued that this week’s referendum on Cheney isn’t about the final purge of Trump foes from the party. They note that McCarthy stood by Cheney after she voted to impeach Trump in a bid to unite the warring factions of his 212-member conference.
But McCarthy allies say the GOP leader has no choice but to dump her this time around, arguing she has repeatedly undercut McCarthy and the GOP’s message during leadership news conferences, in media interviews and in op-eds where she continues to rail against the dangers of Trump and his “Big Lie.”
The most memorable example came earlier this year when McCarthy told reporters he believed Trump should speak at the largest gathering of conservatives; Cheney, standing behind McCarthy’s left shoulder, said Trump should play zero role “in the future of the party.”
“If her ouster was about purging Trump critics, it would have happened in February” during the first vote, said one House Republican who is close to McCarthy. “This is all about her being such a distraction and undermining the rest of the leadership team and conference.”
“There is not one Republican member in our conference who would benefit in a net positive way by having her in their district,” the House Republican added.
GOP leaders are hoping to take a page from the playbook of Republicans in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.) have, like Cheney, both come under fire from Trump for criticizing his actions surrounding Jan. 6. Unlike Cheney, however, the senators are making it a point to move on, largely refusing to answer any questions about the former president.
“I’m focused entirely on the present and the future not the past,” McConnell said last week.
But avoiding Trump will likely be impossible for any extended timeframe, especially with GOP lawmakers in both chambers warning that the party needs him to be successful at the polls.
Other critics who have faced the wrath of Trump and his loyalists said they can’t believe the Grand Old Party is driving out Republicans such as Cheney, a name synonymous with traditional conservatism.
“For those of us who have long believed in the conservative cause and the Republican Party as a messenger for its ideals, what’s transpiring is breathtaking,” said former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a Trump critic who was ousted in his 2018 GOP primary by a Trump-backed challenger.
“Crazy just keeps getting crazier, even with Trump out of office,” he added. “I’m not sure where this political hurricane finally comes ashore, but its consequences will be devastating.”
Via The Hill