As Rep. Liz Cheney’s political fate hangs in the balance, she has been noticeably quiet.
After voting to impeach President Trump three weeks ago, and strongly denouncing his actions in the immediate lead-up to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, the Wyoming Republican has kept her head down. Even when another Republican House member, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, traveled to her district to call for her voters to reject her in the next election, Cheney kept her mouth shut.
Given her senior leadership role in the House GOP, it briefly seemed like many of her colleagues might decide to get behind her and support impeachment. Instead, only a smattering of Republicans did, and her colleagues will now vote Wednesday on whether she will keep her post as the chair of their conference.
Cheney’s actions since the impeachment vote stand in stark contrast to those of Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, who was one of the other nine Republicans who voted to impeach Trump on Jan. 13. Kinzinger launched a new political action committee over the past week and has aggressively rebuked Trump, saying in press interviews and in a slickly produced video for his PAC that the GOP must rid itself of the former president’s influence.
“Until we push back and say, ‘This is not a Trump-first party, this is a country-first party’ … we're going to be kind of chasing our tail,” Kinzinger said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“This no time for silence,” he says in the video.
That may be more true for Kinzinger than it has been for Cheney. He is a Republican in a state that is solidly Democratic whose path to statewide office could be enhanced by his loud and clear anti-Trump rhetoric. But there is still the matter of winning a Republican primary in the future, of course, whether that’s in Kinzinger’s district in the Chicago suburbs — which Trump won by 16 points — or statewide.
The Illinois GOP, for its part, is discussing a vote to censure Kinzinger for his criticism of Trump. Still, if Kinzinger were to run statewide, a rebuke from his own party could work in his favor.
Cheney not only represents a much more conservative state, she’s also been working to gain the support of a small and unique group of voters. She needs at least 118 other House Republicans to vote for her to keep her leadership post. And her calculation has been that waging a public messaging battle to defend her vote, or respond to Gaetz, or attack Trump, would hurt her chances of getting those votes.
“I think it’s best for her not to be seen as in a fight with anyone — not other members or Trump — and rather just defend her vote when the time comes,” said Brendan Buck, who worked for two Republican House speakers over the past decade. “For the members, she can’t feed into the idea she causes friction, even if Gaetz escalated.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, has been urging his conference to avoid infighting, and Cheney’s strategy has been to minimize internal disputes and be seen as working toward unity, while lobbying members personally for their support.
One Republican consultant close to many House members said that Gaetz’s stunt might have done his cause more harm than good, raising discomfort among Republicans who could imagine themselves in Cheney’s position. Buck said Cheney would likely “hope enough people see that as [Gaetz] overplaying his hand.”
“He’s not very popular” with his House Republican colleagues, Buck added.
But beyond the nuances of Cheney and Kinzinger’s particular political circumstances, their respective fortunes do raise a question that has bedeviled the Republican Party since 2015: How do you solve a problem like Donald John Trump? Do you stand up to him and the forces he has unleashed inside the GOP or try to accommodate them? Fight or flight?
For Cheney, that question will be partly answered on Wednesday in the House Republican leadership vote. But if she is booted from her leadership post, that could free her up to fight more. She could raise money to play in primary campaigns against Republicans who are seeking to turn the GOP from the Republican Party to the Trump Party.
“The vast majority of Republican voters, volunteers and donors are no longer loyal to the G.O.P. Their loyalty now lies with Donald J. Trump,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman lawmaker who has quickly become well known for her belief in conspiracy theories and her unquestioning devotion to Trump.
That transfer of allegiance — from a party that is loyal to a certain set of principles and beliefs to one that is essentially devoted to one person — is what rubs many Republicans the wrong way. They are trying to avoid alienating Trump supporters while also reorienting the GOP around first principles.
“I have no disrespect for President Trump but the party has to move forward. The party is bigger than any one candidate,” said Henry Barbour, a member of the Republican National Committee from Mississippi. “We should embrace the things he did well and discard the mistakes he made.”
“If Republicans will focus on policy rather than conspiracy theories, that’s how we win a national election with more than 50 percent of the vote,” he said in an interview. He also said he would not have voted to contest the 2020 election results or seek to have them overturned, as all three Mississippi Republicans in the House did. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch also joined the lawsuit seeking to overturn the election result.
Barbour said he does not agree with Kinzinger that the U.S. Senate should find Trump guilty of the impeachment charge and convict him, which would bar the former president from holding political office in the future. But he did say he respects Kinzinger’s willingness to speak up, and that he has become increasingly frustrated that many politicians are unwilling to do so.
“We’re a republic, not just a democracy. We really need strong leaders, people who are willing to lead because they believe in something and think it’s going to be good for people, and they understand they have more information than the average voter,” Barbour said. “You can’t just follow cable news rhetoric and the whims of the voters.”
But Terry Sullivan, a Republican consultant who was campaign manager for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said that it has become increasingly difficult for politicians to do anything that their most intense voters — the ones who participate in party primaries — do not support.
“Soon after they lead, most of them have former after their title,” Sullivan told Yahoo News.
Sullivan, who also oversaw the 2004 campaign for former South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, said he first became concerned about the extremist currents inside the Republican Party over a decade ago. Sullivan no longer worked for DeMint — one of the most conservative members of Congress — in 2010, but as he watched him campaign for reelection during the rise of the tea party, “I was thinking that [DeMint] should be careful what he was starting.”
There was “thoughtful policy” discussed among some as the tea party movement took hold in the early 2010s, Sullivan said, but “the rhetoric was getting out of hand and becoming more intense and at the end of the day, it was losing the focus about conservative policy and becoming just anti-establishment and anti-institution.”
“You can start a revolution but the mob may finish it for you,” Sullivan said.
That sense of spiraling chaos is now shaping the decisions of the two Republican leaders in Congress, McCarthy in the House and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McCarthy has less room to maneuver than McConnell. The House is a hotbox chamber where every member is up for reelection every two years, unlike the Senate, where members get six-year terms. McCarthy has sent mixed signals on just about everything, from Greene to Cheney to Trump. But his trip to meet with Trump last week in Florida and the photo of the two of them together is the most significant move he’s made.
McConnell also has done some fighting of Trumpism — and some flight. He voted not to move forward with the impeachment trial, after signaling prior to that that he was open to voting to convict Trump.
But the Senate Republican leader, known for being a tactician primarily interested in holding power, has nonetheless taken a more confrontational approach to Trumpism over the past few weeks. Most recently this week, he denounced Greene for endorsing “loony lies and conspiracy theories” that are a “cancer for the Republican Party.”
McConnell also backed Cheney, calling her “an important leader in our party” and someone “with deep convictions and the courage to act on them.”
It was a clear attempt to signal to Republicans in the House that they should support Cheney and it put pressure on McCarthy to punish Greene.
A Republican strategist said Greene’s lightning-rod profile could hurt Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections if she is not condemned and rejected, in the same way that polling indicates Democrats were hurt in the 2020 election by discussions of socialism and radical proposals tacitly embraced by some of their lawmakers, such as defunding the police.
Referencing one of the conspiracy theories that Greene has speculated about in the past, the strategist said: “There is no path back to the majority if our candidates are explaining Jewish space lasers next fall.”
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