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How Liz Cheney survived the attempt to oust her from House leadership

The vote on Cheney was a big moment in the GOP’s battle over whether to be the Party of Trump

- February 5, 2021

On Feb. 3, 2021, following a tumultuous meeting of the House Republican Conference, GOP lawmakers voted 145 to 61 to retain Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the chair of the conference. Cheney had previously voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump, and for many of her colleagues, it was an act of apostasy that justified removing her from leadership.

At first, it looked as though Cheney’s opponents would be successful. A majority of the conference signaled they supported kicking her out of her post, and Cheney critic Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) declared, “We have the votes to remove Liz Cheney.” Yet Gaetz’s bold prediction proved to be false.

How did Cheney weather the attempt to boot her from leadership? Research on leadership elections suggests several explanations.

Party leaders are seldom chosen or removed for just one reason

Presidential impeachment is a highly partisan affair, and lawmakers from the president’s party — and congressional leaders especially — are expected to oppose the removal of the chief executive. It was thus unsurprising that Cheney’s decision to cross party lines angered many of her colleagues.

Cheney likely made things worse for herself by announcing her position in a lengthy public statement. Democrats gleefully highlighted her stance during the debate on impeachment, dropping her name no fewer than 18 times, which forced other House Republicans to explain why they didn’t show a similar courage of their convictions.

Rarely, however, are party leaders chosen or voted out on a single pretext. As Doug Harris and I argue in our book about leadership races in Congress, a range of factors explain vote choice in party leadership elections. Some lawmakers vote for candidates with whom they have strong professional ties, for instance, while others tend to support candidates who help them raise campaign funds.

Wednesday’s election was a vote to remove a leader, not to select one, but the same political dynamic was likely at play. Lawmakers probably realized that removing the sole woman in party leadership would have looked bad for the largely male-dominated GOP, especially as the party looks for ways to win control of the House in 2022. Cheney had also donated over $300,000 to Republican candidates in the 2020 election cycle, demonstrating her willingness to aid lawmakers with their own reelections.

Cheney and other leaders fought the revolt

Incumbent leaders who face the possibility of an ouster do not passively wait to see what happens. They campaign, often strenuously, to stay in power. Cheney was no exception. She made “early calls to lawmakers to feel out their support,” according to one report, and had multiple allies lined up to speak on her behalf in Wednesday’s conference meeting.

Cheney also got help from party leaders who put the kibosh on the plan to depose Cheney. Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) did so early. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was more reticent, cautious about upsetting Cheney’s opponents and annoyed that Cheney’s vote had caught him by surprise. But McCarthy eventually rallied to her side and delivered a “fiery, impassioned speech” on her behalf during the meeting.

This is not uncommon. Revolts against incumbent leaders are usually opposed by other leaders who are wary of opening a Pandora’s box of insurgency. Leaders also have the resources to offer side payments to those who stay loyal — think plum committee seats or extra campaign help, for example — while denying such benefits to rebels. This helps explain why party revolts rarely succeed.

It was a secret ballot with only one candidate

Votes for party leaders are shaped not only by issues and candidates but by the nature of the election itself. Because leadership elections (including the vote on Cheney) are held by a secret ballot, it gives lawmakers some insulation from outside pressures — in this case, conservative activists and base voters who called for Cheney’s head. Republicans could thus complain publicly about Cheney’s disloyalty while privately voting to keep her as chair.

Cheney may have also been helped by the lack of an alternative. For all the disgruntlement about her vote on impeachment, no one was willing to step up as a replacement. As the old saying goes, you can’t beat somebody with nobody.

What does it mean for the future of the Republican Party?

Had Cheney been removed, it would have sent a strong signal that the GOP was still the Party of Trump, loyal to the president even after a White House-inspired assault on the Capitol. It would have also burnished the reputation of conservatives who led the charge against Cheney, particularly the House Freedom Caucus.

Still, Cheney’s survival does not mean the GOP has abandoned Trump. Many House Republicans remain loyal to the ex-president and mimic his style of politics, while others fear publicly defying the primary voters who still embrace him. McCarthy may liken his party to “a very big tent,” but it’s unclear how any tent can contain a party as divided about its future — and about how much deference should be given to Trump — as the Republican conference is today.

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.