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Why Liz Cheney didn’t survive the second effort to oust her from leadership

As Cheney grows more defiant, the GOP congressional caucus moves closer to Trump.

- May 12, 2021

In early February 2021, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) beat back an effort to remove her as the House GOP’s conference chair by Republicans unhappy about her vote to impeach former president Donald Trump. But on Wednesday, her House GOP colleagues voted to kick her out of leadership.

Cheney’s support within her party evaporated quickly, with potentially major implications for the GOP’s future. Here’s what you need to know about why it happened.

Cheney refused to fulfill the traditional role of conference chair

The conference chair’s job mostly involves running party meetings and generally helping Republican lawmakers do their jobs, supplying such resources as briefings, media support and talking points. But party-wide messaging is another important responsibility. Cheney steadfastly refused to stay on script and echo her fellow leaders’ praise for — or at least stay silent about — the former president.

In fact, she did the opposite. Since the vote three months ago to keep her as chair, Cheney has criticized the former president at a fundraiser; told reporters that Trump should not be “playing a role in the future of the party, or the country”; urged an investigation into his false claim that the 2020 election was stolen; described that claim as “poison” at an American Enterprise Institute retreat; refused to invite Trump to a GOP gathering in Florida; rebutted him on Twitter; and attacked the “Trump cult of personality” in a Washington Post editorial.

This public campaign repelled avid pro-Trump House Republicans. Nor did it go over well with the party’s large “sedition caucus,” which voted to undo the 2020 election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, at Trump’s urging. As political scientist Casey Burgat noted, Cheney forced her colleagues to comment on a subject they’d rather avoid, lest they anger an important constituency.

Cheney’s stance also exasperated House Republicans who, as members of the minority party, hold as gospel the belief that a unified, forward-thinking message will return them to power — and expect the conference chair to help craft and deliver that message. As one lawmaker put it, “there’s no reason to give [Trump] the middle finger every day and create a distraction when the rest of us are trying to win back the majority.”

Cheney faced a strong challenger

The last time pro-Trump colleagues challenged Cheney’s position in the party, no one ran against her. This time she had a viable opponent, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who said she would run for conference chair if her colleagues ousted Cheney. Journalists and Republican leaders have repeatedly touted Stefanik as a rising star within the GOP. Her gender helped mitigate charges that Cheney opponents were driven by sexism, something exacerbated by how some male Republicans described Cheney before the February vote.

Though Stefanik’s relatively recent conversion to Trumpism and willingness to stay “on message” helped her candidacy, she also appealed to moderate Republicans. In fact, Stefanik voted with her party and with Trump less often than Cheney — something noticed by some far-right lawmakers such as Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth. But members of Congress select leadership candidates for more reasons than the candidates’ ideological leanings, as Doug Harris and I have shown about other congressional leadership races.

Other leaders endorsed the revolt, and Cheney didn’t fight for the job

In the first go-round against Cheney, both Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and (eventually) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) endorsed her for chair. This time, Scalise endorsed Stefanik, and McCarthy rallied other Republicans behind the scenes to oppose Cheney and, eventually, endorsed Stefanik.

Why the switch? One key reason appears to be frustration with Cheney’s refusal to stay on message. There was also some behind-the-scenes friction between Cheney and McCarthy. Furthermore, this time McCarthy did not have to worry that removing Cheney would be compared with an effort to protect pro-Trump lawmaker Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from punishment, after Democrats kicked Greene off her committees earlier this year. Still, it was a remarkable break from tradition. Ordinarily, party leaders do not try to remove one of their own from a position of power, lest it encourage future bloodletting within their ranks.

Unlike before, Cheney didn’t even try to rally members to vote for her. Whether she expected to lose or no longer wanted the job, it all but guaranteed her expulsion.

So much for the GOP’s ‘big tent’ strategy?

McCarthy has been trying a delicate balancing act, keeping pro-Trump voters and lawmakers happy without alienating his party’s more traditional wing. Cheney’s removal underscores one major flaw with this “big tent” strategy: It assumed that he could paper over, if not resolve, passionate disagreements among Republicans about Trump’s future in the GOP and the former president’s false claims of election fraud.

I argued back in February that if Cheney were ejected from leadership, that would weaken the Republican conference’s anti-Trump wing and reinforce the perception that the GOP is officially the Party of Trump. This seems even more true now insofar as Stefanik has tied herself closely to Trump and openly embraced the evidence-free assertion that the 2020 election was stolen. Ironically, Cheney’s decision to stand on principle may have hurt her efforts to rid the GOP of Trump and anti-democratic conspiracy thinking.

Nonetheless, if McCarthy hopes that a new conference chair will end the internecine warfare over Trump’s place in the Republican Party, he is almost certainly mistaken. The effort to oust Cheney has been criticized by conservative publications and has angered GOP donors; Cheney and other outspoken Trump critics remain in Congress; and Trump will continue trying to get attention even as he loses support among both Republican and independent voters.

Expect the GOP civil war over fealty to the former president to continue.

Updated Oct. 5, 2023