WASHINGTON – There's a new buzzword among Republicans in Washington: unity.
The House GOP, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is moving toward stripping Rep. Liz Cheney of her leadership post for her frequent criticism of former President Donald Trump. The unusual step, they say, is necessary to unify a party whose base still reveres the former president four months after he incited a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority," McCarthy said this week.
With Republicans close to reclaiming control of the House next year, the treatment of Cheney suggests GOP leaders will do almost anything to rally the party's base, even if that means sweeping the events of Jan. 6 under the rug and embracing — or refusing to confront — Trump's ongoing lie that he won the 2020 election, a campaign that he actually lost by a wide margin.
Those backing Cheney's ouster argue she has become a distraction by continuing to criticize Trump, who remains the dominating force in the party. They want to move forward, they say, and focus on policy ideas and providing a clear contrast with Democrats. But critics see the fight as a larger distraction.
“My unsolicited advice would be: Talk about the future and what you offer to Americans,” said Alyssa Farah, the former Trump White House communications director. “I do worry that this is sort of showing that we're going to continue more the politics of personality as opposed to the politics of policy and deliverables to the American public."
While a message about being “sufficiently pro-Trump” may work in certain districts, she noted Republicans' focus on election interference depressed GOP turnout in Georgia, where the party lost two runoff elections in January that gave Democrats control of the Senate. And she warned that aligning the party with lies about voter fraud could turn off suburban voters and older voters in key swing districts.
“Those are the ones where you have to win over moderates and independents, and that message does not resonate with them, fundamentally,” she said.
The GOP's leadership turmoil could pose some risks for Democrats as well. While many Democrats are only too happy to let Republicans fight among themselves, the drama could distract from President Joe Biden's effort to promote his massive infrastructure package, a push he took on the road Thursday with a visit to Louisiana.
Still, Republicans are making a clear political calculation. Trump remains deeply popular among GOP voters, and many continue to believe the lies he continues to spread about what happened in November. A CNN poll in late April found that 70% of Republicans believe that Biden did not legitimately win the election, even though dozens of local Republican election officials, state audits and even Trump’s former attorney general have said there was no evidence of widespread fraud.
Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, who has Trump’s backing to serve as Cheney’s replacement, said Thursday that she was “sending a clear message that we are one team. And that means working with the (former) President and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress,” even as she parroted election conspiracies on former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast.
Cheney, meanwhile, has framed her fight as one over the soul of a party long associated with her family name.
“The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday. “The question before us now is whether we will join Trump’s crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election, with all the consequences that might have.”
Cheney has been under fire since she joined nine other Republican House members in impeaching Trump for his role in sparking the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Trump's supporters stormed the building, trying to halt the certification of the vote.
McCarthy, who had originally defended Cheney against efforts to strip her title as House Republican Conference chair, has insisted his decision has nothing to do with Cheney's vote but is rather about her refusal to stop criticizing Trump in the weeks since.
“I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out her job as conference chair, to carry out the message,” said McCarthy on Fox News.
But Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson told CNN that the move was nonetheless “going to be perceived by the American body politic as an ouster because of one vote.”
“I don’t think this is healthy for our party — that perception. We’ve got to get back to talking about ideas and how to unify ourselves,” he said.
Those seeking her ouster see it differently.
Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, the chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee who has long argued the party should focus on policy to win in 2022, sees Cheney as distracting from that goal.
“The reason that we are having an internal discussion about a change in leadership is because of the distraction from the single mission and goal that the vast majority has in winning back the majority," he said. “She’s focused on her animosity toward President Trump. She’s focused on Jan. 6 — the rest of us are focused on the midterms."
Banks pushed back on the idea that Cheney and others with different views were being purged from the party. In her leadership role, he said, Cheney is tasked with speaking on behalf of the conference. “But you're out of sync as the chief spokesperson of our party, that’s why a change is needed. ... The infighting and the distractions are not going to subside unless we make a change.”
Still, Neil Newhouse, a longtime Republican pollster, said he doubted the current drama would have any impact on an election that’s still 18 months away.
“While the GOP leadership controversy may be headlines on the national news and much talked about inside the Beltway, it is simply no more than a bump in the road for GOP efforts to win the majority in the ’22 midterm elections,” he said, adding: “This issue will be long forgotten by this time next year.”
Joe Gruters, the chair of the Florida Republican Party, agreed.
“What happens in the leadership race I think is almost irrelevant to the rank-and-file members on the ground," he said. "I think people are concerned about what happens to them and their pocketbooks and less about who's carrying what flag and who has a title within the structure of the party overall.”
Still, he made clear that Trump's views matter.
“Once the former president speaks on something like that, I would say most rank-and-file members agree with whatever he is saying. And the fact that he said it ... I think it’s over."