WASHINGTON >> As she arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday morning to meet her fate, the soon-to-be deposed No. 3 Republican in the House hinted that she was already eyeing her next role.
“The party is going to come back stronger, and I’m going to lead the effort to do it,” Rep. Liz Cheney said as she stepped into an elevator and down to her demise.
Less than an hour later, accompanied by the acclaimed photographer David Hume Kennerly, a family friend, Cheney returned to her office for an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. A sit-down with Bret Baier of Fox News was to follow.
The message was unmistakable: Her colleagues may have stripped Cheney of her post as chair of the House Republican Conference, but they have effectively handed her a new platform and a new role as the leader of the small band of anti-Trump Republicans.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, was trying to address a short-term challenge, and in a narrow sense he was successful. He will no longer have to contend with a member of his leadership team who, much to the consternation of him and his colleagues, continues to condemn former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.
By excommunicating Cheney from her position, however, Republican lawmakers have created a host of new problems for their party.
They have underscored the grip that the increasingly unpopular Trump retains on their ranks; demoralized Republicans and independents who want to move on from his tenure; and, perhaps most significantly, emboldened a household-name conservative to take her case against Trumpism far beyond a Capitol conference room.
House Republicans knew what they had done as soon as they emerged from their meeting.
“That’s what it looks like when somebody is running for president,” Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama muttered to colleagues as they quickly walked past Cheney during her remarks in front of the cameras.
Other long-serving members, though, were more sobered by the divisions Trump is still sowing among Republicans and by the megaphone they had just handed Cheney.
“I don’t think it’s a healthy moment for the party,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, himself a former member of Republican leadership. “I do think it enhanced Liz’s stature and position in a way that furthers her message but to the disadvantage of the broader party.”
Later Wednesday, McCarthy complicated matters, and confounded Republicans, by walking out of his first White House meeting with President Joe Biden and pronouncing, “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election” — a statement starkly at odds with remarks made by numerous GOP House lawmakers.
The best Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma could say about the day was that “the election isn’t today” and “if something like this has to happen, you’d rather have it in an off-year.”
These are strange times for Republicans.
The traditional indicators suggest they have good reason to be optimistic about the midterm elections next year.
The party that doesn’t control the White House usually picks up seats in a president’s first midterm elections, redistricting appears to favor Republicans, and a number of House Democrats are voting with their feet by retiring or running for statewide office.
And in both chambers, the bar is low: Republicans need only six seats to win the House and a single seat to take back the Senate.
The split screen can be agonizing for party stalwarts.
“We’ll win the House, but I worry no good lessons are being learned about Jan. 6 and Trump’s ongoing effort to delegitimize the November elections,” said David Kochel, a veteran GOP strategist.
Last week, when the question of whether House Republicans should oust Cheney was crescendoing, McHenry and a leading redistricting strategist held a private Zoom call for donors and delivered some much-coveted good news.
Unveiling an online map with each state’s expected changes in partisan composition, McHenry and the strategist, Adam Kincaid, predicted that Republicans could reclaim the House majority in 2022 on their gains from the reapportionment process alone.
“The difficulty is to get members to see the long-term advantages we have rather than the short-term struggles and nastiness,” McHenry said.
Most of his colleagues concluded that as long as Cheney was highlighting Trump’s conspiracy-mongering, and their own timidity, it would prove difficult to fully capitalize on those long-term advantages.
Yet it’s Trump who, well past Biden’s first-100-day mark, continues to present Republicans with their most vexing problem. At issue: how to accommodate a former president who’s beloved by their core voters, more detested than ever among the broader electorate and consumed with his defeat and campaign of retribution.
“Trump is the one who keeps raising it,” said Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January.
An NBC News poll last month found that Trump’s favorability rating was down to 32% among all voters and 14% among independents. Democrats can barely contain their delight over the disarray across the aisle.
“Right now should be the easiest time for the party out of power to unify in opposition,” Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., said.
As Cheney discovered, Republican leaders will continue to bow to Trump as long as they’re worried that their rank-and-file voters will punish them for disloyalty.
This could prove ominous for Republicans in the most competitive districts and states: They may not be able to survive a primary without him, but they may prove unelectable if they’re linked too closely to him.
“There’s not a lot of good options,” said Brendan Buck, a former House Republican leadership aide.
Democrats offered a preview of what’s to come, particularly in more blue-leaning terrain, this week in Virginia. Republicans nominated Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive who has promoted “election integrity” measures and refused to say Biden won the 2020 election fairly, as their standard-bearer for governor. In his statement responding to Youngkin’s nomination, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the likely Democratic nominee, mentioned Trump’s name three times in the first three sentences.
For many Republicans, though, what’s more alarming about the Cheney-Trump feud are the implications for the party’s long-term health.
Whether Cheney seeks to fight back electorally — perhaps in a symbolic long-shot White House bid in 2024 — she’s plainly comfortable with political martyrdom.
In fact, after largely voting with Trump over the last four years and trying to stay out of his line of fire, she seems to welcome his hatred and the opportunity it offers to change, or at least shame, the party.
“If you want leaders who will enable and spread his destructive lies, I’m not your person; you have plenty of others to choose from,” she told her colleagues during the caucus meeting, according to a Republican in the room. “But I promise you this: After today, I will be leading the fight to restore our party and our nation to conservative principles, to defeating socialism, to defending our republic, to making the GOP worthy again of being the party of Lincoln.”
Trump’s most prominent defenders were not exactly worried.
“She can run against the president, anyone can try to run against the president, but there’s no way he’s losing,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said after the meeting. “He’s going to win the Republican primary and he’s going to be president if he decides to run.”