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House Republicans are soon to replace Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming as their conference chair with Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who became a Republican star by defending then-President Trump against his first impeachment (and has since amplified his falsehoods about the 2020 election).
At issue is Cheney’s outspokenness against Trump. Cheney led the small but committed Republican faction that voted to impeach Trump a second time over his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and she has continued to forcefully condemn his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Her views aren’t the issue, but rather her ongoing zeal for expressing them.
Three months ago, a group of Trump’s most loyal supporters in the House tried to strip Cheney’s leadership post following her impeachment vote. But they failed miserably, with Cheney prevailing 145-61 on a secret ballot.
So why, if her views haven’t changed, is Cheney suddenly toast among her colleagues? The answer is simple: Her penchant for failing to move on from challenging Trump has become a headache for the GOP House members and leaders who first installed and then saved her.
Her colleagues gave her a pass before but expected Cheney to demur when asked about Trump moving forward (aka the Mitch McConnell strategy, which is working splendidly for him in maintaining unity among Senate Republicans). But that’s just not Cheney’s style.
In this case, her GOP colleagues are quite likely hearing about her Trump disloyalty from people in their deep-red districts. (Most Republican congressmen don’t live in swing or purple districts. Instead, they live in safe, conservative areas where their constituents believe in Jesus, Trump and Tucker Carlson — and not always in that order.)
And when these lawmakers hold town hall meetings or answer their phones, they don’t want their supporters yelling at them about Cheney attacking Trump. For their constituents, there is no question about what happened: The election was stolen from Trump, and the Jan. 6 riot has been overblown by a media committed to lying about and destroying the Republican Party.
For Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader who dreams of being the next speaker, the calculation to oust Cheney from her job after backing her twice before is straightforward. He needs to placate angry GOP members and show Trump he’s a loyal guy.
Set aside the facts and think about the politics. If Republicans win the House in 2022 (a pretty good bet), McCarthy should be elected speaker. But who can throw a monkey wrench into all of it?
He remains the unquestioned head of the Republican Party for grass-roots activists and small-dollar donors. He wants Cheney gone, and what he says goes.
Don’t believe me? Ask McConnell, who lost his Senate majority in two Georgia runoff elections because Trump told his supporters their votes wouldn’t count. Accordingly, thousands of Trump supporters failed to show up on election day and now Chuck Schumer is in charge.
Not wishing to suffer this fate, McCarthy believes it better to give Trump what he wants and keep him inside the House GOP tent. He also knows that even if the GOP wins the House next year, his future as Trump’s guy is not ensured because no amount of loyalty is ever enough.
Ask Rudy Giuliani, who torched his reputation defending Trump only to find now that his client won’t pay. Or Mike Pence, one of the most loyal vice presidents in American history, against whom Trump fomented a mob that, literally, erected gallows to hang him.
McCarthy was already the object of Trump’s scorn for flirting with the possibility of punishing Trump over Jan. 6, and Trump supporters in McCarthy’s home district, Bakersfield, took notice.
“I’ll just boil it down,” one local Republican said about McCarthy in an interview with the New York Times. “He’s a RINO [Republican In Name Only] traitor. President Trump did nothing wrong. President Trump communicated his case. He did not incite anybody. I do honestly think there were agitators, infiltrators.” That conservative isn’t alone.
Just about the only thing — other than a surprising Democratic victory — that can keep McCarthy from becoming the next speaker is Trump himself. Imagine a statement from Trump after a big GOP midterm win that reads: “We can do better than Kevin. Let’s make (fill in the blank) the speaker instead.”
Poof goes McCarthy’s dream.
From that perspective, McCarthy’s move to install Stefanik over Cheney is very easy to understand. He needs Trump, Trump’s congressional supporters, Trump’s voters and Trump’s army of donors. But he doesn’t need Cheney, who now finds herself in primary trouble in Wyoming.
Is this right? Is this good for democracy or the Republican Party? Does it make anyone feel good about the future of the conservative movement when a Cheney of all people is excommunicated from it?
Of course not. Cheney is right about the election and Jan. 6, which is forever a stain on the Trump presidency and the Republican Party. And she’s hoping that one day the GOP may again define itself by conservative ideas rather than loyalty to one man.
But that day isn’t here yet. McCarthy lives in the now, where all roads to the speakership — for better or worse — go through Mar-a-Lago, which is, literally and figuratively, 2,000 miles from Cheyenne.
Scott Jennings is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and CNN political commentator. He is a contributing writer to Opinion. @ScottJenningsKY
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.