By Tristan Justice
House Republicans are gearing up for a referendum on Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s role in leadership this week after she supported Democrats’ rushed second impeachment of former President Donald Trump.
Cheney ignited backlash from her own party three weeks ago when she announced her support for Democrats’ plan to remove the outgoing president days before the end of his term. The three-term Wyoming congresswoman claimed her choice to indict the president whose restrained foreign policy approach she frequently opposed was a “vote of conscience.”
The timing of her move on the eve of the vote hurt members of the caucus she ostensibly leads, according to many members. They also cited the extreme rhetoric she used in pushing for Trump’s removal from office.
“The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” Cheney claimed of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots in a statement frequently quoted by Democrats and the media. “Everything that followed was his doing.”
The vote, taken at the height of the media’s anti-Trump frenzy, angered and disappointed many of her colleagues and constituents, already provoking a primary challenge back home, a censure by members of her own state party, and now a threat to derail her from House leadership. Cheney had previously upset members of her conference with lackluster fundraising, an inability to recruit candidates, and support for primary opponents of a member who opposes her preferred levels of foreign interventionism.
While members repeatedly said they didn’t necessarily have a problem with a random member of the Republican conference voting for impeachment, they viewed a member of leadership doing so as a scandal. One Republican recounted the punishment received when this person voted against a rule change leadership sought. How could Cheney remain in leadership after helping the Democrats’ push to divide the Republican Party and demoralize its voters, the member wondered.
“I like Liz personally,” said another member on condition of anonymity, “but she should not be in leadership. You can’t throw your members under the bus. You can’t be a talking point Democrats use against every other member.”
A poll out last week reveals Cheney’s popularity in Wyoming plummeted following her latest stunt. A survey conducted by Trump pollster John McLaughlin found only 10 percent of GOP primary voters reported willingness to vote for their at-large representative in next year’s party contest. Only 13 percent said they would support the incumbent’s re-election in the general pending survival in the primary.
“If Liz Cheney had a rally with all of her supporters, they could likely meet inside one of the elevators in the capital, and still have plenty of room for social distancing,” Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz blasted outside the Wyoming statehouse to hundreds demonstrating their opposition to Cheney in Cheyenne last week.
In Congress, Cheney is poised to lose her number three seat in leadership before losing her spot in the House. Multiple GOP aides on Capitol Hill told The Federalist a vote on Cheney’s role in leadership is likely to come on Wednesday.
The fate of Cheney’s chairmanship over the GOP conference rests largely on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who wields the power to approve or deny a referendum to replace Cheney, swelling support for which has applied pressure on the top Republican in the House to greenlight a vote, likely through secret ballot. Members of the conference have asked for the chance to give an “up-or-down” vote on Cheney’s role in leadership. Cheney is reportedly fighting such a vote.
“If you want to be conference chair, you should give your members the opportunity to take this up or down vote. You shouldn’t be in that role when a majority of people oppose you,” said one member who hopes the other leaders will allow the conference to take such a vote.
“This isn’t just about Liz. It’s about whether McCarthy and [Steve] Scalise are ready for the next phase of leadership,” said another member. “I’m big supporters of both of them, but they can’t allow a member of leadership to divide our conference this much.”
House Republicans in the conservative Freedom Caucus have led the movement with calls to oust Cheney from leadership following her stunt on impeachment, pulling endorsements from high-profile names including Gaetz, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, and Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona to freshman members such as Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale, who was the first to demand her removal based on impeachment. Dozens of other members have voiced their support for dismissing Cheney from leadership privately.
McCarthy, however, has remained hesitant to back a vote of no confidence despite expressing his own frustration with Cheney.
“Look, I support her, but I also have concerns,” McCarthy said during a “Full Court Press” interview with Greta Van Susteren last week. “She took a position as a number three member in conference, she never told me ahead of time.”
If McCarthy resists her removal this week, however, which he has indicated, a complicated process will ensue. There remains a difference of opinion on what procedures then could be used to trigger mechanisms for dismissal. Cheney could appeal the vote absent McCarthy’s protection blocking it, sending petitions for removal down a rabbit hole of committee procedures.
Two proposals have circulated Capitol Hill on the matter, including a petition for the Wednesday meeting that requires 20 percent of the conference’s signatures, or 43 of its members, and a resolution on Cheney to resign, which has received less support. If the conference proceeds with a the conference meeting Wednesday, conservatives need two-thirds of the conference, or 142 members, to support the resolution removing Cheney, according to the Wall Street Journal, although some Republicans said the threshold required might be closer to half, somewhere around 105. Politico reported last month support to remove Cheney had been voiced to leadership by 107 members two weeks ago.
McCarthy’s decision will serve as a test of his leadership on how well he can handle his coalition, whether he would enable Cheney to continue undermining Republicans in the conference she leads in pursuit of a GOP civil war or allow members to move forward on her removal.
While Cheney tried to cultivate a GOP uprising on impeachment, only nine other Republicans joined the Wyoming congresswoman representative of the Bush-era neocons to join Democrats on the measure, at least five of whom had already declared their support for it. Still, members have complained that Cheney’s dramatic press release on the eve of the vote was done for maximum attention and leverage against those who oppose impeaching the president or accusing him of being involved in a riot following a speech where he called on people to “peacefully and patriotically” make their voices heard.
Many members found Cheney’s lobbying of new Republican members to vote for impeachment to be particularly unseemly since new members may not have realized that Cheney’s leadership role does not include whipping votes and that the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee had already recommended against supporting the Democrats’ impeachment plan.
McCarthy’s refusal to open the door for Cheney’s removal would not only upset conservatives in the caucus, but it could lead to a donor revolt jeopardizing Republicans’ chances at capturing the majority in 2022.
The circumstances are ripe for a red wave next year, as the party of opposition to that which controls the White House historically triumphs in the first midterms of the new administration. Contrary to forecasts last fall, Republicans already picked up 14 seats in November, where not a single Republican incumbent lost re-election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now holds a razor-thin 10-seat majority in the lower chamber, the slimmest margin of her career as speaker.
Cheney played a limited role in the Republican successes of last fall, not providing noticeable help with recruitment, fundraising, or campaigning. Cheney, the Wall Street Journal reported, “lacks some of the popularity and fundraising prowess of other House Republicans.”
According to OpenSecrets, Cheney raised only $3.7 million for her campaign and leadership political action committee. Minority Leader McCarthy raised $33 million and Minority Whip Steve Scalise raised more than $40 million. According to Fox News, McCarthy raised $103 million across all seven campaign accounts. Even average members with no leadership ties raise more money for the party than Cheney, who despite her leadership role and position on the Armed Services Committee was ranked as 180th in fundraising, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has many friends in Washington, D.C. media and political realms. Many of them are advocating that Republicans keep her in leadership despite her troubles.
“Liz Cheney has spent more time working on keeping her leadership seat than she spent helping members of her conference in the last election,” said one member, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that Cheney would retaliate against critics. Cheney, who shares with the former president a penchant for insulting her political opponents, angered the caucus when she funded Rep. Thomas Massie’s primary opponent last year. The opponent ended up facing a racism scandal.
Members, who had believed that their leaders would never support their primary opponents, angrily confronted Cheney on the matter. Cheney insisted that Massie was a “special case,” which concerned other members whose views don’t align with Cheney.
Cheney is far from the only one out of the 10 House Republicans who joined Democrats last month facing blowback for their impeachment vote. South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice was censured by his home-state party Monday, and in Ohio, Rep. Anthony Gonzales is likely to face a another primary challenge from former State Rep. Christina Hagan, who ran competitively for the open seat in 2018.
“I have never seen a greater amount of backlash for any one single vote taken by any one single member of our Republican congressional delegation in Ohio,” Hagan told Politico, not ruling out a run.
Tristan Justice is a staff writer at The Federalist focusing on the 2020 presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter at @JusticeTristan or contact him at Tristan@thefederalist.com.