Liz Cheney was once considered the future of the GOP. Now she’s fighting to keep her political career alive.
After voting to impeach Donald Trump last week, the highest-ranking woman in the House GOP finds herself at risk of losing her leadership post; staring down a pro-Trump primary challenge; and censured by her own party back home in Wyoming.
The most immediate threat to Cheney — a push by Trump loyalists to oust her as conference chair — has gained momentum inside the House GOP, although the process is complicated and could still sputter out. But at least 107 Republicans, or just over a majority, have communicated to the leaders of that effort that they would support removing Cheney from leadership on a secret ballot, according to multiple GOP sources involved in the effort. Others are threatening to boycott future conference meetings if she remains in power.
And at least two members have privately signaled interest in replacing Cheney as the No. 3 Republican, sources say: Reps. Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin, two New Yorkers who both sprang to popularity in the party after fiercely defending Trump during his first impeachment.
If Cheney does lose her post, it will be the latest sign that the Trumpification of the Republican Party isn't stopping anytime soon, even after the ex-president flew off to Mar-a-Lago with a disgraced legacy in Washington. Some say the Cheney fight has already become a proxy battle for the heart and soul of the splintered GOP.
“She has proven that she is out of step with the vast majority of our conference and the Republicans across the nation,” said freshman Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Montana), who is spearheading the resolution calling on Cheney to step down. “A lot of people within our conference have a problem with it.”
“There are other people who are absolutely interested in filling that void, I will tell you,” he added of potential Cheney replacements. “And they would have broad-based support.”
Long simmering frustrations with Cheney — once a fast-rising star in the GOP — have spiked inside the GOP, especially among its right flank, according to interviews with over a dozen lawmakers and aides. Members are not only angry with her impeachment vote, but also furious that Cheney announced her position a day ahead — giving Democrats ample time to use her statement in all of their talking points, while also providing cover to the nine other Republicans who backed impeachment.
A compilation video of the multiple times Democrats and news media cited Cheney’s statement on impeachment has even been circulating in some GOP circles. As conference chair, Cheney is in charge of the party’s messaging efforts.
But several other senior Republicans think Cheney ultimately hangs on to her post, arguing most Republicans will have little appetite for creating more chaos in the conference at a time when the party is desperate to unite.
And behind the scenes, Cheney has been doing a bit of damage control: she has been making calls to all corners of the conference to hear lawmakers out and ensure the party is unified going forward, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
“Removing Liz as the Conference Chair when she did exactly what the Leader told all of us to do – vote her conscience – sends a bad message,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “And I’ve spoken with many members of our Conference who have expressed their support for Liz and her leadership. I have confidence she will remain in her position and she has my support.”
While GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.) have both said they want Cheney to remain in her job, McCarthy also told reporters Thursday that “questions need to be answered,” such as the “style in which things were delivered.” Members will have an opportunity to air those grievances at next week’s closed-door conference meeting, McCarthy added.
The GOP is far from unified when it comes to Cheney’s future. She has her share of ardent and high-profile defenders in the House, including several ranking committee members and her home state Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who said her “strong voice and leadership will matter this next four years more than ever.”
Cheney’s allies argue that removing her from leadership — and thereby aligning the party even more closely with Trump — could backfire ahead of 2022. It could also help Cheney carve out a unique lane if she chooses to launch a White House bid in 2024, they say.
“I think it'd be a disaster,” Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said of Cheney’s potential ouster. “We need to keep our eye on the ball. We have a very great chance of taking the majority.”
“And if we continue to give the American people a vision of Republican internal fratricide,” he added, “that doesn't do us any favors in convincing them that we're better apt to lead the House of Representatives, come midterm Presidency of Joe Biden.”
Even if Cheney does manage to cling on to her leadership perch, she’s still facing serious questions about her long-term future in the House GOP, which is still overwhelmingly pro-Trump. Some lawmakers think she’ll never be able to run for leadership again.
Meanwhile, her political problems back home have started to pile up: state Sen. Anthony Bouchard has already announced a primary challenge, though it could be tough to knock out someone with a national profile as large Cheney's. And the Wyoming GOP unanimously agreed to censure Cheney last weekend over her impeachment vote.
It’s a remarkable turn for Cheney, who clinched a seat at the leadership table in just her second term in Congress. Cheney, 54, even passed on a Senate bid last year to seek her fortunes in the House, leaving some wondering if she would take on McCarthy or Scalise for the top spot one day.
Yet Cheney — who has clashed with colleagues before — has so far rebuffed calls to step aside. She also was unapologetic about her impeachment stance, framing it as a vote of conscience and privately telling colleagues she wanted to be on the right side of history, political consequences be damned.
“We’re going to have these discussions inside the conference. We have differences of opinion about a whole range of issues, including about this one,” Cheney said Thursday on Fox News. “I anticipate and am confident that we will be united as a conference going forward.”
Cheney’s critics began circulating a petition last week demanding a special conference meeting to debate and vote on the resolution calling on Cheney to resign. Just 20 percent, or 43 members, of the House GOP is required to sign the petition in order to force the meeting.
But support from two-thirds of the conference is needed to hold an immediate vote on the resolution. Otherwise, it goes to a special panel, which includes some members of leadership. And only if that committee reports a favorable recommendation would the resolution go before the full conference for a vote, which would be conducted via secret ballot.
So far, the anti-Cheney crew has yet to submit the petition for a special meeting, though members have expressed confidence that they have the numbers on their side.
The group has also been conducting a temperature check inside the GOP to gauge whether a majority supports her stepping down as conference chair. Rosendale said multiple members fear they will be retaliated against if they publicly call to remove Cheney, which is why they’re more willing to vote on a secret ballot than sign a petition.
“It’s an extremely sensitive issue anytime that you’re going to challenge the leadership,” Rosendale said. “Most members are concerned about how this vote could impact their committee assignments.”
Many of the same Republicans who backed the president’s baseless election fraud allegations, such as Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), are now leading the charge against Cheney.
This isn’t Cheney's first dust-up with the GOP’s right wing. Last summer, members of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus ripped Cheney for criticizing Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, as well as for supporting a primary challenger to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).
At the time, some hard-liners even discussed recruiting someone to challenge Cheney for conference chair — Stefanik and Zeldin were both floated — but no one stepped up. Cheney was then unanimously selected in November to serve another two-year term in leadership.
Some lawmakers doubt whether Stefanik or Zeldin would mount a bid this time around, either. Stefanik, who gave Cheney’s nominating speech in November, has been telling at least some of her colleagues she doesn't want the job. Other GOP sources, however, have told POLITICO she is making early calls to lawmakers to feel out their support.
And then there is Zeldin, who would face the challenging optics of booting the only woman from GOP leadership, right after a record-breaking number of Republican women were elected to Congress. Plus, major corporations have frozen donations to lawmakers who challenged the election results — which includes Zeldin and Stefanik — giving a Cheney an edge there.
In a sign of how intense the issue has become, offices that are choosing to stand behind Cheney are receiving hundreds, if not thousands, of anti-Cheney spam emails, according to lawmakers/aides.
Yet that hasn’t stopped some members from voicing their support for Cheney.
“As we figure out where Republicans go from here, we need Liz's leadership,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who serves with Cheney on the Armed Services Committee. “We must be a big tent party or else condemn ourselves to irrelevance.”
Said another House Republican: “If I would not vote to impeach the silliest Republican in DC, why would I vote to remove the most serious Republican in DC.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.