The vote by House Republicans to ditch Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) as House GOP Conference chair is about three things: the present, the future and the long-term future.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is focused on the present and the future. The present as in “right now.” The future as in “Nov. 8, 2022” and “Jan. 3, 2023.”
The “long-term future” is in the great beyond.
McCarthy knew he had the votes in the bag to expel Cheney as the third-highest ranking Republican in the House and most-senior GOP woman in American government. The House Republican Conference affirmed Cheney’s status in February, 145-61. But support for Cheney quickly evaporated. It’s unclear what the vote would have been like had McCarthy ordered a “recorded” voted behind closed doors. But he didn’t need to. The “present” meant that McCarthy wielded the upper hand and Cheney did not. So McCarthy called the vote and Cheney was toast.
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When we talk about the “future,” McCarthy knows Republicans stand a good chance to re-take the House on Nov. 8, 2022 – Election Day. Republicans only need to flip a handful of seats that day to find themselves back in the majority. And, if the electorate smiles on Republicans, McCarthy could very well find himself elected speaker of the House on Jan. 3, 2023. That’s the constitutionally mandated day to begin the 118th Congress.
McCarthy sees a path to win the majority that goes through former President Donald Trump. McCarthy also understands that many rank-and-file Republicans wanted to remove Cheney – and prefer to saddle up to the former president – lest he excoriate them and invite a primary challenge. In many respects, McCarthy was just responding to where most of his conference is now. If political leaders stray too far afield from their base on any issue, they may wind up like Cheney.
Perhaps Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) said it best, moments after House Republicans dismissed Cheney.
“If you had a member of the Democratic leadership and they didn’t believe in climate change anymore, do you think they would still remain in the Democrat leadership?” asked Donalds. “I don’t think so.”
He’s not wrong.
It took Cheney only one term in Congress before she climbed into the House GOP leadership hierarchy in the fall of 2018. And, only 15 minutes for House Republicans to expel Cheney from her leadership slot in a secret, non-recorded vote last Wednesday.
“We ended up going by voice vote,” said one of Cheney’s defenders, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
A “voice vote” is where no one actually documents how each member votes. They cast their ballot “verbally.” The “louder” side wins.
Kinzinger wasn’t done.
“The ironic thing was it was to show unity. So, at that point, it’s not even worth the fight. You walk out and you say, all right, you know, (the) Leader’s made his decision, that’s fine,” said Kinzinger of McCarthy.
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In other words, you call the vote when you have the votes. And that’s what McCarthy did.
Cheney clung to her position in early February on an actual recorded vote, partly because she asked for a vote. But also at issue in that same meeting was whether Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) should keep her committee assignments.
Republican leaders knew in February they couldn’t finesse a scenario where they removed Cheney and rewarded Greene. So, the conference essentially did nothing. But it was clear from Republicans leaving that meeting that some were more on board with Greene than Cheney.
It was just a matter of time for Cheney.
A lot has happened since winter. McCarthy visited Trump in Florida and coaxed the former president to help Republicans win the House. Trump escaped conviction after a second impeachment trial. All the while, Cheney’s support dwindled as she repeatedly called out the former president.
“We cannot both embrace the big lie and embrace the Constitution,” said Cheney. “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets near the Oval Office.”
McCarthy met with President Joe Biden just a few days ago. He contends Republicans aren’t waging old battles.
“I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with. We’re sitting here with the president today,” said McCarthy of Biden.
But tell that to former President Trump, who continues to allege election fraud and declares the outcome “the Big Lie.”
There are lots of Republican voters who side with Trump. And lots of Republican House members who understand how their constituents feel. So does McCarthy.
Frankly, the internal decision to ditch Cheney helps a lot of rank-and-file Republicans. It certainly solidifies McCarthy’s stance with his members since they’re so enamored with the former president. And those are the politics of the present.
This takes us to the politics of the future.
Republicans may win control of the House in November 2022. It’s impossible to predict the political universe of that time period this far in advance. But if Republicans win, it’s likely it would be a narrow victory.
Whether or not the House GOP removed Cheney in May 2021 isn’t going to be a top-of-mind issue among most voters. Republicans likely award McCarthy the speakership when the new Congress begins on Jan. 3, 2023.
But there could be just enough Cheneys and Kinzingers – and maybe some others – who aren’t impressed with how McCarthy handled this. As we always say, it’s about the math.
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House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY) scored 134 votes in her victory to succeed Cheney as conference chairwoman last week. Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) also ran, receiving 46 ballots. There’s a reason McCarthy didn’t become speaker in 2015 when former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) stepped aside. McCarthy lacked the votes. Some rank-and-file members could hold this leadership battle against McCarthy in a year and a half. Some conservative members also aren’t impressed with Stefanik. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) declared her “a liberal.”
It takes an outright majority of the entire House to become speaker. In other words, 218 votes out of 435. The “winner” isn’t simply the person who receives the most votes. It’s too early to predict. But consider those 46 votes against Stefanik last week. It’s doubtful 46 members would ever vote against McCarthy. But in a narrowly divided House, McCarthy may not have many votes to spare if he stands for speaker on Jan. 3, 2023.
But again, it’s too early to read the tea leaves here. Just something to file away and keep an eye on.
This brings us to the long-term future.
Does the GOP passion for President Trump start to erode over time? What happens if Republicans don’t flip the House in 2022? What about Cheney’s argument that the party needs to speak for truth and the Constitution and denounce the January riot at the Capitol and the former president? What happens if former President Trump runs again in 2024? Where is the party if Trump were to win in 2024? Or lose?
The more significant question is where this episode takes the party in the coming years.