The Cheney Conundrum and the Midterms

The story of Liz Cheney’s soon-to-be ouster from party leadership is about many things. First and foremost, of course, it’s about Donald Trump and his iron grip on the party. It’s also about history and dynasty. Cheney doesn’t just represent the very small (and dwindling) cadre of GOP Trump critics. She is the scion of a political family that has dominated GOP politics for as long as many of us have been alive. We aren’t just witnessing the end of Cheney’s time in leadership; we are also watching the party drift further and further away from its 20th-century moorings. It’s also a story about political hypocrisy, a party that attacks its critics with charges of ‘cancel culture’ as they simultaneously shut down someone who refuses to toe the party line.

But there is one thing this story isn’t, a predictor for the outcome of the midterm elections. 

While the GOP may be divided in their opinions of Trump, this is not a deeply divided party. Plenty of Republican voters (and members of Congress) aren’t fans of the former president. Many are happy to see him gone. But, they also aren’t interested in re-litigating the Trump era. Even those who respect Cheney think the mainstream media are using her to keep Trump stories front and center. “She’s a casualty of this media obsession,” one GOP strategist told me. “I have members who will vote to remove her who are absolutely sick over it, but they have no choice because it’s a feeding frenzy,” said this person. A “feeding frenzy” that GOP members believe is “in the service of helping Pelosi.” 

But, even when the feeding frenzy ends, will Democrats be able to use Cheney’s ouster as a reminder to suburban voters that while Trump may not be in the White House, he continues to direct and drive the party? We should expect them to try. But, I don’t think it’ll be all that effective. 

By this time next year, approximately 3,458 news cycles will have passed. Or, as GOP pollster Robert Blizzard tweeted the other day: “I’d be shocked if any voter - R, I or D - makes a decision on their November ‘22 vote based on an internal GOP House leadership change in May ‘21.” It’s also really hard to frame a midterm election around the party out of power. Just ask Republicans about how effective all those anti-Pelosi ads were in 2018.

But, if the goal of ditching Cheney is to appease Trump, keep the party united and prevent the former president from going off message in 2022, that’s not likely to happen either. Trump will continue to promote his unfounded claims of fraud and conspiracy. And, more important, it’s only a matter of time before something else sets him off and puts the GOP conference on the defensive. 

There’s also no guarantee that keeping Trump happy will ensure a robust turnout of Trump-supporting voters in 2022. Since 2016, Republicans have had a lousy track record of electoral success when Trump’s not on the ballot. Presidents or former presidents can’t simply ‘convey’ their votes to other members of their party. Despite his pleadings (“Don’t boo, vote!”), President Obama was never able to convince his coalition to turn out for the Democrats in 2010, 2014 or for Hillary Clinton in 2016 the way they turned out for him in 2008 and 2012. 

Republican leaders are playing the short game, while Cheney is playing the long one. Republicans in Congress want to build a majority, Cheney is building a legacy. “History is watching. Our children are watching,” she wrote in her op-ed in the Washington Post, defending her decision to call out “Trump’s crusade to undermine the foundation of our democracy and reverse the legal outcome of the last election.” At some point in the near (or far) future, each may be able to claim victory. 

Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images