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McCarthy needs to rout Cheney to move past 2020

But getting Trump on message remains his biggest management challenge

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy hopes that ousting Liz Cheney from party leadership will satisfy pro-Trump GOP voters and allow him to move on to attacking Democrats’ failings, Zeller writes.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy hopes that ousting Liz Cheney from party leadership will satisfy pro-Trump GOP voters and allow him to move on to attacking Democrats’ failings, Zeller writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — The ranks of Republicans in Congress willing to openly oppose former President Donald Trump have dwindled since Trump’s 2016 campaign. Now House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy plans to stamp out the last voices of protest by ousting his conference chair, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, from party leadership.

That does not mean McCarthy and his caucus are eager to continue relitigating the 2020 presidential election, as Trump clearly does. Rather, it’s a recognition of the overwhelming support Trump still enjoys among Republican voters, along with two other political realities.

First, that there’s a case to be made that Trump can be a net plus for the party’s electoral prospects. Second, that Republicans realize continued squabbling over Trump’s legacy won’t help them win back congressional majorities next year.

McCarthy hopes to thread a needle here, by retaining whatever it is about Trump that motivates Republican voters while at the same time turning the discussion to his preferred topics: President Joe Biden’s proposed tax hikes, the influx of unauthorized immigrants at the borders, and schools that are still not open five days a week. That’s currently the GOP’s case for winning back the House and Senate in 2022.

The Trump factor

Getting Trump on message is McCarthy’s biggest management challenge. The former president continues, through regular missives from Mar-a-Lago, to insist the election was stolen from him, while McCarthy has struggled to explain why his votes to reject state election returns in January did not constitute support for Trump’s claims.

Asked at a March news conference why he’d tried to help overturn the election, McCarthy said it wasn’t true that his votes to reject electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania would have done that. “It takes 270,” he said. “If you remove Arizona and Pennsylvania, President Biden is still president. He’s above 270. So that premise is wrong.”

Asked the month before about Cheney’s continued role in leadership, McCarthy told reporters he wanted to move on from the 2020 debate. “There’s more that unites us than divides us,” he said. “We’ve dealt with that issue, and we’ll continue to govern, just as I said, to get people back to work, back to school, and back to health.”

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Before he began deflecting questions about it, McCarthy was among those Republicans who blamed Trump for the deadly Capitol riot of Jan. 6. And many Republicans see Trump’s insistence that the 2020 vote was rigged as the reason their party lost two Senate seats in Georgia in January runoffs. 

But if Trump’s behavior since the election gave his Republican critics an opening to try to excise him from the GOP, it has now closed.

McCarthy believes that when Trump is on message, he can help the party, as Trump did in offering endorsements in recent special elections in Louisiana and Texas. He thanked Trump for helping new GOP Rep. Julia Letlow avoid a runoff in her Louisiana race in March.

It’s clear McCarthy realizes that anyone on his leadership team who argues with Trump over the 2020 election puts him in an untenable position, with his own caucus likely to side with the former president.

In turning the discussion to his preferred topic, Democrats’ failings, McCarthy told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo on Sunday, “We need a conference chair that is delivering that message day in and day out and uniting the nation.”

Cheney would rather stand on principle. In a May 5 op-ed for The Washington Post, she reiterated her view that “Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law.”

Earlier that day, Trump said Cheney was a “warmongering fool.”

After Cheney

The question in the Capitol now is whether, in ousting Cheney, McCarthy will succeed in changing the topic to the Democrats’ failings?

The vote on whether Cheney remains as conference chair or is replaced, possibly by New York’s Elise Stefanik, will say a lot about how strong McCarthy’s position in his caucus is. He is urging GOP lawmakers to back Stefanik. 

McCarthy helped save Cheney’s leadership job in February, when he spoke against a first move to oust her. The final vote then was 145-61. 

McCarthy changed his mind after Cheney again spoke out against Trump at the party conference in Orlando last month. McCarthy had hoped that meeting, the first such retreat since the pandemic struck, would mark a segue. He told reporters before the gathering that Trump was not speaking at it because “we’re breaking out the entire conference in different breakout sessions with policy. It’s not like retreats in the past where there’s federal speakers coming in.”

Now McCarthy needs not only to reverse the February vote tally but to drive Cheney’s support down to near zero.

If he succeeds, McCarthy will demonstrate a level of control over his caucus that his most recent predecessors as party leader, Paul D. Ryan and John A. Boehner, did not enjoy when they departed the scene. Both Ryan in 2018 and Boehner in 2015 quit in frustration over the party’s divisions, Ryan with Trump, Boehner with recalcitrant fiscal conservatives in the Freedom Caucus.

The GOP seemed ungovernable then, but Trump’s chaotic presidency has in some ways brought Republican lawmakers into greater cohesion. That may be more a reaction to the unifying effect Trump had on Democrats and on GOP voters than a result of any respect for Trump’s leadership. Still, the anti-Trump Republicans are harder and harder to find.

In routing Cheney, McCarthy will also have gone far to rehabilitate his image. He’s known for his ability to work with members across the ideological spectrum, but the pall of losing the speakership to Ryan in 2015 still hangs over him. Then, he was the odds-on favorite as Boehner’s No. 2 to replace him. But the Freedom Caucus rejected the Californian as insufficiently committed to full resistance to then-President Barack Obama’s agenda.

And Republicans questioned his messaging skills after McCarthy told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Republicans’ lengthy investigation into the 2012 killings of two U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, was actually an effort to embarrass Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who’d been secretary of State in 2012 and was, in 2015, the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee.

Republicans had forgiven McCarthy enough to name him minority leader after Ryan’s departure and after losing the House in 2018, and McCarthy is the favorite to be their next speaker if Republicans win the House majority next year.

Cheney, who shares her father’s level demeanor and ability to explain policy positions, was one potential rival. A strong vote to remove her clears the field.

McCarthy hopes that will make keeping Trump on message easier, and it might. But judging by Trump’s latest allegations of election fraud from Arizona to New Hampshire, the former president will remain a McCarthy management challenge for some time to come.

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