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What Liz Cheney’s Ousting Says About The GOP

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

EDITOR’S NOTE (May 12, 2021, 9:27 a.m.): House Republicans booted Rep. Liz Cheney from leadership, given her refusal to back down from criticizing former President Donald Trump and his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Last week, we talked about what Cheney’s ousting would mean for the Republican Party moving forward.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Liz Cheney is once again in danger of losing her position as the No. 3 House Republican.

Earlier this week, she criticized former President Donald Trump on Twitter for continuing to falsely claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, saying that:

Cheney, of course, is no stranger to criticizing the former president. She was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. And she has already survived one attempt from her party to push her out of leadership because of this vote. 

Cheney is unlikely to survive a second attempt to oust her, however. In leaked audio on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “I’ve had it with her,” and many House Republicans have expressed similar frustrations with Cheney’s leadership — upset that so much attention has been focused on the GOP’s intraparty bickering.

Republicans can govern without winning a majority. That threatens our democracy.

So, let’s talk about why Cheney is once again on the chopping block and what that means for the Republican Party moving forward — that is, can we finally stop debating whether the GOP is Trump’s party now? 

But first: the role of the “Big Lie.” For a while now, refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election has proven a fealty test of sorts to Trump, and it’s one Cheney has refused to take. How much of that is responsible for Cheney’s current situation versus her politics being increasingly out of step with the rest of the party?

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nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): It’s the entire reason for her current situation, Sarah.

Ideologically, Cheney is a faithful conservative — at least as conservatism used to be defined. According to DW-Nominate, which uses voting records to quantify the ideology of every member of Congress on a scale from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal), she has a score of 0.515.

And according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score, she voted in line with Trump’s position 93 percent of the time. Instead, her main transgression appears to be not going along with the “Big Lie” (and voting to impeach Trump for using it to egg on a violent mob).

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Yeah, agreed. The idea that Cheney’s troubles are about policy — the argument that her hawkish foreign policy views or her free-trade-y views are behind her split with the bulk of the GOP — is a bit … silly?

sarah: Let me push back on that a little. I concede that the question I asked is perhaps a bit unfair in that the two are obviously connected. That is, the reason we’re talking about Cheney being deposed is because of her refusal to repeat Trump’s baseless claims; however, it does make sense to me on some level that there isn’t a greater effort to keep her in leadership because she’s increasingly out of step with the rest of the party.

Kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): A massive segment of the U.S. population, almost entirely Republican, still falsely believes the election was illegitimate. The strategy for Republicans in Congress has mostly been to not support the “Big Lie” — but not refute it either — because doing so risks alienating their base. Cheney has gone against the grain on this and is an easy target to make an example of.

Americans are living in two different realities right now.

sarah: Kaleigh is onto something that I thought this line from The New York Times encapsulated well on why House Republicans are now ready to part ways with Cheney: “Many, including Mr. McCarthy, had hoped that after surviving the February vote of no confidence, Ms. Cheney, as an elected leader, would make like the rest of the party and simply move on.” 

It’s as Kaleigh said: Republican leaders aren’t necessarily full-throatedly supporting Trump’s baseless claims (at least not at the national level). But it’s a risky gambit they’re making since Trump has made the “Big Lie” a sort of fealty test.

kaleigh: The GOP is stopping short of insisting members embrace the “Big Lie,” but they recognize that it doesn’t serve them to refute it either.

micah: Yeah, agreed.

So, McCarthy’s beef with Cheney is more about messaging, I think, than fealty to Trump: Cheney’s repeated criticisms of Trump’s false claims keep that issue front and center when Republican leaders would prefer to just talk about something else.

Even beyond Cheney, though, the problem for GOP elites in Washington is that state-level Republicans do want to keep the “Big Lie” going and at the center of the conversation.

But here’s what’s really worrying. Political parties have had plenty of litmus tests over the decades — positions you almost have to have to be a member in good standing. For Republicans in most of the country, being anti-abortion or against tax increases, for example.

The problem with this particular litmus test is, it’s not about policy and it’s anti-democratic. So, over the years, we’ve seen the GOP grow more conservative, in part perhaps due to these litmus tests. But now the party is filtering itself through a sieve that will filter out anyone who (i) is willing to acknowledge reality out loud and (ii) is unwilling to undermine democracy.

kaleigh: Right, Micah. They’re playing a dangerous game here. They’re maybe justifying it by not explicitly endorsing it, but that defense falls apart if they punish Cheney in this way. Because if you don’t have to embrace it but you also aren’t allowed to refute it, you end up in the same place.

micah: Yeah. We’ve already seen the GOP shift in this direction during the past couple decades and in the Trump era. See here and here. But it feels like we’re heading even more into a world where one of the two major parties is defined by its willingness to lie and undermine democracy.

That’s scary!

And “defined” is the operative word there — as opposed to a party that simply includes some people who are willing to lie and undermine democracy. And even that was scary enough!

nrakich: What I find interesting is that Republicans seem primed to oust Cheney now when they actually voted to keep her in leadership a few months ago. That says to me that this issue is not going away.

micah: Yeah, what changed?

kaleigh: Is it two strikes and you’re out?

sarah: I think it’s more than that. You all raise important points about how the Republican Party is moving in an anti-democratic direction, but at the same time, Cheney’s being on the outs is more complicated than her refusal to not dispute Trump’s false claims that he won.

There appear to be real frustrations with Cheney’s leadership in the GOP, with some members suggesting that by Cheney’s continuing to spar with Trump, she is preventing the Republican Party from presenting a unified front. It certainly has the effect of keeping the “Big Lie” in the news, when as you all said earlier, it’s something many Republicans would like to move past.

nrakich: Right, Sarah, I think it’s that she’s not sticking to the message. Which, as Kaleigh said, isn’t necessarily shouting from the rooftops that the election was stolen, but it’s not publicly criticizing the leader of the party either.

micah: Yeah, ignoring the substance of all this — you know, the health of our democracy and reality — you can see where McCarthy is coming from.

kaleigh: But keep in mind, then, that the “unified front” is “we are going to allow this lie to continue unchallenged.”

sarah: That’s a good point, Kaleigh. Why do Republican lawmakers refuse to cleanly break ties with Trump over the “Big Lie”?

kaleigh: The lie serves Republicans, particularly at the state level. Take a look at the many attempts to restrict voter access in the name of “election security.”

micah: That’s a big part of the answer, for sure. 

People will also say that poll after poll shows most GOP rank-and-file voters believe the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. In a recent CNN survey, for example, Republicans said by 70 percent to 23 percent that Biden didn’t win legitimately. Independents said he did win, by 69-27 percent. Democrats said he did by 97-3 percent.

But that’s a bit circular. Polls clearly show that “the 2020 election was stolen” is a minority position. It’s a belief that’s only really concentrated within the GOP base and nowhere else. But what I don’t know is whether — in terms of electoral effects — spreading the “Big Lie” will dissuade swing voters from voting for Republican candidates. 

The health of our democracy hasn’t exactly been a high-salience issue for many voters.

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nrakich: I agree that it’s circular, Micah. The reason more Republican elites don’t criticize Trump is that they’re afraid of his voters punishing them. But what they don’t seem to realize is that they themselves also have (at least some) power to shape those voters’ opinions! There’s a lot of evidence in political science that elites can shape public opinion.

sarah: Do GOP elites, though? So much of Trump’s story in 2016 and 2020 was about the high voter turnout that he was responsible for driving. And although I think we should question how much turnout helped the GOP in 2020, there does seem to be an unspoken fear among GOP elites that these voters aren’t really Republicans now — that is, they won’t turn out for anyone other than Trump — which is why so many GOP elites are scared to break with Trump’s messaging.

micah: What do you all think would happen public opinion-wise if Republicans in Washington came out hard against the “Big Lie” but Trump and state-level Republicans kept it going?

nrakich: To be clear, it would be a political risk for Republican politicians to come out forcefully against the “Big Lie.” A solid chunk of the party would likely stand by Trump and continue to think the election was stolen. But it could lead to serious infighting within the GOP. At least, though, our democracy would be on a healthier path. 

kaleigh: That’s the thing. There is a potential cost to coming out against the “Big Lie.” But the cost of not doing so is eroding our democracy. One cost seems a lot higher than the other.

But, hey, I’m not staring down midterms.

sarah: Right, part of the calculus in pushing someone like Cheney out has to factor in that Republicans are not exactly in jeopardy of losing Wyoming if Cheney is demoted. It’s a deep red state, and someone to Cheney’s right could easily replace her. In fact, Cheney already faces two primary challenges back home. 

So, to what extent does someone like Cheney still have sway in the GOP? And what does this development mean for other, more moderate GOP members? 

micah: I think they are not long for this world.

I mean, how many are even left?

nrakich: Not many. But I’d be careful about making sweeping pronouncements. I recently wrote an article about the many Republicans who have left Congress since Trump took office (132 of them!). And while it’s true that their replacements have generally been more conservative, there are also some fresh anti-Trump faces, such as Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Peter Meijer.

sarah: There seems to be a shift, too, in how GOP activists and elites think of what it means to be conservative. FiveThirtyEight contributor Dan Hopkins and fellow political scientist Hans Noel recently published a paper in which they found that there wasn’t always a relationship between how conservative senators’ voting records were and how conservative the Republican Party’s activists thought they were.

But, OK, to wrap: Where does this leave Cheney? 

House Republicans could hold a vote on Cheney’s leadership position as early as next Wednesday, and Cheney herself has said that she is not challenging the vote on her replacement.

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nrakich: Right now, it sure feels as though Cheney will get ousted from leadership. No. 2 House leader Steve Scalise has come out against her, and members of McCarthy’s leadership team are reportedly whipping votes against her.

kaleigh: It seems like the writing is on the wall. If she isn’t ousted, she’s certainly been put on notice.

nrakich: The next question is whether Cheney can win reelection — or whether she even runs again. As you mentioned, Sarah, two Republicans have already announced campaigns against her in next year’s primary. But I think she actually stands a decent chance of winning if the pro-Trump vote is split. 

If, say, four pro-Trump candidates run against her, she could prevail with just a plurality of the vote (say, 40 percent). But also, Trump has promised to pick one of her challengers and endorse him, so that could consolidate her opposition.

There’s also a chance that she forgoes reelection — there are rumors she’s considering a presidential run in 2024. But, of course, that campaign would be DOA unless the GOP does a major reevaluation of Trump’s role.

Just ask Bill Weld

sarah: Or John Kasich.

Indeed, though, a lot is riding on Trump as a potential kingmaker in 2022. I know Nathaniel and FiveThirtyEight contributor Meredith Conroy have examined Trump’s role in the primaries previously, and he’s already playing an active role in special elections and in those primary challenge bids that Nathaniel mentioned. 

So, where does ousting Cheney in the GOP leave the GOP then?

It’s hard to think that this episode will be remembered as anything other than the party removing someone from power who wouldn’t endorse Trump’s fraudulent claims that the election was stolen, but maybe that doesn’t really matter for Republican voters at this point?

micah: Yeah, I feel like this is the GOP further refining and crystallizing itself into the purest possible form of a Trumpist party.

It’s like this scene from “Blow” (warning, there’s some foul language, drug use and background nudity). They’re testing the purity of some cocaine obtained by Johnny Depp’s character. The cocaine is very pure, and then they partake.  

In this metaphor, Depp is Trump, the other characters are Republican elites, and the cocaine is Trumpism.

That doesn’t quite work, but you get the idea.

nrakich: Ousting Cheney may be more symbolic than actually influential (given that the House GOP caucus is already solidly in Trump’s corner) … but it is quite a symbol.

The real impact, I think, will be felt in the 2022 primaries, as you allude to, Sarah. Will anti-Trump Republicans go down to defeat? Will they retire? Or will Trump’s crusade against them fizzle?

I am really looking forward to doing the 2022 version of that article with Meredith again.

kaleigh: As of today’s latest statement from Trump, no sign of fizzling.

nrakich: Ah, but Kaleigh, it is often in the execution that Trump fizzles.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.