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  • Matthew Green

The continuing war against Liz Cheney

Safe incumbents aren't usually featured on bulletin boards like this.

As a rule, leaders in Congress don’t endorse challengers against incumbents in their own party. It violates one of their core duties, to help their colleagues get reelected. And it can easily backfire: if the incumbent gets reelected anyway, she can make life difficult for those leaders and make their endorsements look worthless.

Yet last week, two leaders of the House Republican Party did exactly that. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told The Federalist that he stood behind Harriet Hageman, one of several Republicans challenging Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) for the GOP nomination. Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) soon followed, endorsing Hageman in a remarkable statement that called Cheney a “Far-Left Pelosi puppet.”

If McCarthy and Stefanik were going to target anyone in their party, Cheney was the safest bet, politically speaking. When Cheney was chair of the Conference, her repeated criticisms of Trump put House Republicans in a tough spot with their pro-Trump constituents, and they voted to replace her with Stefanik. Four months later, Pelosi appointed Cheney to the select committee investigating the January 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol, a move that angered many conservatives who saw it as an act of treachery. In addition, Cheney herself had once supported a primary challenger to an incumbent (though the incumbent, Tom Massie (R-KY), isn’t exactly the most loyal Republican himself).

Still, endorsing Hageman was highly unorthodox and potentially risky. So why did McCarthy and Stefanik do it?

If they hoped to persuade Wyoming voters, they are likely to be disappointed. Political science research has found that endorsements by parties and party leaders can affect vote share in elections, but the effect is modest and contingent on many factors, such as the quality of the candidates. By themselves, these two endorsements probably won’t sway many primary voters. McCarthy is unknown to much of the public, and those who do recognize his name tend to view him unfavorably.

Another possibility is that McCarthy and Stefanik intended to scare would-be Cheney donors who want to stay McCarthy’s good graces. This could be why their endorsements came now, just a few weeks after Cheney reported raising record sums and boasted nearly $5 million in her campaign coffers, twelve times what Hageman has. But with so much money in the bank, Cheney won’t be hurt if donations to her campaign slow down.

A third possibility is that the endorsements were directed not at voters or donors but at other Republicans running against Cheney. As long as those candidates stay in the race, there’s a real danger that they split the anti-Cheney vote. Seeing that powerful GOP leaders are against them, perhaps they will withdraw, leaving Hageman as the sole candidate representing Republicans who want to remove Cheney.

But the most likely reason that Stefanik and McCarthy have stuck their neck out for Hageman is to placate Donald Trump. As Seth Masket predicted over a year ago, GOP leaders have been assiduously courting Trump, believing that only he can decide whether his strongest supporters -- working class whites -- turn out to vote. This gives the former president outsized leverage over what those leaders do. And Trump has it out for Cheney, who voted to impeach him and who has repeatedly attacked Trump for falsely claiming that the 2020 election was stolen.

Trump also has a small cadre of aggressive followers in Congress, consisting mostly of the House Freedom Caucus, who have been pushing McCarthy for months to kick Cheney out of the Republican Conference. McCarthy and Stefanik may be listening them, too, especially since they consider themselves kingmakers in their party. Stefanik felt she had to placate the Freedom Caucus to be elected Conference Chair, for example, and Freedom Caucus members have periodically threatened to kick McCarthy out of leadership.

These unusual endorsements of Cheney’s opponent, then, tell us two bigger things about the state of the GOP today. First, the Republican Party remains deeply divided, not over policy differences (as is usually the case for intraparty divisions) but over the Party’s very identity. Is the GOP about a shared set of policy goals and ideological commitments, or is it about one man and his personal grievances?

Second, the endorsements can be seen as a sign not of Trump’s strength but of his weakness. He dominates the Republican Party – certainly enough to scare two House leaders into making a risky and possibly pointless endorsement. But why pressure two House minority party leaders to support Hageman if she weren’t already likely to beat Cheney?

Those endorsements were only the latest effort by Trump and his acolytes to punish the Wyoming congresswoman. The tremendous amount of effort being deployed against her – the RNC’s censure motion, the state party refusing to acknowledge that Cheney is a Republican, Trump trying to get Wyoming to change its balloting law so Democrats can’t vote for Cheney in the primary – hints at desperation.

Importantly, Cheney is hardly alone among Republicans who are pushing back against a Trump-centered GOP. She is joined by Senate Republicans (including the highest ranked Republican in national office, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)) and dozens of former White House staffers and members of Congress. Members of this wing of the Party threatened to leave the GOP last year and sharply criticized the Republican National Committee’s badly-worded censure motion against Cheney (and against Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, another GOP congressman who joined the January 6 committee). Anti-Trump Republicans have also organized a conference in DC this weekend.

To be sure, Cheney could easily lose her primary. Her opposition to Trump is unpopular with Republican voters, who still largely support the president (though that support has started to weaken somewhat). But even if Cheney leaves Congress, others in the anti-Trump wing of the GOP will remain, and McCarthy and Stefanik will continue to be pressured by Trump to combat them. Expect the internecine conflict to continue.

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