What Liz Cheney’s lopsided loss says about the state of the GOP
By Shane Goldmacher
Rep. Liz Cheney’s martyrlike quest to stop Trump has ensured her place in Republican Party history. But her lopsided defeat in Wyoming on Tuesday also exposed the remarkable degree to which the former president still controls the party’s present — and its near future.
Ten House Republicans voted to impeach Trump in early 2021 for his role inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol. Only two have survived the 2022 Republican primaries, a breathtaking run of losses and forced retirements in a chamber where incumbents typically prevail with ease.
No single defeat was as freighted with significance as Cheney’s, or as revealing of the party’s realignment.
The sheer scope of her loss — the daughter of a former vice president was defeated in a landslide — may have only strengthened Trump’s hand as he asserts his grip over the Republican Party, by revealing the futility among Republican voters of even the most vigorous prosecution of the case against him.
Casting her mission of combating election denialism as a moral imperative and her work as just beginning, Cheney pledged to “do whatever it takes” to prevent a second Trump presidency. “Freedom must not, cannot and will not die here,” she declared in her concession speech Tuesday night in Jackson, Wyoming.
Not long ago, Cheney had been seen as a rising Republican star, even a potential House speaker-in-waiting. Now, after becoming her party’s most dogged Trump detractor — turning the Jan. 6 committee hearings into a bullhorn with which to warn of the dangers Trump and his enablers posed to the party, the country and even democracy itself — she is soon to be out of her job.
Cheney had hoped the Jan. 6 riot would be a turning point for Republicans. It did prove to be a dividing line. But it was those who crossed Trump who have suffered the electoral consequences.
“She may have been fighting for principles,” said Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson and adviser to Trump. “But they are not the principles of the Republican Party.”
Cheney made clear she was more than willing to lose her House seat, and she hinted broadly at a 2024 presidential campaign of her own, invoking Abraham Lincoln’s failed bids for lesser offices before he sought and won the presidency. On Wednesday, she formed a new political action committee, the Great Task, whose name nods to Lincoln and which will be filled with leftover campaign cash, and said she was “thinking” of running for president.
But the outcome in Wyoming showed that while anti-Trump Republicans can count on ample money and media attention, the actual Republican constituency for them is far more limited. Indeed, one of Cheney’s last gasps was an effort to get Democrats to switch parties to vote in the GOP primary.
Her loss was also the latest sign that the central organizing principles of today’s Republican Party are tethered less to specific policies — she was a reliable vote for much of the Trump agenda — than to whatever Trump wants at any given time.
Most recently, that has meant lashing out at federal law enforcement authorities over the search of Trump’s Florida home for missing materials with classified markings. More broadly, it has meant embracing his obsession with denying his 2020 defeat and amplifying his false claims of election fraud, regardless of the bloody fallout nearly 20 months ago or its destabilizing effect on the nation.
“You could write the history of the modern Republican Party over the last two years, and what does Jan. 6 look like? A hiccup,” said William Kristol, the neoconservative writer who co-founded Republican Voters Against Trump, a group spending millions of dollars to oppose Trump-backed election deniers. “The price of admission to today’s Republican Party is turning a blind eye to Jan. 6.”
That was the experience of Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, who voted for Trump’s impeachment weeks after taking office and lost his reelection primary this month. He said his constituents asked him about his impeachment vote 10 times as much as about anything else.
“Policy is not policy toward improving government,” Meijer explained. “It’s policy as a signifier of whether you’re part of the in group or the out group.”
Refusing to repeat the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, he said, put Meijer squarely in the “out group.”
“I can’t tell you the number of times somebody said, ‘You don’t have to believe the election is stolen. The important thing isn’t believing it; it’s saying it,’” Meijer recalled in an interview. “That is what a Republican is supposed to do right now.”
If a series of primary setbacks this spring had showed that Trump was not invincible, then races in August have showcased his enduring influence.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, another Republican vote for impeachment, was ousted by a Trump supporter. A Trump-backed candidate, Tim Michels, who has entertained trying to overturn the 2020 election, won the Republican nomination for governor of Wisconsin. And Trump’s preferred candidates swept the nominations in Arizona for Senate, governor, attorney general and secretary of state. All embraced his election denialism.
Even in Connecticut, a state that once defined a more genteel and moderate brand of Republicanism, Trump’s choice for Senate upset the local party’s candidate.
Notably, neither of the two House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and survived primaries this year, Rep. David Valadao of California and Dan Newhouse of Washington, won traditional Republican primaries. Both won in states with open primaries allowing the top two vote-getters to advance, regardless of party affiliation.
Max Miller, a former Trump White House aide who announced a run for Congress in Ohio last year against another Republican who voted for impeachment, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, tried to explain the rage of Republican voters toward the GOP impeachers.
“You run to be a representative of the people,” Miller said. “It says ‘representative.’ You’re there to represent their values. They betrayed their constituents’ values, and that’s why they’re in such a hot spot.”
Gonzalez chose to retire rather than run again, citing threats against him and his family.
The cleansing of Trump critics from the Republican Party is still in progress and so thorough that much of it now happens without Trump’s direct involvement. Allies at local and state parties, as well as at Republican-linked organizations, censure or oust those who break with the new orthodoxy.
Jeff Larson, a former chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, who also served as CEO of the 2016 Republican National Convention that nominated Trump, recently aided Cheney’s reelection fight through an outside group. Not long after Axios reported his involvement, Larson was asked to step down as chair of America Rising, a prominent Republican research group, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Larson is no longer chair. Neither he nor America Rising responded to a request for comment.
Some disagreement with Trump can be countenanced in the party, but more open rebellion or disparagement is unforgivable. That presents a challenge for would-be Republican alternatives who are critical of Trump, like Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who was seen flipping pork chops at the Iowa State Fair last week.
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, the conservative magazine — which has had a complex relationship with Trump, by turns condemning him or cheering his actions — said he hoped the party would not renominate Trump in 2024. He acknowledged the pathway to an alternative standard-bearer was narrow and involved coaxing Republican voters into adopting some version of Trumpism without its namesake — the kind of space that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida appears determined to fill.
“The most important thing, if you want to have Trump stay retired, is to understand that the people you need to convince are Republicans who voted for him twice, who like him, who are entertained by him, who are grateful for many things he did, who hate his critics, who think he was treated unfairly,” Lowry said. “That is who you need to convince.”
In her race, Cheney opted mostly to assail Trump rather than to engage with her challenger, Harriet Hageman, whom Trump endorsed.
That focus was noticed. During one of Hageman’s debate-prep video conferences, she suggested to aides that they scour Cheney’s congressional news releases to see how many were about Wyoming or were critical of President Joe Biden, according to two people involved. The releases were almost all about Jan. 6 and Trump.