The recent political in-fighting which led to the ouster of Congresswoman Liz Cheney from a key leadership position in the House of Representatives might look like a black eye for the Republican party.
Democrats are having fun, pointing out the hypocrisy of Republicans who often refer derisively to ‘cancel culture’ plaguing the left.
But now that Cheney has been cancelled out over her criticism of Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the November 2020 election, how seriously will it damage the public image of the Republican Party heading into the next election cycle in 2022 and 2024?
This kind of political bloodletting never looks very pretty at the time, and it may be too early to tell what effect it may have in pure electoral terms. But many observers say Cheney’s removal from the ‘conference chair’ - the third-ranking lawmaker in the party's congressional leadership structure – was a significant symbol of Trump’s grip on the party, with potential implications for its future electability.
“It’s a defining moment for the party,” said Matt Terrill, a former Republican party strategist who works for the consulting firm Firehouse Strategies. “Trump left the White House, but he didn’t exit the political stage. His presence is not going to go away,” he added.
In many ways, Cheney was an unlikely person to throw overboard, a traditional conservative on the right of the party from a family with deep political roots. Her father, Dick Cheney, once held the same position and was Secretary of Defense under George H Bush, and then vice president under George W Bush.
Party leaders instead appear to believe that they are better off dumping the Wyoming lawmaker and uniting around Trump. By removing her swiftly, they hope to limit potential damage and refocus their efforts on challenging Democrats.
In that sense, Republicans strategists say Cheney’s disloyalty to Trump was playing into the hands of the Democrats, and thus had to be silenced. “For the people in the party who back Trump, they view this as good for the party,” said Terrill. “You can’t expect to win elections if you are a divided party,” he added.
The conference chair acts as a sort of spokesperson for the party, in charge of public relations and produces fact sheets to keep the party’s message unified, one former staffer told Univision. Clearly, having someone like Cheney delivering a discordant message was untenable.
“She was a real distraction. She was repeating a set of comments that was just very much at odds with where the party is right now. And I think she had to go,” said Carlos Diaz-Rosillo, former policy director at the White House under Trump.
The question now remains whether Cheney’s removal will heal the party, of cause even greater divisions.
Cheney has made it clear that she has no plans to go quietly, but will her strategy of trying to drag the party back to its traditional, conservative values – not to mention civility - pay off? That seems unlikely in the short term, say Republican strategists. “The voters are so much in [ex] President Trump's camp that even though politics has a very short memory, I don't see that changing any time soon,” said Diaz-Rosillo.
“She [Cheney] might be saying, strategically, this is not about winning battles, but about winning a war. Even then, I don't see the party adopting her views any time soon,” he added.
Republicans are not surprisingly playing down the internal divisions, even suggesting that it’s all part of a healthy debate in the party, a natural process after every election, especially for the losing side.
“I don't think this division is that different from the divisions that the Democrats experienced after 2016,” said Diaz-Rosillo, pointing to the differences between radicals like Bernie Sanders and the more moderate wing of the party.
To be sure, by the time she was ousted on Wednesday, Cheney had few supporters in Congress, and opinion polls appear to show the Trump loyalists in full control of the party. She was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection on January 6 when a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.
Some Republicans have left the party, dismayed by a failure to disown Trump, while others vow to carry on the fight from within. “I’m an independent now. I think it’s the biggest electoral body today. The Republican party is shrinking,” said Carlos Gutierrez, Bush’s former Commerce Secretary. “Either you are for Trump or you are not welcome,” he said the 67-year-old Cuban American who is now working in the tech industry.
“If it continues to be the party of Trump, many of us are not going back,” Rosario Marin, a former Treasurer of the U.S. under Bush, told Reuters. Former Ohio Governor John Kasich backed Biden for president in November. Some people have dropped out of politics all together, like former presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
Others say they plan to stay in the party and back Cheney. “I will stay … so we can take our Party back to an age of reason,” said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, who said the party was just carrying out Trump’s orders, “like all cult followers do.”
Hours after Cheney’s ouster, a group of more than 150 Republicans, led by Trump critics, announced a new political movement on Thursday, saying the party was “rotten to the core.” In a statement of principles they said: "We oppose the employment of fear-mongering, conspiracism, and falsehoods and instead support evidence-based policymaking and honest discourse.”
A third party?
But it will take a lot more than that to loosen the control of the Trump loyalists in the party. And any talk of the creation of a rival third party still seems a long way off. “There has to be something bigger than this, some bigger names,” said one former Republican staffer and Trump critic who preferred not to be named. “It takes so much infrastructure to run an election campaign nationally, with donors and salaried staffers,” he added.
The party leaders appear to be banking on Trump’s popularity, frequently pointing out that he won 74 million votes in November, more than any other Republican presidential candidate in history. But they ignore the fact that he still lost the popular vote by seven million votes.
Maria Cardona, a Democrat political commentator, said she was “puzzled” by the Republican loyalty to a Trump’s “failed” presidency. “Trump in deeply unpopular in swing states and even though he may still be king in blood red states, he cannot win with just those supporters,” she told Univision.
“They are desperate because they know by gluing themselves to Trump, they cannot win more supporters, and so they can only win by keeping others from voting. It is insane because it is also a recipe for death of the GOP long-term,” she added.
Many Republicans are in a state of denial, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last month which found 60% of Republicans agree that the election was stolen from Trump.
Some analysts warn that this state of denial could end up coming back to haunt Republicans. Normally a party would look to a fresh face after suffering defeat, and turn away from a one term president.
What do the polls say?
An NBC News poll taken at the end of Biden's first 100 days in office found that Trump’s approval rating is dropping among Republican voters, with only 44% saying they support him over the interests of the party. The former President's approval rating among all voters has also slipped to around 32%, showing his limited appeal to a wider electorate.
At the same time, House Republicans are caught in a political trap and have a difficult choice when it comes to their own political careers, analysts point out. The party’s success in recent years mapping congressional districts to their own advantage, means that most Republican members of the House of Representatives are in safe red seats where Trump did well in November. So, for them, loyalty to Trump is essential to avoiding a primary challenge and keeping their jobs. But in so doing they may be sacrificing the party’s chances of winning back the Senate and the White House.
Trump’s claim that he was cheated in November is the main reason his party lost two Georgia Senate seats in January. Many of his voters stayed home after he told them their votes didn’t count.
That may explain why Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has displayed far less loyalty to Trump. Last month Trump insulted McConnell in a speech to Republican donors calling him “a dumb son of a b****”.
Risks for Biden
Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s approval is holding steady at 53%, with 41% who reject him. Biden is benefiting from the fading pandemic and a rebounding economy. But things could easily swing back in favor of Republicans favor if Biden fails to get his infrastructure and immigration legislation passed, or the economy is jolted by inflation.
Diaz-Rosillo says if he were still advising Trump he would recommend him “to lay low for now and not speak up on every little issue, and let his supporters do the work for him,” he said.
By next year’s mid-term congressional elections in November the Cheney affair could all be old news.