WASHINGTON – Liz Cheney is out of GOP leadership. Elise Stefanik is the favorite to take her place. And the Republican Party is fractured on Capitol Hill.
Wednesday’s decision by House Republicans to remove the Wyoming congresswoman as chair of the House GOP Conference is only the beginning of a new chapter for a party that hopes to recapture Congress in 2022 after making key gains in November’s elections.
The first order of business will be to replace Cheney, who became a distraction to the Trump loyalists running the House GOP due to her constant drumbeat that former president Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election amounted to a “Big Lie.”
That process will start Thursday, with candidates for the chair position participating in a forum, which will allow members to meet with them. Any challengers to Stefanik must declare their candidacy, as Stefanik has formally done.
Then on Friday, the caucus will meet again to vote on Cheney’s replacement, lawmakers said when they exited the vote on Wednesday.
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Elise Stefanik is the clear favorite
All their eggs seem to be in Stefanik’s basket. The New York congresswoman has been endorsed by party leaders like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Trump himself, who called her the “superior” choice to Cheney.
Stefanik was what Trump called a “new Republican star” beginning in 2019, when she was a staunch defender of Trump during his first impeachment proceedings over his dealings with Ukraine. Since then, she has ridden the wave of vocal Trump support, and GOP leaders think she could be a unifying force to head up the conference message.
But Stefanik’s somewhat moderate voting record could give pause to some members. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found that while Cheney voted in line with Trump’s priorities 92.9% of the time while he was in office, Stefanik did so only 77.7% of the time, as she represents a more moderate New York district.
Stefanik planned to meet with the conservative House Freedom Caucus on Wednesday evening, where she said she believes she has great support.
Greene calls for a delay in vote on replacement
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who was stripped of her committee assignments over a litany of incendiary, conspiratorial and menacing social media posts from before she was elected, told reporters Wednesday after the vote that she asked McCarthy for a delay to Friday’s vote on Cheney’s replacement, citing the need for “choices” because of how quickly the process has moved.
McCarthy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The fact that Rep. Stefanik has basically been assumed to be the successor is a clear signal that at least a majority of the conference is ready and willing to move on with her as the replacement,” said Casey Burgat, director of legislative affairs at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. “They wouldn’t have called today’s vote without knowing the replacement was all but assured.”
Trump remains a GOP force
As for congressional Republicans, their move to oust Cheney is a clear signal that leaders have decided the best way to win future elections is by sticking with the Trump message, experts have said. While many faulted Cheney for her continued statements disagreeing with Trump’s false claims of election fraud, Trump has not stopped spreading those falsehoods.
Election integrity — a “cover for ‘stop the steal'” — is likely to be one of the big planks for House Republicans going into the 2022 midterms who are sticking with Trump, said former Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., a chief strategist for the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks and exposes misinformation on social media, speaking to USA TODAY before the vote to remove Cheney.
“The Trump part of the party believes that the fundraising is much more effective by supporting Trump than not … that culture wars are much more effective for the Republican base than actual policy discussions,” Riggleman said.
What’s next for Liz Cheney?
Following the vote to remove her, Cheney vowed to “do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.”
“We have seen the danger that he continues to provoke with his language… I think it’s very important that we make sure whoever we elect will be faithful to the Constitution,” Cheney told reporters.
Cheney’s platform isn’t going away just yet; after exiting the vote for her removal, she sat down for an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie, which is set to air Thursday. It’s an opportunity Cheney would not have gotten but for the growing tensions in the GOP to remove her, Burgat argued.
She’s also running for reelection in 2022, a move Trump has fully opposed, and encouraged other Republicans to throw their hat in the ring. But until that election, Cheney still has her vote in Congress.
“She’s going to have a bullhorn at her disposal” that she didn’t have as party leader, Burgat said.