Rep. Liz Cheney took on the Trump wing of her party and survived its attempt to politically kneecap her. But it’s only the beginning of what looks like a yearslong fight for her place in the GOP.
The Wyoming Republican became Trumpworld’s public enemy No. 1 this year after her vote to impeach the former president, jeopardizing her career and leadership job. Since then, though, Cheney has racked up a string of wins that put her on more solid footing in the party — starting with her easy victory over a conservative-led effort to oust her as House GOP conference chair.
Her triumphs continued late last month, when the Wyoming state legislature rejected a measure endorsed by Donald Trump Jr. that could have made it harder for Cheney to prevail in what’s likely to be a crowded primary field. Big names in the GOP establishment, such as former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, are lining up to help her stockpile cash. And a sex trafficking probe that threatens to take down one of her chief critics, MAGA-loving Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), also gives Cheney some vindication — even inspiring viral memes about her reveling in her foe’s fall.
“I don’t know that Cheney would characterize it as a winning streak. She’s just a fighter,” said Amy Edmonds, a former Cheney staffer and former Wyoming state legislator.
That perspective may serve Cheney well, since her challenges are far from over. She still has to lock down her party’s endorsement in the deep red state of Wyoming next August, leaving plenty of time for pro-Trump forces to mobilize against her — though she’s likely to benefit from multiple pro-Trump candidates competing for the same lane. If Cheney can hang on to her House seat, however, her ability to climb the leadership ranks may still be hamstrung by her vote against a former president who’s said to be obsessed with taking down the Republicans who helped impeach him.
“She’s been out there talking to folks [in the state]. Sometimes people are not happy," Edmonds added, "but she does not, and never will, regret that vote” against former President Donald Trump.
Once a fast-rising star in the GOP, Cheney was in the mix as a future speaker; she even passed up a Senate bid last year to seek her political fortunes in the House. Now several Republicans think Cheney will struggle to clinch their No. 3 House leadership spot again next year, when she will almost certainly face a challenge for the job.
“Definitely no,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who backed February’s unsuccessful effort to boot Cheney from leadership. “Doubt she wins Wyoming.”
“Maybe she’ll run again in Northern Virginia,” he added, taking a jab at her residence outside Washington.
Already several ambitious Republican lawmakers are nipping at Cheney’s heels. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, drafted a memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week offering a competing vision for the future of the party that appeared designed to put Cheney on notice. Banks’ messaging push shows a post-Trump GOP still riven with internal tensions over its direction.
“You may have seen that I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of our party and how we capitalize on the gift Donald Trump gave us, which was his connection with working-class voters,” Banks wrote Friday in an internal email to the RSC that was obtained by POLITICO. “Because of Trump, the GOP has undergone a coalitional transformation and is now the party of the working class.”
“We should embrace that. Not fight it,” Banks added.
But Cheney isn’t backing down. She was asked about the Banks memo during a Congressional Institute call last week and forcefully rebutted its contents, according to sources familiar with the exchange. Cheney argued the GOP is not the party of class warfare and that dividing society into classes while attacking the private sector is neo-Marxist and wrong.
And in public and private conversations — including at a recent fundraiser with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney — sources described Cheney as clear in her view that embracing Trump is not only constitutionally indefensible but also fraught with political consequences. The GOP lost the House, Senate and White House after four years of Trump, she has noted.
Cheney has a healthy amount of convincing to do, with Republicans still largely in Trump’s corner after his Senate acquittal for inciting the deadly Capitol riot. More than any other Republican who broke from the former president after Jan. 6, her future — both in Congress and back home — will show whether Trump turncoats have room to remain and even rise inside the Grand Old Party.
“Yeah, there’s headwinds, but … the intensity has started to settle. And I think part of that is when you have the distance of time,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. “I think her profile has increased substantially, and her standing [in the GOP] increases every day.”
It’s still unclear whether Cheney would want to stay on the GOP leadership team in the next Congress. She has publicly clashed with McCarthy, and the two have notably not appeared together at their usual weekly press conference since the awkward moment on Feb. 25 when they split over Trump’s role in the party.
Allies, however, insisted their working relationship is fine and noted that they’ve continued to have regular private leadership meetings. McCarthy and Cheney are also aligned when it comes to the GOP’s policy agenda.
Some lawmakers think Cheney could seek an off-ramp in the next Congress by trying to land a top committee post, where her views on Trump would get less attention but where she could still continue to serve as a high-profile voice in the party for conservative priorities. Others think she could be positioning herself for an eventual White House bid — in 2024 or later.
For now, though, Cheney has her leadership job sewn up, which has enabled her to focus on countering President Joe Biden and winning back the House majority. Last week, she and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) toured her home state to hear from local energy-industry stakeholders. She also has thrown some red meat to the base, hammering Biden over the burgeoning migration crisis and the proposed tax hikes in his infrastructure plan.
That shift, GOP lawmakers and strategists said, has helped cool some of the anger directed at Cheney and refocused Republicans on her political gifts.
“She has not only weathered the storm, she has thrived in the storm,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. But, he added, “this will come in peaks and valleys. Trump is not dominating the entire political conversation right now.”
Meanwhile, Gaetz — an antagonist so committed that he flew to Wyoming to troll her at a campaign rally — has his own fires to put out. The Department of Justice is reportedly investigating his alleged relationship with a 17-year-old and whether he violated sex trafficking laws or paid women for sex, and few Republicans are stepping up to defend him.
“I think absolutely it hurts Gaetz’s credibility and in turn, the credibility of all these people who are trying to make this a referendum on the direction of the party,” said Matt Micheli, former chair of the Wyoming GOP. “Is this the party of Matt Gaetz or Liz Cheney? Well, let’s see, what do most people want?”
Cheney’s detractors argue that it will be much harder for her to beat back a leadership challenge if she’s forced to face someone head-on. But they’ve already underestimated her once: Cheney’s critics, including Gaetz, crowed about having the votes to defeat her earlier this year before she trounced them, staying in power with the support of 145 Republicans.
“That’s a landslide in any election. The numbers speak for themselves,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.). “Liz is going to have to decide if she wants to remain in leadership, [or] whatever she wants to run for. But considering the reports of her demise as conference chair were widespread, I would say her victory was pretty overwhelming.”