Former President Donald Trump promised to exact his revenge on Republicans who refused to go along with his election lies or turn a blind eye to his role in the January 6 insurrection. This week, Americans are likely to watch his first political casualty fall as the House GOP is poised to oust Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from her No. 3 leadership post and replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik.
The decision to swap out Cheney for Stefanik, who has a far less conservative voting record but the golden calling card of loyalty to the former President, demonstrates that the GOP now values political expediency over the willingness to stand on principle in the post-Trump era.
At first, many Republicans said Cheney had the right to speak her mind and criticize Trump for his role in the insurrection as they danced around his damaging and inaccurate statements that the election of President Joe Biden was rigged. Now their worries about appealing to his base in the upcoming elections seems to have convinced them that there is no room for disagreement with the former President and that having a vocal Trump critic on their leadership team is too much of a liability.
That may be true when facing the most conservative voters who dominate the Republican primaries given that a March CNN poll showed that about 67% of Republicans said they believed Trump had a good effect on the party. But House Republicans appear to be taking a harder line than most Republicans about the need for unquestioning loyalty to Trump. More than three-quarters (76%) of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents said the party should not penalize members who expressed opposition to him.
Though Trump endeared himself to 74 million voters by convincing them that he spoke his mind regardless of the consequences, Stefanik and other Trump allies seem to think that the safest political bet is to just fall in line. The New York Republican argued in an interview with Breitbart News radio on Saturday that it is the role of the GOP conference chair to set aside her own views.
While holding that No. 3 position, Stefanik said, Cheney has failed in her duty to "speak with a unified voice for the majority of Republican members."
"When you are the conference chair and communicating and in charge of the message of the party in the House, you have to represent a majority of the members and the majority of the voters across this country," Stefanik said. "There has been significant frustration among the members of the Republican conference that she is no longer doing that, and we hear that frustration at home among voters," she said, arguing that unified message will be "really important going into 2022 to have the best chance to win back the majority."
The conference chair position is "not an opportunity to share your personal views — whatever they may be," Stefanik added. "You speak for the team," she said. "I would also make sure we're not attacking our fellow members and attacking President Trump and Trump supporters."
As the internecine struggle played out last week, some GOP leaders were blunt about their view that the party must stand by the former President as a matter of political survival -- no matter how he is perceived by the broader public -- an unpredictable facet of the current political environment that will be tested in swing districts in 2022.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham -- who warned after Trump's February speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that the former President has the ability to expand the Republican party or "destroy it" -- outlined the Republican Party's current calculus in clear terms when he was asked about Cheney.
"I just say to my Republican colleagues -- can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no," Graham said in an interview with Fox News Thursday. "I've always liked Liz Cheney, but she's made a determination that the Republican Party can't grow with President Trump. I've determined we can't grow without him."
No room for independence
Independent thought, and even dissension, have been tolerated during other phases of Republican Party history. But the leaders who have reaped the greatest rewards since 2016 have fallen in lockstep with Trump -- and Stefanik's sudden ascent is a case in point.
As CNN's KFile chronicled last week, the New York congresswoman became one of Trump's most visible defenders in Congress as part of his 2020 impeachment defense after making a different gamble during the 2016 election when she often criticized Trump's rhetoric and told voters that she would be an "independent voice."
On the flip side, Cheney, along with Utah Sen. Mitt Romney -- the 2012 Republican presidential nominee who voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trials of 2020 and 2021 -- and other members who stood up to the former President's election lies are facing considerable heat at home.
Romney, who was booed at a recent Utah Republican Party gathering (though he survived a censure attempt) as he reminded his audience that he promised to be independent from Trump, defended Cheney in a tweet last week: "Every person of conscience draws a line beyond which they will not go: Liz Cheney refuses to lie."
"As one of my Republican Senate colleagues said to me following my impeachment vote: 'I wouldn't want to be a member of a group that punished someone for following their conscience,'" Romney added.
But at least in Congress, the wing of the Republican Party willing to do just that appears to be growing.
The premise of Cheney's argument -- in what seems like an intentional bid to go down fighting in the hopes of helping resurrect the Republican Party later, possibly as a candidate for the White House -- is that "while embracing or ignoring Trump's statements" might help the party raise money or position itself politically now, "that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country," she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that Cheney grew increasingly unsettled this spring after noticing that National Republican Congressional Committee staff omitted a key finding about the Trump's weaknesses in battleground districts during a polling briefing at an April Republican retreat.
In Cheney's view, the omission of that information about Trump's vulnerabilities demonstrated the depths of denial within the party about the threat he poses, according to the Post reporting.
The 2022 midterms will test which side of the GOP is right on that question. But as the party continues to purge and punish the few members willing to contradict Trump, they aren't showing voters much about what they stand for, other than blind loyalty to a President who lost.