Discover more from Political Junkie
Taking Down Liz Cheney Is Complicated and Risky
And a possible disaster in the making for Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is in a Game of Thrones situation he is ill-equipped for
Welcome to Politics Monday, where we are already popping the popcorn to watch a Trump v. Cheney cage match this week. Please forward this post to a friend, and invite them to join us.
And think about a paid subscription if you don’t already have one: at .40 a post, it’s cheaper than nearly everything but a 30-minute parking meter. This week, we have a special for Founding Subscribers: in addition to a copy of my own book, Political Junkies, you will receive a copy of Elizabeth Warren’s new book, Persist (Metropolitan Books, 2021).
Founding and otherwise, all paid subscribers will be invited to an informal book chat to discuss Persist at the beginning of June.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stumping for Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, October 28, 2020. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.
Liz Cheney’s relentlessness in refusing the Big Election Lie has made her a liability for a GOP leadership that has staked the party’s future on voter suppression and Trumpism. Because of this, Cheney is almost certain to be voted out as conference chair, a process that may begin on Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. Yes, she survived a previous vote by a wide margin, but that means little in and of itself. Such votes are a litmus test, not of what ordinary caucus members think, but their calculation of who can hurt them most—Trump or Cheney?
Regardless of the outcome, I am betting on Cheney, who has the biggest Dick in the party in her corner.
By contrast, Kevin McCarthy seems to be the first Republican Minority or Majority Leader to serve without a single testicle. You can tell by the way he goes about things: for example, instead of simply announcing that Cheney had defied him once too often, he let it slip “accidentally” on a Fox News hot mic that he has “had it” with his number three.
McCarthy’s fake boo-boo caused numerous pundits to start writing Cheney’s obituary last week. Others of us speculate that whatever happens next, it’s a bump in the road: Cheney’s plan moving forward could involve a presidential run that will gut the GOP as it exists today.
Meanwhile, Elise Stefanik (NY-21), the former moderate Republican turned Trump Kool-Aid salesperson, waits in the wings. In another weird twist, Stefanik is reassuring conference colleagues who don’t like her (and there are lots of them) that it is ok to vote for her anyway because she will only serve in leadership until 2022.
There seems to be no question now that Cheney will lose her leadership position to Stefanik in the coming days: everyone is acting as though it is a done deal. But the more important question is: how will Cheney lose it? And will the GOP that emerges from this struggle still be in fighting shape for 2022, much less 2024? Will Kevin McCarthy still be leader, a post for which he shows remarkably little skill? That is far less clear.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What are the options for expelling Cheney from the leadership?
There are two ways: the first is that Leader McCarthy calls a snap vote, one that would be approved or rejected by a simple majority. This is the easiest and most efficient way to get it done.
Then there is the hard way, which forces the caucus to take collective responsibility for repudiating their colleague. If McCarthy does not call the vote, 20% of the caucus must petition for it. A meeting to debate the petition must then be scheduled within ten days—at that meeting, two-thirds of the conference must approve the petition for a motion to come to the floor and a vote to occur. Failing to get that two-thirds supermajority would send the motion to a committee, which could either kill it—or return it to the conference for a full vote.
Both routes to demoting Cheney are perilous. The fact, for example, that they are still whipping votes against her is a sign that more than a third, perhaps even more than half, of the GOP conference is either against ousting Cheney on principle or are afraid of the consequences should they support it.
Because of this, McCarthy taking the lead on the resolution holds the least risk for the fewest people, depending on whether the party leadership restrains itself from the all-out assault on her 2022 candidacy that the Former Guy wants. This would provoke a major schism: Liz Cheney’s top donors have said they will withhold contributions from anyone who is, or backs, a primary challenge to her. And a failed Trump-backed effort to defeat Cheney in 2022 would create gaping weaknesses for 2024, not just in Wyoming but for Trump-backed candidates everywhere.
And if these donors are serious, they could also easily expand their mission. In other words, taking the lead on booting Cheney could seriously damage McCarthy’s own seat. Here’s why.
Since it was redrawn in 2011, McCarthy’s district, CA-23, has been the second-most consistently Republican in the Pacific states and is unlikely to flip Democratic in 2022. Yet McCarthy’s support is slipping. In 2016, he won with an impressive 69% of the vote. In November 2020, he retained his seat with a comfortable 62.1% of the vote in November 2020, beating Democrat Kim Mangone by slightly less than 25 points. Trump won CA-23 in 2016 (58.1%) and 2020 (57.1%).
But look at some other races in the same time period. In 2012, CA-23 came out for moderate Republican Mitt Romney with 61.5% of the vote. In other words, in 2012, Romney was more popular than Trump was in 2016. Furthermore, that same year, CA-23 also sent Democrat Kamala Harris to the Senate by nine points. And in 2018, even as McCarthy was rewarded for his incumbency with almost 64% of the vote, former Los Angeles City Councillor Kevin de León joined the Democratic majority in the state legislature from CA-23 an almost equal percentage.
So what does this tell you? The folks in CA-23 are becoming ticket splitters. Now, look at another set of numbers: as of February 2021, in CA-23,
Around 6% of voters were registered with a range of third parties;
31% of voters were registered as Democrats;
41% of voters were registered as Republicans;
A whopping 22% of voters are not registered with any political party: in California, they are known as “No Party Preference,” or NPP voters.
In other words, Leader McCarthy does not have a clear Republican majority in his own district. Instead, he must persuade some combination of Democratic, third-party, and NPP voters to back him as well. Up to now, they have.
Could they decide otherwise, given other options? Well, yes, they could. And McCarthy isn’t just dealing with the Cheney family or, perhaps, even just the Republican party. The most powerful and effective fundraiser in California has blasted McCarthy and the Republican conference for “for his choice to defend the Big Lie and throw Cheney to the wolves.”
Who is that, you ask?
Why it’s Nancy Pelosi! And imagine if perhaps the canniest Speaker of the House decided to defend her gavel in 2022 by going after CA-23.
Let the Game of Thrones begin.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m reading:
Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (Catapult, 2021): it’s about a woman who discovers that her boyfriend is an internet conspiracy theorist. It’s a great read if you aren’t haunted by the disturbing trend of women who write about technology as though an editor from n+1 is living in their heads.
Students at UT-Austin have mobilized to eliminate their traditional school song, “The Eyes of Texas.” Although the song does not have racist lyrics, it has a racist past and was first performed on campus by a student minstrel group. (Edgar Sandoval and Simon Romero, New York Times, May 7, 2021)
“When the full history of the Trump intellectuals’ betrayal of decent conservatism is written, David Horowitz will have special pride of place, a chapter all to himself.” Ronald Radosh and Sol Stern on Horowitz’s third conversion—this time to MAGA truthiness. (The New Republic, May 5, 2021)