The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How GOP rage at Liz Cheney makes a future stolen election more likely

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Liz Cheney’s fate appears sealed: Republicans are set to oust the Wyoming Republican as the No. 3 in the House GOP leadership, and will most likely replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, whose loyalty to Donald Trump remains unquestioned.

This is being widely depicted as a battle over the past, and over Trump. Most accounts portray it as a sign that in today’s GOP, fealty to the former president is a bedrock requirement, denouncing his lies about 2020 has become unacceptable, and telling the truth about the Jan. 6 insurrection is disqualifying.

Liz Cheney: The GOP is at a turning point. History is watching us.

All that is true, but the forward-looking dimension to this story is getting lost. What also seems unavoidably at stake is that the GOP appears to be plunging headlong into a level of full-blown hostility to democracy that has deeply unsettling future ramifications.

Loyalty to Trump and his lies isn’t the most important thing Republicans are asserting here. Instead, Republicans may be unshackling themselves from any obligation to acquiesce to future presidential election outcomes they don’t like — that is, liberating themselves to overturn those outcomes by any means necessary.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) now appears to back Cheney’s removal. He has said privately and publicly that he has lost confidence in her, because she’s threatening the GOP “message” and imperiling hopes to “win the majority.”

Cheney has only dug in harder. A Cheney spokesperson denounced her GOP enemies for wanting to “perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on Jan. 6.”

This comes after Cheney told GOP colleagues that those lies are “poison in the bloodstream of our democracy" and that Trump’s insurrection “is a line that cannot be crossed.”

Cheney has also urged Republicans not to turn “their back on the rule of law.” And she insists that the commission examining Jan. 6 should focus on the insurrection, not on leftist extremism that Republicans are hyping to muddy the waters around their ongoing radicalization.

So why is all this disqualifying? The soft version of this spun by Republicans is that it will muddle the GOP messaging effort to win the House, which relies on portraying Democrats as the Real Extremists.

But there’s plainly a darker factor at play. Whatever Cheney’s other flaws — her neoconservatism, her association with another assault on the rule of law amid the war on terrorism — she’s demanding something important from fellow Republicans.

It’s this: A full and unequivocal renunciation of the lie that the election’s outcome was dubious. A complete and unambiguous reckoning with the fact that Trump absolutely did try to incite mob violence to rupture the peaceful conclusion of his election loss to stay in power illegitimately.

And Republicans are angry because Cheney is focusing too much attention on the GOP failure to do any of these things.

Now consider what else we’re seeing. Some Republicans are increasingly asserting a willingness to overturn future elections: Rep. Jody Hice’s primary challenge to the Georgia secretary of state is driven by the promise to use his power to invalidate future outcomes.

Other Republicans are asserting the freedom to keep alive the fiction that the election was stolen forever. In Arizona, a GOP-sponsored recount is underway that’s plainly designed to manufacture fake evidence bolstering that false conclusion.

This combination is toxic: Republicans are untethering themselves from any obligation to recognize future legitimate election outcomes, which will provide the rationale to overturn them, a freedom they are also effectively in process of appropriating. Cheney is insisting on a GOP future premised on a full repudiation of these tendencies, and getting punished for it.

Guess what: These same House Republicans might control the lower chamber when Congress is counting electors after the 2024 presidential election.

“We should start to very much worry about what Jan. 6, 2025, looks like,” Edward Foley, a renowned election law scholar and a Post contributing columnist, told me.

Time to worry about Jan. 6, 2025

Imagine a 2024 election decided in one state, where a GOP-controlled legislature sends electors for the GOP candidate in defiance of a close popular vote. The same House Republicans who punished Cheney — many of whom already voted against President Biden’s electors, but now control the House and have continued radicalizing — could vote to certify that slate.

There are many possible scenarios here — a lot would turn on whether the governor in that state was a Democrat, on what the Senate did, and on how the Supreme Court sorted out the mess.

But as Foley told me, it’s plausible that “you could have an outcome that is inconsistent with what the voters themselves wanted.” However it turned out, Foley added, the dispute itself “would be a major crisis.”

This places burdens on Democrats. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me that this obliges Democrats to level with voters about the threat Republicans pose to democratic stability.

“If Cheney is ousted, Democrats will have to make the radicalization of the GOP a major part of the 2022 conversation,” Rosenberg said.

And as elections scholar Rick Hasen told me, Democrats should try to get patriotic Republicans to support revisions to the Electoral Count Act, to make it “harder for a legislature to send a separate slate when there was no problem with how the election was run."

Cheney’s ouster should prompt this, along with a much greater public and media focus on the brute reality of the GOP’s fundamental turn away from democracy.

“The core component of the democratic process is that we count the votes as cast,” Foley told me. The punishing of Cheney, Foley concluded, suggests that the Republican Party might be institutionally “abandoning the very essence of democracy.”

Read more:

Michael Gerson: Elected Republicans are lying with open eyes. Their excuses are disgraceful.

Paul Waldman: Liz Cheney’s impending fall shows us how afraid Republicans are of their base

Jennifer Rubin: When will Liz Cheney and the GOP break up?

Henry Olsen: Liz Cheney’s biggest problem has nothing to do with Trump