The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The quiet vindication of Liz Cheney

Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming. (Photo: Al Drago, Bloomberg)

After Rep. Liz Cheney lost by 37 points in August to a primary challenger backed by Donald Trump, the former president displayed characteristic grace and generosity of spirit. Trump ripped the Wyoming Republican as a “fool,” hailing the result as a “rebuke of the Unselect Committee of political Hacks and Thugs.”

Despite that description, the Jan. 6 select committee, of which Cheney is vice chair, is still in business. Many of the most virulent election-denying candidates in the country have gone down to defeat — and the relentless focus on MAGA election denial, orchestrated in no small part by Cheney herself, is a key reason for the outcome.

The election results represent quiet vindication for Cheney. At a time when Cheney has demanded that Republicans fully renounce the spirit of insurrectionism Trump unleashed in the GOP, defeated candidates include all the election-denying nominees for secretary of state in key presidential battlegrounds such as Arizona, Nevada and Michigan.

Also defeated were GOP gubernatorial nominees in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Taken together, all of these losses choke off pathways to a stolen 2024 election.

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But on a deeper level, Cheney’s basic theory about this moment in U.S. and GOP politics, to some degree at least, might be proving correct.

The underlying premise of Cheney’s past year holds that there exists a meaningful sliver of swing voters — including GOP-leaning independents and Republicans alienated by Trump — who could be influenced by a focus on election denialism and MAGA extremism.

In this theory, keeping up a months-long drumbeat of revelations about Trump’s effort to overturn U.S. democracy, while steadily arguing that GOP candidates who play footsie with election denialism are fundamentally unfit for public office, wouldn’t just be civically healthy. It might also have real electoral consequences, even if only on the margins.

As of now, most indications suggest that something like this did happen.

It’s hard to pin down the precise role that MAGA election denial played in the overall outcome. But as Nate Cohn points out, a clear pattern is discernible: In races where democracy itself was at stake — say, with election deniers vying for positions of control over elections, or overt supporters of the insurrection running for the House — Democrats overperformed, including with independent voters.

Abortion rights, of course, played a huge role in many of these races. But Cohn noted that in contests where democracy was “elevated” as an issue, voters “responded to those concerns.”

A similar dynamic was identified by GOP strategist Sarah Longwell of the Republican Accountability PAC, a group of Never Trumpers. Longwell says her focus groups found that independents and swing voters often spoke out against MAGA election-denying candidates despite being upset about the economy.

“The reason was always that the Republican candidate was nuts,” Longwell told me, adding that focus group participants regularly cited election denial as a proof point.

Longwell’s group ran ads attacking GOP nominees in gubernatorial and secretary of state races in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The ads highlighted their unfitness for office.

Similarly, Cheney’s own PAC ran $500,000 in ads attacking election deniers running for governor and secretary of state in Arizona. At stake, those ads declared, was “the survival of our republic.”

Mark Finchem, the nominee for secretary of state in Arizona, lost. Kari Lake, the gubernatorial candidate, might be headed for defeat. Lake could still survive, but even if so, virtually all the most dangerous candidates have gone down.

Cheney has also secured quiet vindication in another way: Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who replaced Cheney in the House GOP leadership after her ouster, has seen her own comeuppance.

Stefanik’s story is instructive. She plainly decided going full MAGA was her ticket to glory: Stefanik has been a serial promoter of Trump’s 2020 lies, and last spring, she described herself as “ultra-MAGA” and “proud of it.”

That was back when MAGA Republicans were flush with confidence, anticipating a smashing victory that they’d cite to pretend the American people were filled with regret about ousting Trump. That would pave the way for a Trump restoration.

But reality hasn’t cooperated. Prominent MAGA House candidates endorsed by Stefanik’s PAC, such as former Trump aide Karoline Leavitt, have also lost winnable races. While Republicans will likely take the House, their majority will be so narrow that full-blown chaos will be routine.

It’s sometimes argued that pro-democracy liberals should look askance at Cheney’s support for the cause, because of her opposition to Democratic bills expanding voting rights and her association with the excesses of her father’s war on terrorism. But one can criticize those things while welcoming Cheney’s singular efforts on behalf of democracy.

Those efforts cost Cheney her seat in Congress. But the outcome of the 2022 elections is providing her with quiet vindication. And it is well deserved.

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