House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) threw his support behind Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) to become the new Republican conference chair, the No. 3 job in GOP leadership, backing a onetime centrist who emerged over the past year as a staunch defender of Trump who helped spread his false claims of election fraud.
McCarthy avoided mentioning Cheney by name during his appearance on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” when asked about the campaign to oust Cheney over her dogged efforts to denounce Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
“Any member can take whatever position they believe in. . . . What we’re talking about is a position in leadership,” McCarthy said, adding: “As conference chair, you have one of the most critical jobs as a messenger going forward.”
Cheney has accused Trump and others who have spread the election falsehoods of “turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.” She survived a previous vote among fellow Republicans in the wake of her outspoken support for Trump’s impeachment following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol but has refused to bend to the will of McCarthy and others who have since affirmed their loyalty to Trump.
The next vote on Cheney is expected to come Wednesday, when the House returns to session and the Republican conference is scheduled to meet, according to multiple Republican officials who have received notice of the vote happening then.
It was the first time that McCarthy had officially endorsed Stefanik as a replacement for Cheney, though Axios reported last week that the GOP leader had said he had “had it” with Cheney during an off-air conversation with Fox News’s Steve Doocy that was caught on a live microphone.
McCarthy’s official support of Cheney’s removal is the latest sign of how the GOP is purging from its leadership anyone seen as opponents of Trump, solidifying the former president’s grip on the party. The Washington Post reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee, in recent polling presentations to its members, had left out key polling data about Trump’s weakness in some districts, indicating a willingness to downplay damage the former president could do to the party. Instead, fealty to Trump — and to his baseless claims that the election was stolen — has become the defining loyalty test for Republicans.
Few actions will symbolize that reality more than the likely replacement of Cheney in party leadership with Stefanik.
Where Stefanik has often broken with the party line, at least in the past, Cheney has notched a fiercely conservative voting record. In 2017, Stefanik broke with the GOP to vote against Trump’s tax plan.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican who has also criticized Trump in the past, said Sunday that he was dismayed by the extent to which the party is now built around support for the former president.
“It just bothers me that you have to swear fealty to the ‘dear leader’ or you get kicked out of the party,” Hogan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who has been one of the few Republican lawmakers to speak out vocally against Trump, said McCarthy was responsible for Trump’s ability to remain all-powerful in the GOP, even after losing his reelection bid.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Kinzinger argued that Trump had been “done” and relegated to “sulking away at Mar-a-Lago” after Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob overran the U.S. Capitol in a violent insurrection that left five people dead. Immediately afterward, McCarthy told his House colleagues that Trump “bears responsibility” for the Capitol attack and even floated the idea of censuring Trump, though he did not support his impeachment.
Two weeks later, however, McCarthy flew to Florida to meet with Trump, where they discussed taking back the House in 2022. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) did the same in early February. Their decision to do so — along with the fundraising implications for others in the party — helped restore relevance to the former president, Kinzinger said.
“They put the paddles on Donald Trump and resurrected him in the party, and everybody after that became scared to death of who Donald Trump was again,” Kinzinger said. “And that’s what empowered him. And everybody [who dared criticize Trump] went quiet.”
Kinzinger, who months ago started a PAC to challenge his party’s embrace of Trump, has increasingly found himself in the minority within the GOP. On Sunday, he likened the Republican Party to the Titanic “in the middle of this slow sink,” with Trump “running around trying to find women’s clothing and get on the first lifeboat.”
“As a party, we have to have an internal look and a full accounting as to what led to Jan. 6,” Kinzinger said. “There’s a few of us that are just saying, ‘Guys, this is not good, not just for the future of the party, but this is not good for the future of this country.’ ”
Within the most ardently pro-Trump wing of the GOP, the animosity toward Cheney and other Republicans who have criticized Trump was on full display over the weekend, at an “America First” rally in central Florida hosted by Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). For more than an hour Friday, they mocked Democrats but also rallied the crowd against so-called “Republicans in Name Only” who dared to go against Trump and his agenda.
“It’s the establishment against the rest of us,” Gaetz said then.
But polls show the support for Trump — and his election falsehoods — is deep and broad in the Republican electorate. Across the country, local and state party organizations have sided with the former president and moved to censure or otherwise punish officials who have attacked Trump. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a vocal Trump critic, was booed by a Republican audience in his home state.
Cheney’s likely imminent loss of her leadership role drew a sympathizer from across the aisle: House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.).
“I don’t agree with Liz on much politically, but, you know, that’s how we grow as a country. This whole thing that everybody ought to be marching in lockstep, that is what leads people to destruction,” Clyburn said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I want to see a strong Republican Party. My parents were Republicans, and I would love to see this party honor them.”
Eugene Scott and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.