FILE – In this Feb. 13, 2019 file photo, House Republican Conference chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., with House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., at right, talks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo)
WASHINGTON (AP) — No. 3 House Republican Liz Cheney was clinging to her post Wednesday as party leaders lined up behind an heir apparent, signaling that fallout over her clashes with former President Donald Trump were becoming too much for her to overcome.
Trump issued a statement giving his “COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement” to Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York to replace Cheney. Stefanik, a 36-year-old Trump loyalist who’s played an increasingly visible role within the GOP, responded quickly.
“Thank you President Trump for your 100% support for House GOP Conference Chair. We are unified and focused on FIRING PELOSI & WINNING in 2022!” she tweeted.
Cheney, a daughter of Dick Cheney, who was George W. Bush’s vice president and before that a Wyoming congressman, seemed to have almost unlimited potential until this year. Her career began listing after she was among just 10 House Republicans to back Trump’s impeachment for inciting supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.
She has refused to back down on her criticism since then despite heavy pressure from party leaders aggressively standing by Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him.
Combined with a morning endorsement from No. 2 House Republican leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and tacit support from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the momentum behind Stefanik’s ascension was beginning to seem unstoppable.
Stefanik, who represents a mammoth upstate New York district, began her House career in 2015 as a moderate Republican.
But she morphed into a stalwart Trump defender and was given a high-profile role during the 2019 House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings. That was widely seen as a strategic move by the GOP to soften its image by giving a woman a prominent role.
Stefanik’s status and visibility within the GOP have soared since then, and she has become a significant fundraiser for the party.
There were no other visible contenders for Cheney’s post. A closed-door showdown vote by House Republicans on her fate and her replacement, likely by Stefanik, is possible next week.
Cheney was making little noticeable effort to cement support for herself by calling colleagues or enlisting others to lobby on her behalf, said one House GOP aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the situation. A second person familiar with Cheney’s effort also said she was not lining up votes.
Nor was Cheney showing any signs of stepping down voluntarily.
“Liz will have more to say in the coming days. This moment is about much more than a House leadership fight,” said Cheney spokesman Jeremy Adler.
Cheney is the highest-ranking woman in the GOP leadership. Removing her without replacing her with another woman could be politically damaging for a party seeking to bolster its weak appeal among female voters.
There are just 31 Republican women in the House, about one-third of Democrats’ total but up from the 13 who served in the last Congress.
Cheney has persistently rejected Trump’s false claims that he lost his November reelection bid due to fraud, an assertion that dozens of state and local officials and judges have found no evidence to support.
The battle over her leadership position has become a symbolic moment for a GOP trying to define itself in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. Trump still has an enormous — perhaps a decisive — hold on the party, but that is forcing its members to decide whether to back his false claims about the election and downplay his role in deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, or hold him accountable for them.
Cheney has chosen the second path, arguing the country cannot “whitewash” Trump’s role in the assault on the Capitol. She made that remark Tuesday at a fundraising event with the conservative American Enterprise Institute at Sea Island, Georgia, according to a person familiar with the event.
Trump’s statement Wednesday underscored his bitter rift with Cheney.
Trump called Cheney “a warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership.” He praised Stefanik for supporting his America First agenda and added that she “has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair. Elise is a tough and smart communicator!”
Rep. Steve Scalise, the House GOP whip, also is backing Stefanik for Cheney’s post, said Scalise spokesperson Lauren Fine. The Louisiana Republican’s was the first explicit call from House GOP leadership to oust Cheney from her leadership job.
Republicans must focus on gaining House control in the 2022 elections “and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that,” said the statement from Fine.
Scalise’s backing was first reported by Punchbowl, a political news organization.
McCarthy said Tuesday that rank-and-file Republicans were concerned about Cheney’s “ability to carry out her job” as a result of her public comments about Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., kept his distance Wednesday from the House GOP struggle. Asked if he would help Cheney, he told reporters in Georgetown, Kentucky, “100% of my focus in on stopping this new administration.”
President Joe Biden weighed in, sort of. Asked during a visit to a local restaurant for his thoughts about the GOP turmoil, Biden said, “I don’t understand the Republicans.”
Cheney’s opposition to Trump put her out of step with most House Republicans, including the 138 who voted against certifying the Electoral College vote for Biden’s victory. A handful of others, including Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who voted to impeach Trump, see Cheney as the “truth-telling” GOP leader the nation needs.
Some fellow Republicans tried to oust her from her leadership position, but they failed in February in a secret party ballot, 145-61, in part because McCarthy urged his troops to remain unified against Democrats.
McCarthy appeared on Fox News Channel Tuesday, and spoke of Cheney a day after Trump leveled fresh claims of voter fraud.
“I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out her job as conference chair, to carry out the message,” he said. “We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority.”
McCarthy, who delivered a speech supporting her when House Republicans privately voted to keep her in February, will not do that this time, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations.