US House Republicans’ swift sacking of Representative Liz Cheney, a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump, from her leadership post as the party’s conference chairwoman on Wednesday is the clearest signal yet that the GOP is pledging strict allegiance to Trump.
The vast majority of Republican leaders have made it clear in the months following Trump’s departure from the White House that they believe the former president still has coattails they can ride to electoral victory in next year’s midterms and, possibly, reclaim control of the House and Senate.
“If you try to drive him out of the Republican party, half the people will leave,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch supporter of Trump, told Fox News on Tuesday. “It doesn’t mean you can’t criticise the president. It means the Republican Party cannot go forward without President Trump being part of it.”
Countering Graham, Republican Trump critic Senator Mitt Romney, tweeted on Tuesday, “Expelling Liz Cheney from leadership won’t gain the GOP one additional voter, but it will cost us quite a few.”
Expelling Liz Cheney from leadership won’t gain the GOP one additional voter, but it will cost us quite a few.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) May 10, 2021
As contradictory as it may sound, there is truth in both of their statements.
Individual Republican self-preservation
Looking at Graham’s comments through the lens of individual Republicans, his point is spot on.
Republicans across the country vying to win their primaries against other Republicans, whether they are new candidates or running for re-election, are unlikely to succeed if they are not toeing the Trump line or worse, outright criticising the former president.
Elected Republicans who have dared cross Trump, either verbally or by supporting his February impeachment, have been censured or reprimanded by local and state parties.
Some, such as Cheney, have drawn a long list of pro-Trump primary challengers. Others, like Romney, have been jeered by home-state Republicans.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney was met with a chorus of boos when he addressed a GOP convention in his home state of Utah pic.twitter.com/cnbnI6euQW
— Reuters (@Reuters) May 2, 2021
As most Republican politicians process these reactions to Trump critics and study the polls which continue to show Trump has the support of about eight-in-10 Republicans, it is not shocking that most are avoiding antagonising the former president as they eye their own political futures.
Risky strategy for general election
So, when Romney says the Cheney saga “won’t gain the GOP one additional voter, but it will cost us quite a few”, what is he trying to say?
He’s talking about next November’s general election, not the primaries that come before them.
Anybody who studies US general elections knows that party control of Congress is won and lost on Election Day in the dozens of toss-up battleground districts, where the races tend to be very close and highly competitive.
In other words, Romney’s point is if Republicans want to reclaim the majority next year, he believes they will need to appeal to a broader swath of voters – including independents and perhaps some Democrats – not just an ardent base of Trump supporters.
Referendum on the current president or the last one?
Over the past four mid-term elections, going back to 2006, the party in control of the White House has lost seats in the House and Senate and has lost control of at least one chamber of Congress. And in each of those elections, the party out of power successfully turned the congressional contests, at least in part, into a referendum on the sitting president.
Democrats picked up the House in 2006 and 2018 by focusing their campaigns on Presidents George W Bush and Donald Trump respectively, incessantly bashing what were two unpopular presidencies at the time. Bush held a 38 percent approval rating according to Gallup, thanks to his handling of the Iraq War, and Trump was at 40 percent amid his extremely polarised tenure.
For their part, Republicans won the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 as they slammed President Barack Obama – whose approval rating in both years was about 45 percent – and his Affordable Care Act healthcare plan.
The question for Republicans in 2022 is: Will they be able to frame the mid-terms as a referendum on President Joe Biden or will their obsession with Trump remind battleground voters of the generally unpopular former president?
Republicans are already trying to paint Biden and Democrats as outside the mainstream on economic and cultural issues, while attempting to pin the blame of the growing migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border on the president.
But their actions regarding Trump, not to mention his obsession with relitigating his election loss – 15 out of the 28 statements he posted on his website this month were about the election or hammered his GOP critics – are drawing attention from their statements on Democrats. In fact, Trump only criticised Biden’s policies three times in those 28 statements.
It is folly to try to predict what will happen in November 2022’s 469 US House and Senate elections, especially 18 months ahead of time. But Democrats, in their effort to buck history and maintain their razor-thin majorities, are more than eager to let their opponents turn the fight into a referendum on Trump and minimise the scrutiny of their own potentially politically polarising policies.
To Democrats – and Republicans like Romney – that is a recipe for Republican failure.