The political galfight between House GOP Representatives Elise Stefanik and Liz Cheney so often gets covered trivially, as if it’s about which woman is standing by the all-powerful man, disgraced former president Donald Trump.
But it’s bigger than that: It’s about whether Republicans have room in their leadership ranks for someone who is tethered to reality and ready to stand up for free and fair American elections, in which we vote fairly, count the votes accurately, certify them legally—and the losers and winners alike acknowledge the results. Cheney, like her or not on other policy grounds, is that person, and whoever Stefanik used to be, she is not that person anymore.
During this strange leadership battle, pundits also toss around the word “courage,” in terms of whether anybody has the “courage” to stand up to Trump. But that implies that they want to challenge him, that they differ with the orange menace in substantive ways, have a different vision of the party, but just can’t summon up the stones to take a stand. Former GOP speechwriter Peggy Noonan trashed Cheney’s former allies as a “House of Cowards” who are “jumpy and scared.” I think that gives them too much credit.
Ousting Cheney proves that Republicans are committed to trying to win elections by any means necessary—even by inciting violence, as Trump did on January 6. They don’t stand for anything but that. It’s a very scary moment.
Cheney said it herself in a fiery speech to an empty House chamber on the eve of the formal vote Wednesday morning. She denounced Trump for provoking “a violent attack” on the Capitol “in an effort to steal the election,” and said he is continuing to peddle the lie.
“Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar,” Cheney said. “I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.” As expected, she was quickly bounced from her leadership role on a voice vote, so that members didn’t have to publicly declare their choice.
Stefanik immediately declared her candidacy for Cheney’s role, and so far she’s expected to get it, though the ultra-right Freedom Caucus has begun making noise about opposing her. QAnon Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted, “I want a break before we vote on a replacement. Options are good and so are conservative votes.”
Let’s be direct: Policy doesn’t matter (much) here. If it did, Cheney would be seen as the loyal Trumper, voting with the former guy more frequently than Stefanik. The upstate New York congresswoman didn’t even support Trump’s signature tax plan, since she believed it hurt high-tax states like her own, and many of her wealthy donors. If former RNC chair Reince Priebus’s infamous “autopsy” after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss had a poster woman (perhaps an unfortunate image), she’d have been Stefanik. (My colleague John Nichols has more on Stefanik’s shape-shifting rise through the ranks here.)
In her book on millennial politicians, Time’s Charlotte Alter profiled Stefanik, elected in 2014, as someone trying to moderate her party to bring back women and younger folks, striking less ideological notes on climate change and immigration. She was the 19th most “bipartisan” Congress member in an index compiled by Georgetown University’s Lugar Center during her second term. The American Conservative Union and Heritage Action have both ranked Cheney more conservative than Stefanik, Alter writes.
The Glen Falls congresswoman, a John Kasich admirer, was no Trump booster in 2015 and 2016, either; saying after the hideous Access Hollywood tape surfaced that his “inappropriate, offensive comments are just wrong.” But Trump won her district, and when the first impeachment trial came around, Stefanik’s role on the House Intelligence Committee turned her into an impressive, telegenic Trump booster, and raised her money and national support in return.
As Trump’s baseless election complaints took over the GOP, Stefanik joined 126 GOP House members to ask the Supreme Court to reject election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Wisconsin. After the Capitol siege, she “moderated” her stance, only voting to reject the Pennsylvania results. She supports the surreal and baseless Maricopa County audit in Arizona, and her rhetoric has given aid and comfort to Republican legislators limiting voter access in Florida, Texas, Georgia, and other states.
The focus on Cheney and Stefanik as female GOP leaders (and Republicans don’t have many of them, it’s true), and the obsession with Trump as bullying leader, is obscuring the real story. Republicans aren’t pushing policy; they’re looking for ways to limit who votes, all over the country. That’s what Stefanik is really standing up for—not so much for Trump.
“The ‘big lie’ is the Republican Party right now,” the former Republican National Committee chair said on MSNBC Wednesday. He pledged to stay inside the party to “fix the stupid,” but I have to say to my old friend: It’s more than just “stupid,” and it can’t be fixed.