Liz Cheney may be done with former President Donald Trump, but her impending ouster from House Republican leadership is a clear sign, party insiders say, that the GOP isn't done with Trump.
The calculation is that the party will be better off in the midterm elections embracing Trump than running from him, even if it means further alienating the kind of suburban voters who handed Democrats victories in 2018 and 2020.
"Removing Liz Cheney from leadership will give a boatload of ammunition to the GOP's critics," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
Republicans plan to remove Cheney as chair of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in House GOP leadership, in a move to demote the highest-ranking Republican who voted to impeach Trump early this year. She has vocally criticized Trump's "big lie" that the election last year was stolen.
Ayers warned that efforts to exile Cheney — the highest-ranking Republican woman in Washington and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney — could further antagonize suburban voters, particularly college-educated women, who ditched the party because of their opposition to Trump.
"They will also say there's no room in today's Republican Party for anyone willing to be honest about the 2020 election and the events of Jan. 6," Ayres said. "That does not strike me as the best way to get back the suburban voters who've left the party in the last few years."
That message was echoed by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Monday.
"Expelling Liz Cheney from leadership won’t gain the GOP one additional voter, but it will cost us quite a few," Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, said in a tweet.
Said Collins: "I believe Liz Cheney is an honorable leader with great strength and did what she felt was right. And our party should be big enough to accommodate people with a wide variety of views."
She indicated that removing Cheney for her pushback to Trump could send the wrong message to voters. "The issue is being inclusive," Collins said.
Democrats know most voters won't base their support on Republican infighting more than a year before the election. But that doesn't mean they aren't trying to leverage the dispute by arguing that Trump continues to control the party.
"The Republican Party is no longer a 'conservative' party. It is an anti-democratic cult pushing the Big Lie and conspiracy theories," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted in response to Cheney's impending ouster from Republican leadership.
Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina say the party's priority must be to keep Trump's supporters energized and on their side. They worry that any rejection of him, including his groundless claims about the election, could de-motivate some of his supporters from backing GOP candidates next year.
"I would just say to my Republican colleagues: 'Can we move forward without President Trump?' The answer is no," Graham said in an interview Thursday with Sean Hannity of Fox News. "I've always liked Liz Cheney, but she's made a determination that the Republican Party can't grow with President Trump. I've determined we can't grow without him."
The fight has been simmering since January.
The breaking point appears to have come during a House GOP retreat in Orlando, Florida, last month when Cheney publicly split with McCarthy over a proposal to set up a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Cheney offered another forceful condemnation last Monday in response to Trump's latest statement denying the election results.
McCarthy, who emerged as one of Trump's loudest defenders while he was in office, appears to be done working with Cheney.
"I've had it with her," McCarthy told "Fox and Friends" off air Tuesday in a hot mic recording obtained by Axios.
How Wyoming voters are reacting to Rep. Cheney’s leadership battleMay 10, 202103:10
Many Republicans, including McCarthy, have decided that the path to retake majority control of the House requires embracing Trump, which means either repeating his false assertions that the election was stolen or keeping quiet, neither of which Cheney has been willing to do.
McCarthy has long viewed Trump as important to helping him become the next House speaker — and important to helping Republicans win the midterm elections — said a House Republican aide who works for neither McCarthy or Cheney.
The aide described the leadership fight as "a s--- show" and "something that should never really have happened," expressing anger over its handling.
"I think it's dumb when we always try to claim that we're this big party that we're pushing out someone who has a slightly different opinion," the aide said, adding, "It's just absurd to me."
Another senior Republican congressional aide argued that Cheney was likely to be removed because she keeps publicly disagreeing with McCarthy, not because of her criticism of Trump.
"As conference chair, [Cheney] was spending more time bashing Republicans than Democrats" at the recent House retreat, the aide said, adding that McCarthy "was literally the only thing keeping her in leadership."
Many Republicans have lamented that the squabble is distracting from anti-Biden messaging, which is what they say will actually help them in the midterms.
"Liz, Kevin and all Republicans need to quit the intramural squabbling and focus on President Biden's disastrous border crisis and his destructive tax and big government agenda that hands a competitive edge to the Chinese Communist Party and threatens the jobs, livelihoods, pocketbooks and values of millions of Americans," said former Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa. "If a Republican can't stay focused on that script, one needs to question why that Republican is there."
Republicans, including Trump and House GOP leaders, appear to be coalescing around Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., as a possible replacement for Cheney. She would ensure that they have at least one woman in a leadership role in the House.
But such a move could also fuel criticism that the Republican Party has become more concerned about allegiance to Trump than policy positions or ideology. Stefanik, who went to Congress as a moderate, has been an outspoken Trump booster, echoing his groundless claims about election illegitimacy.
Ideological conservative bona fides, as defined through much of the last decade, are no longer what puts Republicans in good standing. Notably, Stefanik is being pushed for the job even though she voted against the 2017 tax law, the GOP's signature legislative achievement in the Trump era, which the party is fighting to defend. Cheney voted for the law.
"The party will continue to be defined by Trump and Trump allies," said Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican strategist. "He's the message and the platform."
Jason Miller, a Trump adviser, said Cheney's cause was hurt by her foreign policy views, including her support for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which diverges from those of Trump, who tried to depict himself as opposing foreign interventions in line with his "America first" policies.
"Part of it is that these Republican members don't want someone in leadership who's constantly fighting with the leader of the Republican Party — and someone who the vast majority of Republican voters want to run again for president," Miller said.
Some Republicans, however, worry that removing her would send a message that Republicans must back Trump at all costs.
"Her blasphemy is that she dare admit the truth that Trump lost the election," said Jeff Timmer, former chair of the Michigan GOP, who backed Joe Biden last fall. "There is no room for any disagreement."
And some Republicans say kicking Cheney off the leadership team is likely to give her an even bigger platform.
"She's a big name. This is going to continue to be a storyline," said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former Republican operative. "It's going to continue to annoy the president."
Another Republican strategist argued that Cheney may have the opportunity to build up support within the caucus and lead a faction that could become a thorn in McCarthy's side.
"There's no incentive for her to be a part of the team, no advantage of being in leadership," this person said. "The leverage comes from being the other center of power in the conference. So by attacking her, they're in essence helping her."
Some Republicans say that the episode is inconsequential to voters and that it will be forgotten by the time the midterms arrive. With Democrats holding a slim majority and historical trends favoring the GOP, Republicans are confident that they don't need much to break their way to recapture the House.
On the other hand, Tyler Law, a Democratic consultant who worked for the 2018 House campaign arm, predicted a "chilling" effect on Republicans' ability to recruit candidates.
"Republicans are making it clear that they have no organizing principles outside of fealty to one man," he said. "And it's not one popular, unifying figure."