How Republicans Could Blow Their Midterm Moment

Kevin McCarthy and others think Liz Cheney is a threat to taking back Congress.

Republicans are feeling pretty cocky about their chances in the 2022 midterms. And for good reason. Even a slight breeze would tip over the Democrats’ House majority. Going back to Ronald Reagan, the average number of seats lost by the party of the president in power in their first midterms is 22. The GOP needs just six.

Senate elections have more of a rhythm of their own owing to the vagaries of a map that puts one third of the seats up for grabs each cycle. But there’s still some correlation. Every Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has watched his party lose seats in the Senate during its first midterms. Barack Obama lost six Democratic senators in 2010. Bill Clinton lost 10 in 1994. All the Republicans need next year is one.

President Biden is pretty popular compared to his immediate predecessor, but we forget how unusually unpopular Donald Trump was. He was the only president since World War II to never for a single day have a net-positive Gallup job-approval rating. Obama was considerably more popular than Biden is now at this point in his first term, and he still ended up presiding over one of the worst midterm shellackings in modern history. It’s also reasonable to assume that in the 547 days between now and the 2022 election, Biden will become less popular. What comes after the free-money-and-vaccines phase of his presidency will require a lot of fancy footwork from a guy whose brand is being a plodder.

So it’s easy to see why House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wants to get rid of Liz Cheney as the third-ranking member of his leadership team. If Republicans can manage to be nothing more than the alternative party, history suggests that McCarthy will at last obtain the speakers’ gavel that has eluded him for so long. A guy who has been climbing the greasy pole of House leadership for a dozen years is within reach of his prize. He’s trying to ditch Cheney for the reliably pliable Elise Stefanik, a New York congresswoman who has followed McCarthy’s own journey from the mainstream to MAGA.

The complaint from Republican leadership is that Cheney is jeopardizing the much-anticipated Republican success of 2022. Her refusal to excuse or ignore Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 presidential election—an effort McCarthy and Stefanik abetted—is a divisive distraction that doesn’t serve the goal of retaking the majority. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, the Kevin McCarthy of the Senate, summed it up in an appearance on Fox News: “She’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump,” Graham said. “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.” The argument from Graham, McCarthy, Stefanik and their fellow members of the emerging GOP establishment is that they are the pragmatists and Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump and supports a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol by Trump’s goon squad, is the one who needs to get real. There’s no way to get out from under Trump, they say under their breath, so just make the best of it and move on. Why exacerbate the divisions of an already splintered party by rehashing the last election when there’s another one just around the corner?

Cheney’s defense is that the republic is actually at risk—that our inheritance of constitutional order and the peaceful transfer of power remain in danger when one of the two major parties can’t acknowledge its part in trying to defeat the system. That’s an argument worth hearing—and one all Americans should be thinking about these days. How close to the edge are we really? Can our institutions endure in an era of such moral imbecility and selfishness? Reagan’s famous line, “Freedom is a fragile thing, and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction,” was spoken in praise of the constitutional order and transfer of power. Are we the generation that could lose it?

But Cheney’s defense of her stubbornness doesn’t really answer the critique of the pragmatists like McCarthy, Stefanik, and Graham. Their accusation is that the gentlelady from Wyoming is making it harder for Republicans to scoop up the House, Senate, and some more governorships next year. Their ideological and ethical flexibility comes with the benefit of being able to say they’re the ones trying to win and get things done, while Cheney and the handful of Republican officeholders out on the limb with her are placing purity ahead of victory. For a lot of Republican donors and voters, that’s a cynical argument that’s hard to ignore. Wouldn’t it be easier if these holdouts got with the establishment line and said everything was going fine, smooch Trump’s patootie, and get busy picking up the seats Dem are just bound to give away next year?

But before you make a decision about who the realists are, do consider what’s happening in Arizona right now.

The state’s Republican-led Senate won a court fight to get to take possession of the 2.1 million ballots cast by the residents of Maricopa County to conduct what could charitably be described as a fishing expedition. The Senate hired a consultancy called Cyber Ninjas to conduct the kind of inquiry you would expect from a firm with a name that sounds like a brand of air fryers. They used blacklights to look for secret watermarks and, not kidding here, looked for bamboo fibers in ballots for potential Chinese tampering. Only after objections from the Justice Department did the ninjas drop their plan to visit the homes of voters whose ballots they found suspicious. Think of it: In a swing state with a crucial Senate election next year, Republicans were going to go door-to-door to remind voters about Trump’s efforts to steal the election and hassle them over their votes.

It’s understandable that many Republicans wish Cheney would go along to get along, but they ought to remember who it is that’s busy relitigating the 2020 election in swing states from coast to coast. If they miss their chance to benefit from a midterm windfall, Republicans should first blame the cranks and charlatans intent on reminding persuadable voters that the GOP is living in a very sordid past.