Donald Trump is back in control of the House GOP inner circle, and Democrats can hardly believe their luck.
Republicans are days away from dethroning Rep. Liz Cheney as their No. 3 leader after her repeated broadsides against the former president. And in doing so, Democrats believe the GOP is handing over the ingredients for a political litmus test that could energize their push to beat the historical odds and hang onto their narrow House majority next fall. The Cheney ouster opens the door to tarring the GOP, once again, as the party of Trump.
That's because the turmoil over Cheney's future has elevated Trump’s voice in the party to a degree last seen before his encouragement of baseless election fraud claims turned to violence on Jan. 6, getting the former president impeached a second time. Trump's emergence this week, cheering the Cheney leadership purge and supporting likely successor Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), has handed Democrats an unexpected gift ahead of the 2022 election.
Even as they brace for a potentially perilous midterm battle, Democrats are back on the offense, and the faster Republicans line up behind Trump, the harder Democrats plan to hit them.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said the “first question in every race in the country” should be whether GOP candidates believed the “big lie” that the election was stolen. Cheney’s potential ouster will “link them more to the big lie,” Khanna added of House Republicans. “It’s not about Trump. It’s about, Do you believe in truth?”
For many Democrats, Cheney’s eviction also marks a grim development for Congress as an institution. Without her in House GOP leadership, all of its members will have voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6 — a vote that took place hours after the armed insurrection, imbuing one roll call with political symbolism beyond a lawmaker's position on election results.
“Liz Cheney is being attacked for being a woman of integrity and telling the truth,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said in an interview. “What the Republican leadership is doing is destabilizing people’s trust in government.”
The GOP’s escalating push to silence the Wyoming Republican, specifically over her criticism of Trump and his unfounded claims about the election, has also given new ammunition to the Democrats who are ready to make him a bogeyman again for the midterms. Trump may not be on the ballot, but his relatively low popularity outside the GOP base allows Democrats to warn voters what could happen if Republicans do take back control of Congress next year.
"I think it's a real weakness in the Republican Party that they have jettisoned their principles, jettisoned adherence to the truth and simply pandered to one individual — Donald Trump,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said during a Washington Post event on Wednesday.
“It’s a question of ‘cult of personality’ that if you're not 1,000 percent for Donald Trump somehow, you're not a good Republican,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer isn’t the only top Democrat to seize on the GOP’s chaotic leadership scramble. A day earlier, Pelosi’s office sent reporters a press release written as a mock job posting for a “non-threatening female” to lead the GOP conference. Pelosi herself said at a Tuesday event in San Francisco she wished Cheney well but did not want to get involved in the dispute.
“I do commend Liz Cheney for her courage, for her patriotism, and I wish her well. Perhaps this challenge will make her stronger. I don’t know, that’s up to their caucus,” she said. “I don’t welcome their participation in our caucus, and I’m sure they don’t welcome my participation in theirs.”
Cheney herself argued in a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday that "embracing or ignoring Trump’s statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes" but warned that it would do "profound long-term damage" to the GOP and the country.
It’s not clear how much Democrats will lean into their anti-Trump playbook going into next fall. Their party is defending a handful of battleground seats in districts that the former president won in 2020, and many more where the ex-president remains popular.
Villainizing Trump in 2022 could pose similar risks to Democrats as it did last year. The former president’s presence on the ballot in 2020 energized voters both sides of the aisle, though many swing-district Democratic candidates ultimately lost their bids, stunned by higher-than-expected GOP turnout.
Still, the forthcoming shakeup in GOP leadership has already shaken up the contentious midterm landscape. While Democrats have been privately downtrodden about their prospects of hanging onto a handful of battleground seats in a year of congressional redistricting, Republicans have been practically measuring the drapes.
Democrats hope that the drama consuming their opponents across the aisle, and what it means for the GOP's future, could tilt the scale a bit toward them — at least for now.
"Liz Cheney is a staunch conservative, but she is being ousted from Republican leadership because she is not an enthusiastic adherent of the 'Big Lie,'" Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who leads the House Democrats' campaign arm, said in a statement to POLITICO.
"It seems like the only way to get ahead over there is to be a dangerous liar, accused sexual predator, or perpetrator of white supremacist ideology," Maloney said, referencing scandals that have affected a few GOP members.
The rebellion over Cheney could also carry implications for the Democrats’ legislative agenda. The Wyoming Republican, whose family is a bastion of conservatism, was hardly a bipartisan deal-maker.
But Cheney was one of the few Republicans who has remained in good standing within the Democratic caucus since Jan. 6, and the GOP’s efforts to punish her have already begun to inflame tensions lingering between the two parties since the deadly insurrection.
“We need a two-party system. It’s not healthy to have a one-party system," Biden said Tuesday. "And I think the Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for then I thought they would be at this point."
“Part of me is like, disarray in the Republican Conference is fine. That's good for everybody. That's good for Democrats," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who was one of the last lawmakers to leave the House chamber as rioters forcefully attempted to enter on Jan. 6.
"But watching this unfold, I can't help but think this is bad for the country. And it's bad for democracy... it’s bad for solving future problems in a bipartisan way.”