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The Battle for the GOP

With Cheney out and Stefanik likely in, Republicans decide to live and die with the Big Lie

Liz Cheney: Our freedom only survives if we protect it
Representative Liz Cheney spoke on the House floor about freedom and continued her condemnation of Trump. (Video via C-SPAN)

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WASHINGTON — It took just 16 minutes on Wednesday morning for House Republicans to surgically remove Representative Liz Cheney from their leadership team, an act that both expunged a conservative stalwart who has challenged former president Donald Trump’s election lies and cemented those fictions as GOP orthodoxy.

“We must go forward based on truth,” said Cheney, 54, defiantly striding out of the meeting and vowing to lead a fight against Trump after she was dumped by a voice vote. “We cannot both embrace the Big Lie and embrace the Constitution.”

Cheney’s ouster, a stunning rebuke for the member of a Wyoming family that helped to shape the GOP for decades, likely clears the way for the rise of Representative Elise Stefanik, 36, an erstwhile Trump critic from upstate New York who has recast her political persona over the past 18 months to fit a party firmly clamped in the former president’s vise.

“There are serious issues related to election irregularities in the state of Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin,” Stefanik told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, displaying her commitment to baseless doubts about a fair election ahead of the expected vote to make her the third-ranking House Republican on Friday.

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The diverging fates of the two women tell the story of a major American political party that has decided to live or die by a lie.

It mattered little to the Republicans saying “yes” to remove Cheney that she has a more conservative record than Stefanik, nor that the claims of election fraud their party has embraced brought a violent insurrection to their workplace four months ago. What mattered was that Cheney opposes Trump.

“Liz Cheney was canceled today for speaking her mind and disagreeing with the narrative that President Trump has put forth,” said Representative Ken Buck, a conservative from Colorado who voted to support her, and who derided Stefanik as a “liberal.”

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The fall of Cheney and the rise of Stefanik — who, despite some opposition has the support of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, minority whip Steve Scalise, and most importantly, Trump — is the latest contortion in a party that is remaking itself. Most of the party’s Trump renegades have retired (think former senator Jeff Flake of Arizona), lost reelection (think former representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida), or transformed (think Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina).

But it wasn’t so long ago that the two women seemed to be on similar trajectories, comfortably ensconced in the Republican establishment.

Both served in the George W. Bush administration, in which Cheney’s father, Dick, was vice president. Liz Cheney worked in the State Department, deploying the neoconservative foreign policy views for which her family is famous. Stefanik landed a job in the White House shortly after graduating from Harvard — and then on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Cheney was a foreign policy adviser to Romney; Stefanik worked for vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a policy-focused conservative she deeply admired.

In expelling Cheney from leadership, House Republicans besotted with Trumpism have deposed a figure who has been woven into its fabric for decades. People remember her as a child, wearing straw hats and campaign buttons when her father was running for Congress. In college, she wrote a thesis sketching out her belief that the president has unchecked war powers, according to a Slate reporter who tracked it down — a theme that would run through her family’s support of the Iraq war and other foreign interventions. But she also developed a deep respect of government, people close to her say.

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“She grew up with him being very involved in understanding, leading, and respecting the institutions in government,” said Andy Card, who served as Bush’s chief of staff. “I also think she’s grounded in values rather than,” he paused, “she was never struck by personalities.”

After serving in the Bush administration, Cheney became a conservative media darling who was pilloried by liberals. In 2010, she made a triumphant appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“It has always, in my family, been a good time to be a conservative,” she said, telling the raucous crowd how her whole family had learned to brush off criticism from Democrats.

“President Obama,” she said, “you will never silence us.”

Cheney defended Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, saying, “Hillary’s actions have been far worse” after a video circulated in which he made crude comments about women. Although the two tangled over foreign policy during his first term, the point of no return was the insurrection on Jan. 6, when Cheney all but called him a traitor and voted for his impeachment, angering many of her colleagues.

People who know her say they are not surprised she has been willing to stick to deeply held convictions about the rule of law despite the obvious political risk, which already includes primary challengers for her House seat.

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“If there is any attempt here to distort who Liz Cheney is, you can give it up. Go smoke something. She won’t change, she’s going to do exactly what she’s going to do,” said Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator and a Cheney family friend. “They don’t take crap off anybody, including the wizard himself.”

Stefanik, on the other hand, has evolved with the Republican Party under Trump. After Romney and Ryan lost the 2012 presidential election, she went back to upstate New York, threw herself into her parents’ plywood business, and began building a network that could help her with her 2014 run for Congress.

“I think a lot of people in the party see in Elise a person who can be part of a cadre of new Republicans in politics who will expand our base,” Josh Bolten, a former Bush chief of staff who Stefanik worked with at the White House, told Politico in 2014.

As Trump rose to prominence in 2016, Stefanik refused at points to even say his name. She skipped the GOP convention that year, and spent much of 2017 and 2018 opposing his key efforts like the Republican tax cuts, the Muslim ban, his approach to building a border wall, and his claims that he could pardon himself.

“I admired her and thought she was the future of the Republican Party,” said Sarah Longwell, a never-Trump Republican strategist — but that changed in late 2019, when Stefanik began ardently defending Trump during his first impeachment.

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In televised hearings, Stefanik locked horns with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, prompting Trump to brand her a rising star. By this year, Stefanik was a proponent of Trump’s election fraud claims who voted to overturn the election results even after a mob overran the Capitol.

“She decided to become one of Donald Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, and become kind of a Fox News celebrity,” Longwell said. “It’s like watching ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’

Stefanik’s transformation has surprised Democrats, too.

“Elise saw an opening for herself, and she was willing to join herself to Donald Trump and promote this big lie about the elections in order to gain power,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose, who is the number four House Democrat. “That is not something that having worked with Elise over the years I would have thought her capable of.”

Clark went to college in Stefanik’s district and, like her, has worked hard to recruit women candidates for her party. The two have also collaborated on opioids legislation. Now, Clark said, “I can’t imagine what we would work on if her sole focus is appeasing Donald Trump.”

Democrats are praising Cheney and seizing on the specter as an unexpected political gift that highlights how the GOP has yoked itself to a former president — and a fiction — that already cost it two Senate seats in Georgia.

“It tells us that a lie is more important to them than the truth,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in a recent interview. “They have forfeited their right to leadership in this country.”



Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.