Tanzina Vega: Months into a new democratic presidency, the GOP is trying to solidify its identity in a post-Trump world that sometimes doesn't feel very post-Trump at all.
Elise Stefanik: I fully support the audit in Arizona. We want transparency and answers for the American people. What are the Democrats so afraid of? Transparency is a good thing. We need to fix these election security issues going into the future.
Tanzina Vega: That's Elise Stefanik. New York Republican House member baselessly talking about 2020 election issues in Arizona. No, it's not from January, that's from this week on Steve Bannon's podcast. Stefanik is far from the fringe right now. She's in line to assume a leadership role in the House if the GOP House Conference chair Liz Cheney. Cheney, we should note, voted with Donald Trump more often than Stefanik.
Cheney wrote an op-ed this week essentially pleading for the soul of her party. Cheney, of course, voted to impeach then-President Trump in 2020, and she has been steadfast and accurate in her rejection of the idea that the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats. Cheney wrote in The Washington Post, "The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution."
McCarthy: I think she's got real problem, I've had it with her. I've lost confidence.
Tanzina Vega: That is Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader. He was caught on a hot mic this week talking with a Fox News host about the situation. Plainly there is momentum toward Cheney no longer being out front. The GOP clearly finds itself searching for both its identity and who should represent that. What does all this tell us about where the GOP is right now and where it might be headed? To answer that and more, we're joined by Ally Mutnick, campaigns reporter at POLITICO. Ally, welcome to the show.
Ally Mutnick: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina Vega: Also with us is Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News. Sahil, nice to have you here as well.
Sahil Kapur: Hi, Lizzie. Good to join you.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil, I actually want to start with this question. That is, why does who the conference chair is matter? That seems like this minutia thing that feels very Washington. I wonder if you could explain why this position is so important in terms of what the GOP stands for.
Sahil Kapur: It's an interesting question, Lizzie, because I bet the vast majority of Americans don't know who the conference chairs are on either the Democratic side and the majority or the minority side, with the Republicans. It is an important position because this person is in charge of messaging. When you're in the minority, messaging is pretty much all you have to fight the majority, you don't have a whole lot of legislative levers to get your bills through.
The majority, especially in the House of Representatives, can steamroll you on all occasions. What Liz Cheney right now is in charge of is messaging for the House Republican conference, how they depict the democratic efforts ranging from economics to voting rights to gun control to immigration, and that has a huge impact on how the Democrats are seen in certain parts of the country and what the image of the Republicans becomes going forward. There's a symbolic element and a very tangible element to this role.
Tanzina Vega: Ally, it seems like Liz Cheney has become more vocally anti-Trump in the wake of the January 6th Capitol attack, but has she always been anti-Trump? Can you help me parse out where she stands?
Ally Mutnick: Yes, I think Cheney has always been her own person. She came out of a different Republican era. She's a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. She's the daughter of a very famous vice president of the Bush era. She's always been outspoken on where her views have diverged from President Trump, especially on foreign policy. She also was open about the fact that she believed people needed to be wearing masks. There were some subtle jabs here and there. I think, for a lot of people, January 6th, was the final straw for her. She felt that that was where she needed to fully break with Trump. I think she just has a long view of the Republican party and she didn't see Trump in it anymore.
Tanzina Vega: To me, it's shocking, as someone who covered politics for a long time, that someone would publicly break with the Cheney family. If you told me that in 2003, I would have fallen over. Sahil, where would you say the power center in the Republican Party lies right now?
Sahil Kapur: It's clearly with Trump. There's no real doubt about that in my mind. I think the party has made up its mind as to which direction it wants to go in. That's continuing to embrace the idea, the attitudes and the visions, such as it is of the former president, and that includes, most notably right now, echoing his falsehoods and the lies about the stolen election in 2020. That is top of his mind. That is the issue that he speaks about most frequently when he appears. It is the issue that he's put out multiple statements on, as recently as last week, which triggered this whole back and forth with Liz Cheney because she felt the need to respond to him.
There is a feeling among critics of the Republican Party and some within, and there has been for a long time that Trump was an aberration, that he was this alien invasive force that just took over the party and that once he was gone, they would move back in a more traditionally conservative direction. That does not appear to be the case, and that resoundingly appears to not be the case to the point where someone like Liz Cheney is no longer welcomed in House Republican leadership because she does not fit that mold.
Tanzina Vega: Ally, we played this sound from Elise Stefanik, from New York as a possible replacement for Cheney. One of the things I find fascinating about her is that she has not always been a vocal Trump supporter. Tell me about her.
Ally Mutnick: That's true. Stefanik had her rise as a GOP moderate, she won, she flipped in a district that Obama won in 2012 and 2014, in upstate New York. She was a protege of Paul Ryan and Karl Rove and Mitt Romney, and that was her Republican pedigree. As her district took a really big swing towards Trump, so did she, that's part of the politics of it.
Tanzina Vega: Do you think this is about just ensuring their own reelection, Ally?
Ally Mutnick: I think her district allows her to lean in to know how she feels about Trump. Obama won this district, her district by six points. Trump won it by 14, 4 years later. She was following the voters of her district, but then it's also part of, as Sahil said, that's where the power in the Republican Party is. Ellie Stefanik [unintelligible 00:06:54] rise defending Trump during his first impeachment from the House Intelligence Committee, and she was rewarded in a huge way by small-dollar donations. She consistently raises a million dollars every three months, because people like the way she speaks about Trump and the way she defends him.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil, I have been listening to the two of you. It makes sense to some degree that Republican representatives would be all in with Trump when they look at the base of their party. I think that what might be hard for some people to get their heads around is that they are still behind him or maybe even more behind him in the wake of January 6th.
Sahil Kapur: That is right. There was a real moment of consternation within the party about January 6th and his role in it. As Liz Cheney is quick to remind everyone, Kevin McCarthy himself said after the Capitol attack by supporters of President Trump, that the former president had some responsibility for that attack. That was not an uncommon position at the time. There were many Republicans, including, later on, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who had also put some blame at the feet of Trump, and there was a real moment then when Democrats quickly moved to impeach him.
Tanzina Vega: Are they just pretending that didn't happen, or what's going on?
Sahil Kapur: They would rather not talk about it. Essentially, yes, they would like to move past it. They would like to talk as little about it as possible because it upsets the former president, it upsets his supporters, and they would rather just talk about the Democrats. Mitch McConnell has pretty much moved off of that and is doing that, which is why he is more secure in his role than Liz Cheney, but Liz Cheney refuses to give it up.
Look, I talked just a few days ago to someone who knows the Cheneys, a Republican who knows both Dick Cheney, the former Vice President, and Liz Cheney. What this person said was, she is stubborn, just like her dad, if she feels strongly about something, she's going to keep speaking up regardless of the political consequences.
Tanzina Vega: Ally, I think about the 2022 midterm elections, and one thing that is important to Republicans, in terms of winning the majority, are these narrow slices of suburban voters. Where do those suburban voters- and often we're talking about white women and white non-college aged men, where do they lean? Are they with Trump? Are they movable? What are they thinking now?
Ally Mutnick: It's a really great question. I feel like we've spent the last four years trying to figure out what's going on in the suburbs, with Trump. You look at 2020, and in a lot of these suburban districts, if you break down the presidential results by the district level, Trump did not win them. He was under 50 in a lot of them. He was maybe just two or three points ahead of Biden in a district where Mitt Romney had gotten double digits in 2012.
Republicans picked up seats in the House, and in a lot of districts, Republicans won reelection or won seats, even if Trump didn't do really well, that suggests that there's some openness in the suburbs to voting for Republicans who aren't Trump, but that's part of the problem for the Republican Party is that they still need those voters who love Trump, that are really activated by Trump. They can't stray too far away from him, or they risk those people not showing up in the midterms. They're already at risk of not showing up because Trump himself isn't on the ballot. That's why Democrats were- part of how they were able to take the House back in 2018. They've got to hold together these suburban people who aren't super sold on Trump, while also bringing Trump's base out with them. That's their winning formula.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil, I'm curious about why Liz Cheney is on the receiving end of these kinds of vocal attacks. We've seen Senator Mitt Romney and occasionally Senator Susan Collins oppose Trump. Obviously they're in the Senate, so they're up for reelection less often, their suits are more secure, but why is Cheney such a lightning rod do you think?
Sahil Kapur: A couple of reasons for this. The first is, she has been arguably the most outspoken when the former President Donald Trump put out a statement several days ago, essentially repeating his falsehoods about the 2020 election, Cheney responded on Twitter within an hour, called it the big lie, and said Republicans need to not echo that and need to disassociate themselves from that.
She has gone out of her way to debunk this because she feels strongly about it in a way that many Republicans, the vast majority really, are content to just let it pass and not wait into this crossfire. That's one of the reasons she has more shrapnel on her because she has been willing to pick this fight with Donald Trump. The other reason, the other theory that's been floated is, she's a woman. Some of her former colleagues and current colleagues privately would say that women tend to be more of a lightning rod when they [unintelligible 00:11:39] the arena than men.
Tanzina Vega: Is she, Allie, going to face any consequences in her own state during the midterm elections? She, is after all, a Cheney in Wyoming, pretty much as close to a political dynasty there as you can get.
Ally Mutnick: That's what's going to be so interesting, is that Trump is turning this into the ultimate test case. He won Wyoming with 70% of the vote. He is taking a personal interest in recruiting someone to take Liz Cheney out, and Trump's super pack, another Republican group that opposes Cheney, the Club for Growth had released polling [unintelligible 00:12:14] deep underwater in Wisconsin, because they're so loyal to Trump.
Trump has to come in. His team is currently recruiting in the state to find one candidate that everyone can rally behind, because if it's a splintered field against her, she does have a better shot of coming back. This is a really big deal. Trump's legacy is on the line here.
Tanzina Vega: We're still obviously talking about Trump, but that no one else seems to have emerged to command the same widespread attention within the geo party as a potential standard bearer. I guess that makes me think about the next presidential election cycle. Do you see anyone else who might be seen as a Republican challenger to Trump in the next presidential primary?
Sahil Kapur: I don't doubt that some Republicans will try, but at the moment they are likely to do about as well as they did in the 2020 Republican primaries, which has maybe a few percent here or there, as it's looking the 2024 Republican nominee is either going to be Donald Trump or someone who aligns with him, who probably may or may not explicitly have a support, but someone who hails from that wing of the party, and there've been suggestions that it could be someone like former Vice President, Mike Pence, if he gets right with these voters, he's clearly trying.
Someone like Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, is very much in the Trump mold and cut from the same cloth, pursuing the same vision and strategy and governing attitude of going after the left and angering the left, "owning the libs," as they call it on the right, as a governing philosophy. It's likely to be someone from that mold as the way the current political currents are moving.
Tanzina Vega: I am sitting here thinking about all the other things that might be in voters' minds, the pandemic, the economy. On Friday, we just got a jobs report that did not look so great. Are we still going to be talking for Republican primary voters, primarily about Trump and Trumpism, or do they think about these other things too?
Ally Mutnick: It's a good question. I think Democrats have spent the entire Trump era running against Trump, turning Trump into the boogeyman, and motivating voters that way. Now that they have united government, they're really trying to score some wins and to have something to go out and talk about on their midterms that's not Trump and say, "Look, we've put shots in arms. We've put stimulus checks in your pocket." Biden really wants to make moves on infrastructure. I think that their goal is to try to take the conversation away from Trump when they can.
Tanzina Vega: Allie Mutnick is a campaigns reporter at POLITICO. Sahil Kapur is a national political reporter for NBC News. Thank you both for joining us.
Ally Mutnick: Thanks for having me.
Sahil Kapur: Good to join you.
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