Once upon a time, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was seen as a rising star in the GOP; the daughter of a former Republican vice president seemed to have all the bonafides to propel her into the top ranks of Congress.
Then she became one of Congress’ biggest detractors of former President Donald Trump and his acolytes, voting in favor of Trump’s impeachment and later taking a high-profile role in the Jan. 6 congressional investigation.
Cheney’s re-election primary loss – by a landslide – to Trump-endorsed challenger Harriet Hageman on Tuesday night came as no surprise to anyone, least of all Cheney herself. Even before her concession speech, Cheney cast herself as standing up for unbreakable values and, as The New York Times noted, invoking Abraham Lincoln’s failed bids for lesser offices before seeking the presidency. If that sounds like she’s positioning herself for a future presidential bid, Cheney wouldn’t likely dissuade you: She’s said she’s thinking of running for president.
But what her loss does appear to underscore is precisely where the fault line runs in the Republican Party. And what does this point to for Texas, where Republican politicians hold all the top statewide offices, and midterms loom just over the horizon? Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, joined the Texas Standard to share more. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Were there any surprises last night?
Brandon Rottinghaus: Not many surprises. I think that Liz Cheney pretty much resigned herself to the fact that she was going to lose; the polling indicated this from weeks ago. But I think it does give us a sense of perspective on how rapid and durable the Trump takeover of the Republican Party is. It’s a root-to-branch takeover, as the old-time Texas politicians used to say. Cheney is only the fourth impeachment Republican to lose a primary the cycle; four others have chosen retirement over probably losing – this despite the fact that she outraised her opponent 3 to 1. So this is really, I think, indicative of where things are nationally, but also in Texas.
This is something that’s been talked about quite a bit: Only two of the 10 House Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment will be on the ballot in November. Are there any parallels historically that might sort of suggest where all this goes, or is this indeed the first of its kind, sort of a new Rubicon being crossed here?
Yeah, we are definitely in unique times. I think we are privileged to live in these moments. But I think you’re right that there are some parallels. I mean, you can certainly see some parallels during the troubled presidencies in the Nixon administration, in the Reagan administration – even to some degree, I think, in the Clinton administration, where you’ve had presidents who will cast a long shadow over the ballot, and Donald Trump has certainly done that. I mean, not just this particular primary, but also the FBI raid that’s really put Trump back in the news in some ways – for his supporters in a good way, and for many others, Republicans who were worried about his effect on the party is a problem.
I think a lot of people see Texas, even though it is a GOP-led state, as being somewhat different from Wyoming in the sense that Wyoming has long had a kind of GOP establishment that was more business-focused, less about sort of signaling who’s the more conservative conservative. All of those sort of appearances have been a feature of Texas politics going back to the Tea Party and way before. How much actually changes as we look at November – does this defeat of Liz Cheney mean anything for Texas politics?
I think it does. I mean, it certainly suggests that for a lot of Republicans, they’re painting themselves into a corner by backing Donald Trump in a way that might be politically problematic, especially if the former president faces some serious ethical or criminal charges. I think in Texas, we’re also seeing a split that is: you’re with Trump or you’re not with Trump. And that’s really having an effect on a lot of primaries where certainly you saw a situation where Liz Cheney put all her wood behind one era when that was exposing Donald Trump.
But in Texas, at least for Republicans, they’re willing to effectively kind of go all in. So there’s really not much of a moderate check on how Republicans are pursuing these kind of red meat impulses. They’ve seen it works in primaries. And in some ways, if you win the primaries, we know you’re in really good shape for the general.
Stephanie Muravchik and Jon Shields, who are working on a current book about Liz Cheney and the future of the American Right, wrote for The New York Times that for decades progressives have hoped that the white working class would turn against the affluent bankers, doctors, oil magnates seen as controlling the Republican Party. It has, but not in the way that a lot of progressives had hoped, that they might be leaning to the Democratic Party. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s partly because, you know, the Republicans have definitely pursued a kind of grievance politics. They have taken up this mantle of people who are really frustrated by what’s going on in America. And, you know, you certainly see this in rural areas where times are tough. If you’ve driven through any parts of rural Texas, you’ve seen these towns get swept up and blown away. And I think that’s really affecting a lot of people. So they’re willing to vote for Democrats.
We’ve seen efforts by top of the ticket candidates in Texas to try to get them out to vote, their efforts that are pursuing a kind of rural vote for Democrats. It’s a really laborious task to get that done. But I think, like you’re implying, that the Republicans have been able to corner that largely on cultural issues, but there’s room there for Democrats to be able to walk in and say that they can really make a difference that isn’t just about trying to pit one party against the other.