WASHINGTON – The Republican National Committee, which hates Liz Cheney so much it excommunicated her from the party earlier this year, nevertheless appears powerless to stop her from running for the 2024 GOP nomination in her quest to keep Donald Trump from returning to power.
The party’s rules demand neutrality in presidential contests when there is no incumbent running — which the RNC itself has cited as a reason it would have to stop paying the former president’s legal bills at the moment he announces his candidacy.
“The party has stated plainly that we will be neutral in the presidential primary in ’24,” said Henry Barbour, a prominent RNC member from Mississippi.
Since Cheney’s loss Tuesday in her bid to keep her House seat in Wyoming, she has said she intends to focus on her work on the Jan. 6 committee through the remainder of 2022 and then decide what comes next in early 2023. She declined to comment for this story.
One Republican strategist said that while pro-Trump members on the RNC may try to rig debate rules to prevent her from participating, there is little they can do to alter state ballot access rules and laws. “If she wants to run as a Republican, there’s nothing they can do to keep her off the ballot.”
And while Trump and his allies have been gloating over her lopsided defeat against a challenger willing to spread Trump’s election lies, Cheney’s newfound free time come January could wind up making them wish she were still in Congress.
From her own remarks already, it is clear that Cheney is less interested in becoming president than she is in making sure that Trump cannot do so again.
“I will do whatever it takes to ensure that Donald Trump is never anywhere near the Oval Office, and I mean it,” she said in her concession speech Tuesday night.
“It means that she is somebody with nothing to lose and is holding people accountable,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state Republican Party in New Hampshire. “That is a role she can play. There are other reasons to run for president than winning.”
Running as a Republican — rather than an independent, which could siphon away anti-Trump votes in the general election should he wind up the GOP nominee — would let her access media and electorates in the important GOP nominating states, allowing her to take her specific anti-Trump message to those voters, day in and day out.
“I think she runs a kamikaze mission for democracy as a GOP candidate and dares them to bar her from ballots or debate stages,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican consultant. “She’s looking to keep Trump out of the White House, not put herself in it.”
“There are other reasons to run for president than winning.”
– Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the state Republican Party in New Hampshire
Whether that would diminish Trump’s standing is uncertain, but it would make for an entirely different situation than the one he enjoyed in 2015.
That year, most candidates ignored him entirely, assuming that his support would fade as the primary elections drew nearer. Others actively praised him — in the hope that they would win over his supporters when he inevitably dropped out.
By the time his rivals eventually did start attacking him in early 2016, it was too late, and Trump had a sizable lead that let him cruise through the primaries.
It’s clear from Trump’s personal attacks on Cheney, which intensified with the start of the Jan. 6 committee’s public hearings in June, that her criticism of his behavior on and leading up to that day has been surprisingly effective. As vice chair, she played a key role in each committee hearing and often delivered the most devastating critiques of Trump’s incitement of the Capitol assault, the culmination of Trump’s attempted coup to remain in power.
“I assume that with the very big Liz Cheney loss, far bigger than had ever been anticipated, the January 6th Committee of political Hacks and Thugs will quickly begin the beautiful process of DISSOLUTION?” Trump posted on his social media network the day after Cheney’s election loss. “This was a referendum on the never ending Witch Hunt. The people have spoken!”
In Trump’s corner are many of the RNC’s 168 members, who already punished Cheney and Republican Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger for their participation on the Jan. 6 committee and their vocal criticism of Trump. The RNC pushed through a resolution at its winter meeting censuring them, opening the door for the Wyoming state party and the National Republican Congressional Committee to support Cheney’s challenger.
Jan. 6 committee members Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) on Capitol Hill on July 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Should Cheney choose to run for the 2024 GOP nomination, those same Trump loyalists could try to rig party rules to ensure, for example, that Cheney would not be permitted to participate in primary debates.
“They’d probably force every candidate who wants to debate to agree to support whoever the nominee is. Liz won’t,” said Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman from Illinois who ran against Trump in the 2020 primaries.
“There is zero chance she ever makes it onto a debate stage with Trump,” said a high-profile GOP consultant from Iowa who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a resistance fantasy to think she can get toe-to-toe with Trump and actually engage him…. She won’t pledge to vote for the nominee if it’s Trump, so they lock her out on that. That’s one way. There are other schemes.”
An RNC spokesperson declined to discuss how the party might react to a Cheney candidacy and instead offered the standard boilerplate about the coming midterms. “The Republican National Committee is focused on all of our great Republican nominees who won their primaries and will tackle the issues that matter to their constituents, which is why we will take back the House and Senate in November,” she said.
One RNC member who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed that the party might try to impose a pledge requirement that forces candidates to promise to support the eventual nominee as a way of keeping out Cheney.
Such a pledge, in fact, was demanded of Trump in 2015, when during the first debate that August he said he did not feel obliged to support the nominee if it was not him. He signed a “pledge” at the request of then-chair Reince Priebus on Sept. 3 — but within hours said he would not be bound by it if the RNC didn’t treat him nicely.
By December, Trump was already bragging that “68% of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP and ran as an independent.” And in March of 2016, Trump explicitly said he felt no obligation to support the nominee if it turned out not to be him. “I have been treated very unfairly,” he complained.
Trump’s statements back then, the RNC member said, would make it difficult to hold Cheney to a higher standard. “I certainly think our various candidates should support whoever the nominee is,” the RNC member said. “But I think we learned in 2016 that it’s unenforceable.”
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