House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy gave his strongest signal yet on Tuesday that he would support a new attempt to oust GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney from her leadership post — and potential successors are already angling to replace her.
The California Republican said his members have voiced concerns about Cheney’s “ability to carry out” her leadership duties — a stark shift from McCarthy’s public silence earlier this year when House conservatives mounted a failed bid to dislodge Cheney from her role after she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
This time, McCarthy denied that intra-party frustrations with Cheney were rooted in the Wyoming Republican’s impeachment vote. Cheney’s GOP critics say they’re frustrated that she hasn’t acted like a team player, doesn’t stay on-message and has created an unwelcome distraction with recent headline-making comments about Trump.
“There’s no concern about how she voted on impeachment. That decision has been made,” McCarthy told “Fox & Friends” in an interview.
“I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message,” he said. “We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority. Remember, majorities are not given, they are earned. And that’s about the message about going forward.”
Responding to McCarthy’s remarks, Cheney spokesperson Jeremy Adler released a statement later Tuesday morning framing the fight this way: “This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on Jan 6. Liz will not do that. That is the issue.”
While tension between the top House Republican leaders has been steadily escalating, the relationship between the conference’s No. 1 and No. 3 hit rock bottom after its annual policy retreat in Florida last week, an event designed to project a united front as Republicans look to take back the House. The conversation among senior Republicans now isn’t whether Cheney survives another vote on her future, but who will inevitably replace her.
Members of McCarthy’s leadership team already have begun whipping against Cheney, according to one House Republican.
A handful of names are being floated to succeed her, but Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York — who propelled herself to GOP stardom during Trump’s first impeachment trial — has emerged as an early frontrunner, according to multiple senior Republicans and sources close to leadership. Stefanik, 36, is said to be interested in the job if Cheney gets the boot and has been calling her colleagues to talk about her interest in the job and garner support, though her allies believe she’s wary of looking eager to knife Cheney.
Stefanik, who mulled a bid for New York governor this year, has a number of things going for her: She’s become a prolific fundraiser, is considered an effective party messenger and is liked by the MAGA crowd, including Trump and McCarthy. But Stefanik also has a PAC dedicated to electing more Republican women, which has required her to play in GOP primaries — and that could be problematic if she winds up in leadership.
Republicans are well aware of the optics of booting the sole woman to serve in GOP leadership, with some stressing the importance of finding another woman to take Cheney’s place. Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana is another Republican whose name has been floated, but she is generally not viewed as strong of a contender as Stefanik.
And if the party decides to shrug off potential blowback, male contenders are being suggested as well. Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, chair of the Republican Study Committee, is making his interest in the position known. And some have pointed to Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who occupies the No. 4 slot as vice conference chair.
The discussions about who will replace her indicate that a vote on Cheney’s future is unavoidable, barely three months after she cruised to victory after the first attempt to oust her from leadership by House conservatives.
House Republicans will huddle next Wednesday for their weekly conference meeting, where McCarthy can call for a vote or another member can bring up a resolution, as occurred in February. If the GOP conference does purge Cheney, they’d have to hold another vote on her replacement. While the timing of those votes is up in the air, Republicans are predicting that the process will move quickly, with many eager to rip the Band-Aid off.
McCarthy defended Cheney privately during February’s vote over whether to keep her in leadership. But their relationship has since soured as McCarthy has sought to walk back his criticisms of Trump and tether himself more closely to the former president — all while Cheney has continued to insist Trump should play no role in the future of the Republican Party.
House Democrats quickly mocked the GOP for its apparent uneasiness with Cheney’s anti-Trump apostasy. Responding to Republicans’ interest in replacing Cheney with a female conference chair, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office released a statementon Tuesday headlined: “GOP Leadership: Help Wanted — Non-Threatening Female.”
And White House press secretary Jen Psaki used Cheney’s struggles to draw a contrast with Biden’s agenda: "The Republican Party seems to be spending a lot of blood, sweat and tears trying to figure out where they stand and what they stand for. And that’s their prerogative," Psaki told reporters Monday. "But our focus is … how we’re spending our time is on defeating the pandemic, growing the economy."
Tensions between McCarthy and Cheney resurfaced at a retreat for GOP lawmakers in Florida last month, where the two House Republican leaders publicly broke with one another in a series of remarks to reporters over Cheney’s messaging, Trump’s 2020 election falsehoods and a proposed bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection.
Conservatives including Donald Trump Jr. attacked Cheney last week for fist-bumping President Joe Biden ahead of his first address to a joint session of Congress, and the Republican infighting ramped up further on Monday after former President Trump released a statement attempting to rebrand the 2020 election as the real “BIG LIE.”
Cheney responded on Twitter roughly an hour later, writing: “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”
The back-and-forth between the former president and the GOP conference chair provoked another round of backlash from conservatives and fueled already rampant speculation that Cheney could soon be booted from House leadership.
Later Monday afternoon, Trump released a statement touting “heartwarming” public polling in Cheney’s home state purportedly showing her with low approval numbers and predicted that “she’ll never run in a Wyoming election again!”
Cheney, for her part, rebuked Trump again on Monday night at a closed-door conference in Georgia, where CNN reported she called Trump’s false election fraud claims “a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy” and said that “we can’t whitewash what happened” on Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, McCarthy has also come under fire from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who aired a segment on Monday night highlighting that the House Republican leader rented space in a Washington, D.C., penthouse belonging to Frank Luntz — the veteran Republican pollster and strategist who has been critical of Trump’s election rhetoric and actions on Jan. 6.
“I didn’t know how this was controversial,” McCarthy said on Tuesday, addressing the report. “Frank has been a friend of mine for more than 30 years.”
McCarthy said that after Democrats retook control of the House in January 2019, “they started changing the House around, and so, yeah, I rented a room [from] Frank for a couple months. But don’t worry, I’m back to going back to where I normally [am], on my couch in my office. But yeah, we paid fair market rate.”
“He seems upset,” McCarthy added of Carlson. “I think [Frank] and Tucker must dislike each other, and I don’t think that’s right. They need to get together and solve whatever difficulties, because we’ve got to make sure that we put this country back on the right track.”