House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has pinned his hopes for reclaiming the majority in 2022 on never having to choose between the contradictory factions in his own party, no matter how deep the divisions appear.
He defended Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) after she voted to impeach President Donald Trump but also said he was unhappy with her after an outcry from Trump supporters. He said Trump “bears responsibility” for his slow response to the attack on the U.S. Capitol, but then, in voting against impeachment, said the president did not “provoke” the violence.
But his insistence on allowing every Republican a place under the GOP’s big tent — including conspiratorial firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — has magnified the Democratic argument that his party is accommodating extremist elements, some in his party fear.
Those worries began to play out Thursday after McCarthy’s decision not to punish Greene subjected Republicans to a public vote, called by Democrats, on whether to strip committee assignments from a colleague who has previously embraced the QAnon extremist ideology, suggested space lasers funded by Jewish wealth may secretly start forest fires and even liked comments wishing harm on Democratic leaders. The vote to defend her role in Congress — 199 Republicans sided with her, to 11 against — will almost certainly be used by Democrats in the coming months as a way of tarnishing vulnerable Republicans who opposed punishing Greene.
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Still shaken and angry at the conspiratorial rhetoric from GOP leaders that sparked the Jan.?6 attack on the Capitol, Democrats have come to view highlighting Republican extremism as a central pillar of their 2022 strategy, as they try to hang on to power despite redistricting that is expected to put them at a disadvantage and the historical buyer’s remorse that tends to punish the president’s party in midterm elections. The strategy echoes recent Republican tactics of using the Democratic fringes — the embrace of “socialism” by a few and activists’ calls to “defund the police” — to stain the entire party’s brand.
To underscore the point, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has taken to identifying home state compatriot McCarthy as “Q-CA,” and the Democratic campaign arm has begun funding misleading campaign spots tying Republican members to the conspiracy theorists and extremists.
“You can do QAnon, and you can do swing districts, but you can’t do both,” House Democratic campaign chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) said. Republicans, he argued, are trying to “serve two masters”: “One of them is crazy and dangerous, and the other is the Chamber of Commerce.”
It’s an argument that has alarmed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who faces a challenging task of winning Senate seats next year in states such as Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, which voted for President Biden. Distancing himself from McCarthy’s approach, McConnell took the unusual step this week of publicly denouncing the “loony lies and conspiracy theories” of people such as Greene, whom he compared to a “cancer” in the party.
McConnell refused to answer a question Thursday about McCarthy’s decision to support Greene’s continued committee appointments, though he made a point of congratulating Cheney for a “landslide victory” Wednesday after she beat back an attempt to strip her of her leadership post because of her vote to impeach Trump.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) cast as an existential issue the failure of McCarthy and other Republicans to draw a clear line with Greene.
“House members never like us judging them, but I do think as a party we have to figure out what we stand for,” Thune said. “I think we’ve got to be the party, as I said, of ideas and policies and principles, and get away from members dabbling in conspiracy theories.”
Other Republicans also raised concerns that a lack of consequence for Greene would further erode standards in the Republican Party and the country.
“A party needs to have some level of principles or visions that defines it, and it can’t purely be a vehicle for grievance and entertainment, and that is what it has become,” said Brendan Buck, a former adviser to Republican House speakers Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Newt Gingrich (Ga.). “When you start to accept that violent deranged behavior and language is not only accepted but elevated, all you are going to do is get more of it.”
One McConnell adviser, who like other Republicans spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategic conversations, said the decision to try to diminish or excommunicate Greene from the Republican Party is based on not wanting members to have to answer for or defend her comments while they are up for reelection.
“It’s only going to get worse unless we do something about it,” this person said.
Other party strategists have warned that McCarthy’s confidence that historical tail winds will help Republicans win in 2022 could be shortsighted, given the attack at the Capitol, whose repercussions may still scramble political dynamics in unusual ways. The only recent example of the president’s party gaining House seats in a midterm election came in 2002, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“If any candidates for the House or Senate are explaining Jewish space lasers next fall, we have no hope for recapturing either majority,” quipped one prominent Republican campaign strategist.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, meanwhile, has sketched out a path between the two congressional leaders, arguing against public fights among Republicans while quickly denouncing Greene’s statements and some of the more extreme utterances of state parties — including the Oregon party, which recently declared falsely that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was a conspiracy by Trump’s opponents to undermine his movement.
Ultimately the differences over how to handle Greene point to different approaches the leaders have taken to deal with Trump, who remains the most influential and unpredictable force in Republican politics. Hunkered down at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, he has been quietly urging on efforts to punish those Republicans who turned against him during his final weeks in office while deciding against immediate comment on Greene or Cheney, aides say.
Trump continues to view Greene’s pugilistic approach as an asset and shares her false belief that his 2020 election loss was the result of electoral fraud, according to his advisers. In his final days in office, Trump lavishly praised Greene to other staffers. Trump described her as “fantastic” and “terrific,” according to a person who heard his remarks, noting how talented she was on television. She has played up their alliance, saying the two talked recently and expect to meet “soon” in Florida.
As Trump has abandoned his early thoughts about starting a third party, his advisers have been polling Republican primary races and scouring the country for potential recruits for the GOP. Trump has joked that all of his advisers are telling him his absence from Twitter — which permanently banned him from the platform Jan.?8 — is improving his image, but that he plans to return to the political scene this spring, a person who spoke to him said.
Trump encouraged others, including McCarthy, to replace Cheney in leadership, people familiar with the conversations say, and took particular pride, an adviser said, in watching Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) command a crowd in Wyoming to accuse both McConnell and Cheney of trying “to screw our fellow Americans for generations.” Gaetz made a point at the event of saying Trump had asked him to deliver a message to the crowd.
So far, McCarthy’s instinct on 2022 has been to repeat his strategy from last year, wooing Trump privately and trying to keep his party’s eye on the ultimate prize, which in the case of the midterms is control of the House and Senate.
There are some signs that the strategy is working. After initially promising to launch primary challenges to all the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, people close to the former president now say they are focused on defeating Republicans in seats, such as Cheney’s, that are not at risk of a Democratic takeover in 2022.
“My number one focus is gaining a Republican majority in the House and the Senate,” said Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign adviser who has started the Fight Back Now America PAC to fund primary challenges against some Trump antagonists. “Nobody I am working with or talking to wants to see Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House in two years.”
While Trump’s conduct arguably cost Republicans control of the Senate with losses in the two Georgia runoffs, the party saw far more success in the last election’s House races, flipping 14 seats by fielding strong candidates in moderate districts that Trump endorsed on McCarthy’s recommendation.
Republicans now expect to make gains in upcoming redistricting that could exceed the current 10-seat margin of Democratic control. States with Republican control over line drawing, such as Florida and Texas, are slated to gain more seats through population changes, and the party continues to have far more control of the process than Democrats. By one Republican estimate, the party will directly control the line drawing for 173 seats, while Democrats will control the lines for 47 seats, with the rest being decided by less partisan means.
“We are in a stronger place than we have ever been going into a redistricting cycle,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “We have better data. We are better coordinated. We have a better strategy.”
Democrats, though admitting Republican advantages, say they believe those redistricting projections are too ambitious, given the legal challenges that will result from aggressively drawn maps.
“The only way for them to say it is guaranteed is for them to gerrymander, which we will fight,” said Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “There is competitiveness inherent in the map that we will fight for.”
The party that holds the presidency historically loses far more in midterm elections, with an average drop of 27 seats since World War II, more than enough to give Republicans control. Democrats hope to buck history on the back of their policy record over the next year, with legislation aimed at supercharging the economy and an aggressive program to vaccinate the country against the coronavirus.
“We are going to win. History is on our side. The policies are on our side. The environment is going to be completely different. Our donors are engaged,” said Republican House campaign chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.). “The other side did not get elected with a mandate, and they are acting like they did.”
McCarthy has hewed to that bullish outlook this week, despite the conflict in his party.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who has cast Greene’s behavior as a threat to the nation, said he was disappointed “by a factor of 1,000” by his colleagues’ response to her in a private conference meeting Wednesday.
“To see her come out of there in a strong position was crazy,” Kinzinger said Thursday in an interview on CNN.
During the Wednesday confab behind closed doors, McCarthy said he supported both Cheney and Greene, saying he wanted to keep the former in her leadership role and opposed stripping the latter of her committee assignments. He released a statement condemning Greene’s past statements, some of which she admitted were false and said she regretted in a House floor speech Thursday.
“The number one thing that happened in this conference was unity,” McCarthy said after the meeting that had been called because of division. “Two years from now, we are going to win the majority.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.