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Cheney primary prompts sharp GOP divide in Washington

<i>MANDEL NGAN/AFP/AFP via Getty Images</i><br/>Republican lawmakers are starting to choose sides in the fight to defeat Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming
AFP via Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Republican lawmakers are starting to choose sides in the fight to defeat Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming

By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN

Republican lawmakers are starting to choose sides in the fight to defeat Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming, placing high-stakes bets in a divisive primary that is widely seen as a referendum on Donald Trump and cementing deep rifts in the GOP over the direction of the party.

In an extraordinary move on Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — who has been under pressure from his right flank to put his political muscle behind ousting Cheney — officially endorsed her primary foe Harriet Hageman, who is backed by Trump. Less than 24 hours later, House GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 Republican who replaced Cheney in leadership, also threw her weight behind Hageman.

“House Republicans were ready for a change when I took over as Conference Chair, and it’s resoundingly clear that Wyoming families are too,” Stefanik said in a statement Friday. “Liz Cheney abandoned her constituents to become a Far-Left Pelosi puppet. Liz sadly belongs in an MSNBC or CNN news chair, not in Congress representing Wyoming — a state that voted for President Trump by over forty points.”

It’s unclear if House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, will follow suit and wade into the race; his office did not return a request for comment. Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, reiterated to CNN earlier this month that the committee has an official policy of staying neutral in primaries.

But the hardline House Freedom Caucus is expected to join in on the effort to unseat Cheney, and across the Capitol, longtime Cheney rival Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has already endorsed Hageman.

Cheney has her own share of congressional allies in her corner, including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who will be a special guest at a Cheney fundraiser next month, as well as retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who launched a PAC dedicated to boosting anti-Trump Republicans.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina both donated to Cheney’s reelection campaign, before she drew a primary challenger but after she voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection. And McConnell came to Cheney’s defense earlier this month after the Republican National Committee voted to censure her and Kinzinger for their roles on the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack; McConnell also voiced support for Cheney amid the first conservative-led effort to boot her from leadership.

While the McCarthy-Cheney feud has been simmering for more than a year, it’s still remarkable for leaders to meddle in primaries — especially one involving an incumbent. Not to mention, McCarthy and Cheney were onetime allies who served on the same leadership team. And it’s especially unusual to see the GOP pour energy and resources into a seat that is all but guaranteed to stay red in November.

But Cheney’s primary, which will take place this August, has become a proxy war in the battle over Trumpism and will be viewed as an early test of whether the former President still has a strong grip on the GOP. That’s why members from both wings of the party are feeling the need to pick sides in the fight and make rare endorsements in a primary involving their colleague.

Yet it’s also a gamble, especially for GOP leaders: If Cheney defeats Hageman and comes back to Congress, it would be a major blow to McCarthy and Trump’s allies. And not everyone in the party wants to see leadership involved, with some Republicans worried it could further expose divisions in their party and potentially undermine their efforts to win back the majority in November.

Some Republican lawmakers also warn that nationalizing the race could backfire.

“It’s a mistake to make this primary a referendum on loyalty to Trump,” said one senior GOP lawmaker.

Others expressed doubt that the fresh batch of endorsements coming out of DC would move the needle in Wyoming.

“Not a big surprise and am not sure what Kevin’s endorsement will mean in Wyoming but maybe an endorsement from Pelosi for Hageman might offset it?” said Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who also voted to impeach Trump. “At the end of the day it will be the voters, not the outsiders that influence the final result.”

Ousting Cheney has its political benefits

Despite the potential risks, endorsing Cheney’s challenger has some immediate political benefits for McCarthy. Members of the Freedom Caucus were pressuring McCarthy to take action against Cheney, but the GOP leader rejected calls to kick her and Kinzinger out of the conference. Instead, McCarthy has settled on a strategy of working to oust her from Congress entirely — an easy way to win points with Trump’s allies, who will be crucial in any future speaker’s bid.

Stefanik, too, has faced some skepticism from conservatives who were wary of her moderate record. While Stefanik said she won’t seek the conference chair position again, she could make a play for a different leadership post or a committee gavel if they win the majority. Backing Hageman could further boost her standing with conservatives; Stefanik also has a history of playing in primaries to elect Republican women.

Their endorsements, which could come with campaign checks and fundraisers, could provide a much-needed boost to Hageman’s campaign coffers. So far, Hageman has struggled to outraise Cheney, who brought in $2 million compared to Hageman’s $443,000 haul last quarter.

Among Cheney’s critics, there’s also hope that Hageman’s support from powerful members of Congress could help consolidate the primary field and force the remaining anti-Cheney GOP candidates to drop out.

But when it comes to voters in Wyoming, it’s unclear how much sway — if any — these endorsements will have. In fact, Cheney’s allies say it will now enable her to run as the outsider looking to take on the DC swamp.

Since receiving McCarthy’s endorsement, Hageman has signaled she would support him for speaker.

“My priority is to restore Wyoming’s lone Congressional seat to the people of Wyoming and to represent their interests. I look forward to working with Speaker McCarthy next Congress to clean up Nancy Pelosi’s mess and hold the Biden Administration accountable to the American people,” Hageman said in a statement provided to CNN.

In a sign that the Trump wing is nervous about Cheney’s chances of victory, Trump and his allies have been pressing Wyoming’s governor to change the state’s laws to prevent Democrats from being able to vote in the Republican primary.

Not everyone in the GOP agrees it’s the right move.

“Trump Jr and others are making a mistake with all these attempts to change the voting law in WY. Seems to me that could backfire in a state that has a strong identity of individualism,” the senior GOP lawmaker said. “Their efforts would better be spent communicating with voters about why the other candidate is good and Cheney is bad. And helping the other candidate raise money so she can run her own race.”

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