Tuesday night was a preview. Rep. Tom Rice is a conservative South Carolina Republican who voted with Trump 94 percent of the time. But his vote to impeach Trump after the Capitol riot ended his congressional career: he lost his primary by a 2-1 margin. The Trump-endorsed candidate won an absolute majority in a multi-candidate field, avoiding a runoff.
Trump’s Republican primary endorsements aren’t infallible. Nearby South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace survived a Trump-backed challenge, though that race was closer than it ought to have been. But she also stopped short of supporting Trump’s impeachment and faced an opponent who had previously lost the red district to a Democrat in the general election.
Of the ten House Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment after the events of Jan. 6, half are already going to be out of Congress next year. Rice was defeated and four retired rather than try to seek renomination under the circumstances.
Liz Cheney appears unlikely to buck this trend. Instead, she is poised to be the sixth pro-impeachment Republican to fall. A poll found her trailing by 30 points. Reporters covering the race have found her facing an intensely hostile environment. Wyoming Republicans have been as quick to disavow her as their Washington counterparts. And Cheney no longer talks like someone who expects to work with GOP leadership.
The polls, and out-of-town reporters, could be wrong. Small states are notoriously hard to poll reliably. The Cheneys are a political institution, and they wouldn’t have to turn out many people to win the primary. There are also more important things than polls and election victories, as Cheney’s admirers will undoubtedly argue if the likeliest outcome becomes reality.
While the Jan. 6 committee has some investigative aspects, its purpose is largely to craft a narrative about Trump’s 2020 election claims, widespread rank-and-file Republican skepticism of President Joe Biden’s win, and the violence at the Capitol. That narrative is incomplete, but it isn’t wrong in every particular or even in its most important points: Trump purported to believe, and encouraged his supporters to believe, some dubious things about the 2020 results; he seriously entertained progressively more dubious mechanisms for continuing to contest the outcome after all genuinely constitutional options were exhausted; he then encouraged his supporters to protest in Washington and did little to stop the non-trivial subset of them who became violent and overran the Capitol.
That is all true, and certainly bad enough. But there are two places where it becomes polemical rather than strictly factual. Cheney alleges Jan. 6 was the culmination of a “sophisticated seven-point plan” to overturn the election. That it was sophisticated, or even much of a plan, is highly debatable.
Most of the people in serious positions of government authority, with the important exception of Trump himself, rejected key elements of the plan. By Jan. 6, it was almost entirely outside agitators who continued to behave as if the outcome was in doubt.
Then there is the important area where most members of Cheney’s party regard the narrative as incomplete. The committee with which she has aligned herself is populated by people who doubted the 2016 election results, as many of them doubted 2000 before that, to varying degrees regarded Trump as an illegitimate president, and entertained various unorthodox ways to remove him. Cheney’s remaining conservative admirers include people who wanted to deny Trump the GOP nomination through arcane convention rules even if he won a majority. Cities hunkered down before the election because locals feared violence — if Trump won.
It is within this context that many Republicans don’t agree with Cheney that Jan. 6 was a unique event that should be used to discredit vast swathes of their own party.
To be sure, the committee’s marriage of “stop the steal” and the Capitol riot is intended to illustrate how Trump’s actions were distinctly different — Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Stacey Abrams may have all thought they really won but gave up when they ran out of realistic ways to keep pressing the issue, and none of their supporters attacked the Capitol. Only small fringes opposed certifying their rivals’ elections. But it could also be argued that Trump was an escalation of already eroding norms rather than something completely different.
Liz Cheney’s argument might be stronger in 2024 if Trump runs again. After all, he isn’t going to have Bill Barr as his attorney general. Maybe it will be someone more like Rudy Giuliani, if they can win Senate confirmation.
Small-d democratic accountability, however, must include some accountability from Republican elected officials to Republican voters. Cheney Republicans may learn that lesson the hard, but democratic, way.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? You can follow home on Twitter: @Jimantle.