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Liz Cheney and the Never Trump Republicans’ ultimate defeat

The bad news for Never Trump Republicans this week wasn’t just that Liz Cheney lost the primary for her Wyoming congressional seat on Tuesday. It wasn’t even that she lost by such an overwhelming margin. It was that her loss fit a pattern in which the GOP’s voters have roundly rejected Republican after Republican who voted to impeach Trump. Only two of the 10 House Republicans who did so will even be on the ballot in November — one of whom is running in a district that Joe Biden won by more than 10 percentage points in 2020.

It’s clear at this point that the Republican Party is a pro-Trump party, and that its voters recoil from candidates who are ardently opposed to the former president. The results of this primary season — and Cheney’s loss in particular — show a Never Trump wing on the verge of extinction.

Cheney’s loss follows those this year of Reps. Peter Meijer of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, and Tom Rice of South Carolina, among those Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. Another four Republican House members who voted to impeach — Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, John Katko of New York, and Fred Upton of Michigan — opted against even running for reelection.

This continues a trend within the GOP since Trump took office, as Republican critics like Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona have opted not to seek reelection, while others, like Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, lost their primaries.

“I’m unaware of any Republican primary where the organizing principle that Trump is a bad guy was ever successful,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a close Trump ally in Congress who had been campaigning against Cheney since days after her impeachment vote, told Vox. “Republicans might have squeaked through who were not pro-Trump, but those candidates had some other organizing principle. Liz Cheney didn’t, and that’s why she lost so badly.”

Even an ardent Never Trumper like Tim Miller, a former top Republican operative and author of a recent New York Times bestseller, Why We Did It, conceded that Trump won the battle for the soul of the GOP. “A lot of people misunderstand what is happening in this moment and think the Republican Party might somehow go back to being the party of Liz Cheney and Paul Ryan,” Miller said. “It’s never going back — at least not any time on the horizon.”

Part of that wing’s irrelevance owes to the fundamental structure of American politics. The only three Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Trump who have advanced to the general election this cycle all ran in states without traditional party primaries. In Alaska, maverick Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski advanced in the state’s unusual primary system, where the top four candidates on a nonpartisan primary ballot advance to a ranked choice general election. Two House members who won their primaries, David Valadao of California and Dan Newhouse of Washington, both did so in states where the top two vote-getters on a nonpartisan primary ballot advance to the general election.

But it wasn’t just structural. None of the winning candidates emphasized their opposition to Trump. In fact, they all ran localized races and focused on issues that voters in Republican primaries were concerned about. But it required that combination for anti-Trump Republicans to succeed in a primary.

As one plugged-in Trump ally who was granted anonymity in order to speak frankly put it, “Cheney found out what happens when you try to make an entire election a referendum on Trump.” The Trump ally was skeptical that there was ever a path for Cheney to win, but thought she could have kept it close by “running a hyper-localized campaign, not going out of the way to mention Trump’s name, [and] not publicly aligning with the January 6 committee.”

Miller was skeptical that this would have been successful. He noted that Rice followed that entire playbook and got crushed. Rice never backed away from his impeachment vote but focused his campaign on his record of bringing federal money to his district. However, Rice did shift hard against Trump in the final days of his congressional race, contributing to the lopsided margins against him.

The former Republican operative noted that with only a handful of exceptions, the MAGA wing of the party won across the board in 2022. In his view, “this is what the voters want, and it’s time that people who still consider themselves classically conservative [to realize] that they are not welcome in the party and not allies anymore, and have to enter an allyship with a party they disagree with.”

The idea that Never Trumpers should ally with Democrats isn’t without precedent in American politics. History is filled with coalitions based on personalities. The first time key Republicans abandoned their party to support a Democrat out of personal revulsion to the party’s leader was in 1884, when Mugwumps backed Grover Cleveland because they believed Republican nominee James Blaine to be corrupt. Entire American political realignments have been focused around the personalities of leaders like Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Gaetz dismissed the number of Never Trumpers and their influence in American politics. “There certainly is a Never Trump faction and they are terrific at playing to their key constituency, Washington television bookers. That allows them to present as a larger force in American politics than they are.”

While Never Trumpers are certainly found outside Beltway green rooms, there clearly are not enough of them to win head-to-head Republican primaries in 2022. “It’s a big party and certainly there’s room for people who don’t love Trump, but there isn’t any real electoral constituency for people who hate Trump,” the Trump ally said.

This was echoed by an operative tied to the Never Trump wing of the party, who told Vox there is “very little room in the party for someone who wants to run as an unabashed opponent of Trump.”

This doesn’t mean that the Republican Party has been purged of Trump skeptics, but simply that opposition to Trump can’t be the raison d’etre of a successful campaign. There is still room in the party for those who don’t like Trump and want to stay and fight — they just have to downplay it. “You don’t have to agree with Trump on everything as long as you’re fighting for what conservative voters want,” said the operative.

But that is certainly not enough to pass the purity test of those Republicans who see Trump and his allies as presenting an existential threat to American democracy after the January 6 Capitol riot. For true Never Trumpers remaining in the party, the question after Wyoming is whether they abandon Never Trumpism or just abandon the GOP.

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