Matt Gaetz Is Fighting Liz Cheney to Win the GOP Civil War. But Has His Side Already Won?

A battle between Representatives Matt Gaetz and Liz Cheney in the GOP's wider civil war will come to a head on Wednesday morning, as the House Republican caucus meets to debate the future of the party's conference chair.

Rep. Cheney (R-WY) drew ire from the populist wing of the party after she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for incitement of insurrection in the wake of the Capitol riots on January 6. At the time, she released a statement saying Trump had "lit the flame" that led to the deadly riots and had "assembled the mob" that clashed with police.

Although she was joined by nine other House Republicans in voting for the former president's impeachment, Cheney has found herself squarely in the crosshairs of Trump-allies on Capitol Hill who are livid that the third highest ranking GOP representative would vote to put the party's own president on trial.

Many in the party have called for the Wyoming Republican to be removed from her post as the GOP conference chair, including Rep. Jim Jordan and Donald Trump Jr., the former president's eldest son. But perhaps the most vocal critic of Cheney has been Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump's closest allies in Washington, D.C.

The Florida Republican travelled to Cheney's home state to trash her at a rally outside the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne, last week. "We are in a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and I intend to win it," Gaetz told the crowd as he urged them to send Cheney home.

Speaking to Newsweek about the Gaetz-Cheney feud, American political scientist Brian Klaas, an associate professor at University College London, hinted that Gaetz might be fighting a battle that the Trump-wing of the party has already won.

"The dynamics of the modern Republican Party reward increasingly extreme Trumpian behavior. To become a national star in the party, you need to show unwavering fealty to Donald Trump," he said. "Extremists—even those who peddle dangerous conspiracy theories—get national prominence, media appearances on right-wing outlets, and droves of Twitter followers."

Rep. Matt Gaetz at Rally Against Cheney
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) greets supporters after speaking to a crowd during a rally against Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) on January 28, 2021 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The commentator added that "sober and serious" members of the party had become "nobodies" in the national political circuit, and argued that lawmakers like Cheney and Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) were "far less representative" of the party base than they used to be.

However, Republican strategists were less convinced that lawmakers on the traditional wing of the party had completely lost control of the GOP to self-described populists such as Gaetz. And they were reluctant to see the spat between the Florida lawmaker and Cheney as a decisive fight in the Republican civil war.

"I doubt Matt Gaetz personally has much impact on the future of the GOP. He's always been a grand-stander and he's obviously taking advantage of an opportunity to make some headlines," said Chris Wilson, the CEO of WPA Intelligence and a former Ted Cruz campaign aide. "But if there was a serious move to beat Liz Cheney, you shouldn't send Matt Gaetz."

He added that it was "too early" to know what direction the GOP was heading in the near future just a few weeks after President Biden's inauguration, noting that much depended on whether Trump would opt to run for the presidency again in 2024.

"He could certainly turn the next four years into a long campaign cycle and dominate the headlines, but if he doesn't run then I think the discussion will slowly move on and focus on opposing Biden's far left proposals and then on nominating someone who can beat Biden (or Harris) in 2024," Wilson told Newsweek over email.

Whit Ayres, a longstanding GOP pollster and North Star Opinion Research founder, took a similar view. The political consultant said it remained to be seen whether the Republican Party would still be a "viable political force" or make the fatal decision to split into two separate entities.

Asked for his view of the party's makeup, Ayres said Trump had successfully expanded the populist wing of the GOP and built it to be the new "dominant force" in the party. Ayres cautioned that all was not over for the so-called "governing" faction.

Speaking about the battle between Cheney and the Trumpian faction on Capitol Hill, the pollster said: "It's a small skirmish in the larger war. It's a skirmish that, at this point, is confined to the House of Representatives' Republican caucus"

"Just because you have a faction dominating the House caucus does not mean it's dominating the entire party."

While Cheney has come under heavy fire from the House Republican caucus, she has received important support from senior Republicans outside of the lower chamber, including former President George W. Bush.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), another powerful Trump ally in the party, said Cheney was "one of the strongest and most reliable" conservative voices in the GOP, and argued that she had worked hard for military personnel.

"Liz Cheney is a leader with deep convictions and the courage to act on them," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also said in a statement. "She is an important leader in our party and in our nation."

If neither the traditional or populist wings of the GOP have total command over the party machinery, and continue to launch public attacks at one another, what does that mean for the future?

"I think the most likely outcome, at least at the presidential level, is somebody emerging who has appeal to both factions. Somebody like a Marco Rubio or a Nikki Haley," Ayres said. "I think that's the most likely outcome, rather than one or the other faction defeating their opponents, and grasping the entire machinery of the Republican party."