Comment: GOP infighting couldn’t come at worse possible time

With the midterms nearing, the fight over the censure of two of its own risks taking focus off the Democrats.

By Douglas Heye / Special To The Washington Post

Politically, 2022 looks a lot like 2010, the last time Republicans won the House of Representatives.

As a Democratic president’s popularity sagged, a Republican gubernatorial victory in Virginia (and, in 2010, New Jersey, whose election for 2022 was much closer than widely predicted) signaled that the Democratic lock on Washington, D.C., was in trouble. Republican voter enthusiasm began to rise, as did confidence of big GOP gains in Congress.

If we were in normal political times, it should be easy for Republicans all to sing from the same hymn book, focusing the party’s energy on President Biden and his congressional allies, seeking to pick apart the Democratic majority seat by seat and, with it, effectively end the Biden legislative agenda.

These are no ordinary times, though. And as a House committee continues to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, the investigation — essentially asking, “What did the president do, and when did he do it?” — has led Republicans to expose their own cracks between those who remain enthusiastic backers of all things Trump and those willing to be critical of the former president (or those who just hope to avoid Trump as a topic).

Which made the decision of the Republican National Committee to censure Reps. Liz Cheney, Wyo., and Adam Kinzinger, Ill., at last week’s winter meeting in Salt Lake City for the crime of merely participating in the investigation both obvious and curious.

Obvious, because the RNC is eager to do all it can to stay in Donald Trump’s good graces; as demonstrated by the committee footing the bill for his legal expenses, even though the former president controls a $120 million war chest of his own. Curious, because by taking the unprecedented step against two sitting Republican members of Congress, the committee ensured that this would bring the GOP’s internal divisions to the surface. And these divisions were guaranteed to bring significant media coverage.

Today’s tension between the RNC and Capitol Hill GOP is somewhat reminiscent of the 2010 election cycle. In 2010, the RNC was hit by wave after wave of controversy, including, most infamously, a scandal in which a staffer spent nearly $2,000 of the party’s money at a risqué Los Angeles nightclub and a leaked internal fundraising memo critical of party donors. Republican congressional leaders vented their frustration publicly and privately because the party committee should not be a front-page story.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comment on the censure this week — “That’s not the job of the RNC” — sounded awfully similar to comments Capitol Hill Republicans directed at the RNC in 2010.

I was the committee’s communications director at the time, and dealing with these kinds of stories constituted my worst days on the job. Whenever we became the center of national news, self-inflicted crises caused us to retreat into a bunker mentality. Instead of focusing solely on pressing Democratic weaknesses — the then-unpopular Obamacare bill, the lack of a coherent response to the long-running BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, rising taxes and deficits — precious time was lost trying to take care of avoidable blunders. Each time, it was as if the RNC had made an in-kind contribution to the Democratic National Committee.

That’s surely what last weekend’s vote was, too. The move to censure Cheney and Kinzinger was an internal RNC process, which is to say, it was a self-inflicted injury that made the committee a dominant news story, complete with party infighting among committee members and several vocal Capitol Hill Republicans, including McConnell, Ky., and Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah.

That the RNC has now labeled those senators as part of “the D.C. bubble” will not do anything to quell the back and forth. Indeed, the unheard of and, until now, unfathomable move by the RNC to throw shade at its own top Senate Republicans will keep the issue alive for several more days. This was already going to be fodder for the Sunday shows, even before Trump released the inevitable statement Wednesday attacking McConnell and continuing to push the lie that his 2020 election loss was fraudulent.

That means the focus for people paying attention to political news now is not on what Republicans should want: an unpopular president, a majority of voters believing the country is moving in the wrong direction, inflation, rising violent crime and the growing number of Democratic governors coming to embrace the removal of mask mandates for which they’d long criticized Republicans. Instead, it’s on Republican infighting.

Even worse, all that intra-GOP battling distracts from the Democrats’ own divisions, which McConnell’s team has been doing a good job of branding as “Dems in Disarray.”

The good news for Republicans is that the political ground remains fertile for them, and narrow Democratic majorities mean even modest Republican gains in November could easily lead to GOP control of the House and the Senate.

Come November, perhaps this fight will be little remembered, the kind of political inside baseball that doesn’t register with voters more broadly, in the way that I can barely remember some RNC imbroglios that consumed my life in 2010. Certainly voters then didn’t punish the GOP: Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate, though Democrats retained control of the upper chamber.

But Republicans should not take that risk. The RNC controversies of 2010 were trivial. The stakes here are much higher: The RNC is targeting its own members of Congress and changing rules so that committee funds may be spent on a Republican primary (which might draw funds away from targeting Democratic seats). And the troubling language that those storming the Capitol — people seeking to hang then-Vice President Mike Pence — were “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” is serious. And, as we’ve seen in the past and are seeing this week, Trump is willing to exploit divides however and whenever he sees fit.

This is happening at a time when much of the political incentive structure rewards political “fighting” over actual results and encourages intraparty fights. Trump, in his effort to salve his wounds from losing to Biden, has shown his willingness to exploit party divisions, even with the House and Senate in the balance; as Republicans learned last year in Georgia.

McConnell is mindful of this, which is why, while being clear and consistent on Jan. 6, he has otherwise trodden carefully around Trump.

Republicans could have supported an independent commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol, or they could have nominated Republican members they knew would not be rejected. They chose not to and are now playing with the cards they’ve been dealt.

But historically speaking, this year’s elections still favor Republicans. If they want to maximize their chances of success, the best thing they can do is avoid unnecessary intraparty fighting. Election Day always comes faster than campaigns think. Any day wasted on self-inflicted controversies — and we’re on day five of this one now — is a day that’s not being spent defining your opponent.

And that is political malpractice. Especially if it’s coming unprompted from the party’s national headquarters.

Douglas Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director, was deputy chief of staff to former House majority leader Eric Cantor.

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