House Republicans had a messaging problem in 2018. So Republicans have elected a new messenger: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter.
Cheney was picked to be the House GOP conference chair, in a Republican-only vote Wednesday. The post will put her in charge of the party’s communications strategy, both internally and externally, crafting House Republicans’ message and keeping lawmakers in line. The position will make her the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, third behind Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise.
While less high-profile, the GOP conference chair will likely prove to be one of the most important roles in Republican leadership next year, as the party navigates the House under Democratic control — especially as the party heads toward President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid. Dick Cheney held the position in 1987.
It’s also a job that Republican lawmakers have been more than willing to blame for their midterm losses this year. Cheney will be replacing Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who came under the ire of several of her Republican colleagues for botching the party’s messaging on health care and tax cuts. McMorris Rodgers decided last week that she would not seek a fourth term in the spot.
“Although the 115th Congress has been one of the most productive in history, our message isn’t breaking through,” Cheney wrote in a letter to her colleagues. “For us to prevail in this new environment, we must fundamentally overhaul and modernize our House GOP communications operation.”
Cheney will be crafting the message for a smaller — and more Trumpy — Republican House
Cheney, a second-term Congress member in Wyoming’s at-large district, said she wants Republicans to be more aggressive with their messaging strategy. She has a single goal in mind: She wants Republicans to flip back the House.
“We’ve got to change the way that we operate and really in some ways be more aggressive, have more of a rapid response,” Cheney told the Associated Press. “It’s an opportunity that’s going to be focused on what it takes to get the majority back.”
Cheney’s ambitions are well established. She tried to oust sitting Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) in 2014, only to withdraw before the primary. Since then, her growing prominence in the Republican Party has been more understated. Behind the scenes, Cheney has proven herself to be a formidable Republican fundraiser. As a freshman Congress member, she served on the all-powerful and elite House Rules Committee — which decides how bills come to the House floor for a full vote — and Armed Services Committee. Her past experiences on the campaign trail with her father and as a Fox News pundit have prepped her for the chief House Republican marketer role.
That said, she faces a unique challenge.
Democrats made significant gains in the 2018 midterms, so far winning 35 GOP-held seats for a net gain of 33 seats to win the House majority. When all is said and done, it’s possible Democrats could win up to 40 seats this year. The resulting slimmed-down Republican conference is also significantly more conservative — and more Trumpy — than the current Congress. Cheney herself has toed a line that many Republicans have, admonishing Trump’s rhetoric but still supporting his candidacy.
This puts House Republicans in a tough spot in 2020. In the next two years, Cheney will not only have to stand by Trump’s more hardline base, but also find a way to message to the suburban anti-Trump districts that Democrats were able to pick off this year to gain the majority.
House Republicans have been unhappy with their party’s messaging
Republicans’ messaging problem in the House started soon after Trump took office. Between answering for every turbulent moment in Trump’s White House, Republicans dove into a health care fight that left lawmakers more divided than unified.
Republicans have blamed the messaging, both internally and externally. Lawmakers were seeing their own party’s Obamacare repeal proposals in the media before hearing from their own leaders, and then were told to defend a piece of legislation that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said would leave 20 million fewer people with health insurance.
Then, in July, the final months before the midterms, House Republican leaders unveiled a campaign message that was supposedly going to keep them in the majority by November: “Better Off Now.”
The message focused on Republicans’ chief legislative accomplishment: the $1.5 trillion tax cuts that Republicans said would pad the pockets of middle-class America and send the American economy roaring.
Even some House Republican lawmakers scoffed at the tag line.
The message encapsulated Republicans’ biggest problem in 2018: They had far fewer accomplishments than they’d promised, and it proved difficult to convince voters that a massive corporate tax cut was actually changing their lives.
In the field, the tag line wasn’t resonating, which sent many campaigns into crisis management; in some of the closest races across the country, Republicans retreated to fearmongering and race-baiting about migrant caravans, MS-13 gangs, Confederate statues, and sanctuary cities.
By Election Day, Republicans’ tax cuts were largely forgotten on the campaign trail — and the culture war backup plan wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding.
“We need to own the daily news cycles,” Cheney wrote in her letter to colleagues. “We need to lead and win the messaging wars. Too often we have found ourselves playing catch up without access to useful information, and we have not been on offense. Constantly playing defense in the battle of communications is a recipe for failure. We need to work as a team to use all our messaging tools to drive our agenda.”