NEW YORK – Over the course of 24 hours this week, House Republicans voted to defend a freshman conspiracy theorist with a history of violent rhetoric and a mainstream party leader who backed Donald Trump's impeachment.
The seemingly conflicting moves signal that Republican leaders, particularly in the House, are betting they can return to political power by cobbling together a coalition featuring both pro-Trump extremists and those who abhor them. The votes also suggest that Washington Republicans are unable, or unwilling, to purge far-right radicals from their party, despite some GOP leaders' best wishes.
“I do think as a party, we have to figure out what we stand for,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., warning Republicans to “get away from members dabbling in conspiracy theories."
House Democrats voted Thursday to do what their Republican counterparts would not the night before, stripping first-term Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., of her committee assignments and leaving her effectively powerless to influence policymaking. The move follows outrage over Greene's use of social media to promote bigotry, anti-Semitism and violence against Democrats linked to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory group known as QAnon.
The Georgia congresswoman delivered a speech on the House floor before Thursday's vote indicating that she stopped believing in QAnon in 2018. She declined to apologize for her specific claims, which included suggesting that a wealthy Jewish family may have used space lasers to ignite California forest fires for financial gain.
“I never said any of these things since I have been elected for Congress. These were words of the past, and these things do not represent me," Greene said, concluding her remarks by likening U.S. media reports to QAnon conspiracy theories.
QAnon’s core theory embraces the lie that Democrats are tied to a global sex-trafficking ring that also involves Satanism and cannibalism.
The GOP's high-stakes reckoning comes as the party struggles to move past Trump's norm-shattering presidency and the deadly attack on the Capitol he inspired in its final days. With Democrats now controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, the Republican Party's political success — and maybe its survival — depends on its ability to unify its warring factions. And whether Washington Republicans like it or not, those who think like Greene make up a significant portion of the party's base.
Giddy Democrats celebrated the obvious perils of their rivals' political dilemma, particularly after all but 11 House Republicans voted to defend Greene's committee assignments on Thursday. But as they cling to a thin majority in the House and Senate, Democrats face structural challenges of their own ahead of next year's midterm elections.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., who leads the House Republican campaign arm, accused Democrats of focusing on Greene simply to draw attention away from President Joe Biden's left-leaning early policy moves, including those designed to fight climate change that threaten jobs in the fossil fuel industry.
“This is the same QAnon playbook they tried in 2020, and they lost 15 seats," Emmer said. “I promise this cycle will be even worse for them.”
In a nod to the party's anxious establishment wing, House Republicans also voted by secret ballot Wednesday night to preserve Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney's place in party leadership. Trump loyalists had called for her removal after she blamed Trump for inciting last month's attack on the Capitol and voted to impeach him.
But it was the House Republicans' refusal to distance themselves from Greene that threatened to haunt the party for the foreseeable future.
“Marjorie Taylor Greene will be the face of the party, the face of the midterms, the face of the extremists," said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, which expects to be a major player in the 2022 midterms.
At the same time, the pro-Democrat group House Majority Forward released a new television ad accusing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of empowering extremists.
“The QAnon conspiracies sound wild. But the danger is real,” the narrator says in the ad, ticking down Greene’s list of false claims, which include denying the authenticity of school shootings in Florida and Connecticut and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The new ad will run in McCarthy’s California district and on Washington, D.C., cable beginning Friday.
Republicans gave Greene a standing ovation in their closed-door caucus after she explained herself Wednesday night. McCarthy condemned her past statements but defended her right to serve on House committees.
Despite their challenges, many Republican leaders were optimistic about their political future as they see a real opportunity to seize control of at least one chamber of Congress, if not both.
History is on the GOP's side.
Democrats are clinging to a 10-seat House majority. And since 1994, the party that occupies the White House has lost no fewer than 40 seats in the first midterm election of a new presidency. The one exception is the 2002 midterms, held in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Republican strategist and former White House aide Ari Fleischer was among the optimists.
“As noisy and as messy as this has been, Republicans are in a much better position now than the last time the White House went from Republican to Democrat,” he said, reflecting on the 2008 transition from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama.
That year, Democrats had much larger congressional majorities, and in the subsequent midterms, Republicans seized 63 House seats and the House majority.
Fleischer described the votes on Cheney and Greene as “a key pivot point” for Republicans plagued by infighting in recent weeks.
“They pounded each other and got it off their chest. And Kevin McCarthy successfully walked the tight rope to get them there,” Fleischer said. "It gave them the unity they need to now concentrate on taking Nancy Pelosi’s job."
With their party largely unified behind Biden, at least for now, Democratic leaders indicated that they would not let voters forget the Republicans' unwillingness to confront pro-Trump extremists anytime soon.
“Kevin McCarthy and his Washington Republican caucus just showed they’re too weak to stand up to the violent QAnon mob that is consuming their party," said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who leads the House Democrats' campaign arm.
“If they’re too weak to do that,” he added, "they can’t be trusted to get the job done for the American people.”