More money, more problems: Cheney and Kinzinger feel Trump effect

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Exile in the House GOP is proving extremely lucrative for Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.

Cheney and Kinzinger are the most prominent anti-Trump voices among congressional Republicans, casting two of the 10 House GOP votes to impeach the former president and — unlike the other eight — sparing no opportunity in the months since to rebuke a party that has tethered itself to his image. That’s left them in a precarious position as they seek reelection back home and alienated them from the rest of their party in D.C.

It's also given them a new route onto the national stage. The Wyoming and Illinois Republican allies may end up losing their seats next fall to primary challengers who are hugging the Trump machine. But the campaign war chests they’ve amassed could help launch the duo’s political careers outside of the House, or even Congress.

“They’re very encouraged by what they see in fundraising and by what they’re starting to hear on the ground,” said former Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), a fellow GOP Trump critic and a friend of the two. “Nobody thinks of cascading effects … The fact is, there’s a significant portion of Republicans who do not support Donald Trump anyway, who’re looking at Adam and Liz to sort of carry that conservative banner nationally.”

Cheney, who lost her slot as House GOP conference chair in May, hauled in close to $1.9 million in the last quarter, bringing her to nearly $3.5 million total this year. Only halfway through 2021, those fundraising numbers trounce the $3 million she raised during the 2020 cycle. Cheney's donations also surpassed her leadership successor's, with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) bringing in $1.5 million in the second quarter.

Kinzinger, who represents a deep-red district in exurban Chicago, never raised more than $350,000 in a single quarter during the 2020 cycle. But during the first three months of 2021 — after his support for the second Trump impeachment — he skyrocketed to $1.1 million.

While their rising profiles give them a new megaphone as well as deep pockets, it's not clear whether either incumbent has a path to victory running as an anti-Trump candidate in a GOP primary. Still, their shaky futures in the House haven't stopped some Republicans on Capitol Hill from privately musing whether Cheney and Kinzinger are eyeing future bids for the Oval Office. Both have also recently created PACs and aligned publicly with law enforcement officers as some in their party decline to honor responders to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, both signals of possible interest in a higher office.

Allies of Cheney, whose April reluctance to rule out a future White House run helped accelerate her ouster from leadership, say that at a minimum her fundraising numbers will help her fight back against Trump as he tries to boot her from the political arena.

Cheney’s team touted its haul, first reported by Fox News, as proof that she has “robust support in this fight” to win reelection in her state’s at-large district.

“Liz is demonstrating the type of effective, principled leadership that Wyoming deserves from its Representative,” spokesperson Kevin Seifert said in a statement. “She will continue to fight the Biden administration’s overreach and articulate how Republicans can offer a better way forward for the nation. It’s encouraging to have so many join her effort.”

Among Cheney and Kinzinger's conference colleagues, some were quick to dismiss the prospect that anti-Trumpers could have any room atop the party’s ticket.

“Anyone who thinks there’s a different path for higher office in a Republican primary other than the Trump platform is delusional,” said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), who identified as a Cheney ally before her spring leadership eviction. “I have not spoken with Liz or Adam about their long-term goals. However, maybe looking at the battle they face in a primary, they think higher office is an easier path.”

Other Republicans waved off the idea that Cheney and Kinzinger are focused on anything beyond their House reelection bids. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said he presumes Cheney and Kinzinger’s numbers mean they are “coming in with as much as ammo as possible to win reelection.”

If Trump seeks the presidency again in 2024, he is expected to clear the field of multiple allies also weighing a potential bid. But he has no power to elbow away Cheney or Kinzinger, both establishment conservatives who've embraced the role of his foils. Kinzinger is also believed to be weighing a run for Senate or the governor’s mansion in his state, though his chances would be limited by Republicans' struggle to win statewide in Illinois.

Back in Wyoming’s at-large district, Cheney’s largesse — she has over $2.8 million cash on hand — will dwarf that of her challengers. Since her election in 2016, Cheney has remained a strong fundraiser, armed with her father’s rolodex of conservative donors and a last name that still commands prestige in the state where former Vice President Dick Cheney got his political start.

Even so, her opponents have cast her crusade against Trump as a self-serving exercise that won’t endear her to Wyomingites. And rather than shying from this potentially political kryptonite, Cheney is expected to lean even more heavily into her anti-Trump campaign while serving on the select committee examining the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, at the appointment of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“Either she needed to get rid of him because she wanted to be president … or it was to settle a political score,” said Darin Smith, an attorney challenging Cheney in the GOP primary. “Because I think Trump is on record saying that the Cheney family is responsible for trillions of dollars blown by the United States and millions of lives lost around the world.”

Smith said he had raised $175,000 in the roughly two months since he launched his bid. Her other primary foes have not reported their fundraising.

Cheney’s best chance of survival is the crowded field of challengers that have assembled to try to take her down. If they splinter the anti-Cheney vote, the incumbent could win with a plurality and find herself with an even more compelling profile: the anti-Trump Republican who defied the odds to survive and win reelection.

When asked whether she has a Plan B should she lose her bid, Cheney told POLITICO in May only that “I'm not gonna lose my seat.”

Kinzinger is perhaps in a more precarious situation: Illinois is losing a House seat in forthcoming redistricting, and he could find himself without any district with which to run.

Even if his exurban Chicago district remains somewhat intact, the Air Force veteran has six challengers who have lined up to take him on, including former Trump adviser Catalina Lauf.

But there are plenty of future opportunities for Kinzinger to run statewide; Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, both Democrats, are up for reelection in 2022. And he has not ruled out a run for either office.

“You can’t help but be impressed by fundraising numbers like that, especially coming from a rural district,” former Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) said of Kinzinger’s intake. Dold admitted it would be difficult for Republicans to win statewide in Illinois but said it was not impossible, particularly given that the state’s flailing finances have put its Democrats on the back foot.

Stellar fundraising aside, some of Cheney and Kinzinger’s decisions have puzzled other Republicans. Cheney's decision to serve on the Jan. 6 panel means she could be distracted from her reelection well into next year.

“I voted against [a bipartisan Jan. 6 probe] with the view that it's a third impeachment trial, if you will, but everybody that knows Liz knows that Liz speaks for herself,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican.

Asked if he supports Cheney's re-election, Barrasso replied: “That's a long way away. The primaries are not for over a year.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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