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Week in politics: Liz Cheney loses primary; Trump distracts from Republican races

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Liz Cheney began her concession speech this week by saying, quote, "our work is far from over." Her loss was no surprise, but still momentous.

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LIZ CHENEY: Our nation is barreling once again towards crisis, lawlessness and violence. No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility where their refusal to follow the rule of law will corrupt our future.

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SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving joins us.

Thanks for being with us, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What does Representative Cheney's loss mean for her future and that of her party?

ELVING: It means that Liz Cheney and her party are going to be going their separate ways. As you say, she didn't just lose this week. She lost by nearly 40 points - this after having won her current office three times before by big margins. But each of those times she was on the Donald Trump train. And this time she not only stepped off that train, she laid down on the track in front of it. Now, there's been talk of her running for president in her present party, but it's hard to see it.

Her party is no longer the GOP - the Grand Old Party. That acronym dates back to the Civil War, the forge of the party's founding. Liz Cheney has been casting herself as a throwback to the era of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant - she quoted them this week - and to the party of Ronald Reagan and the Bush family and her own father, former Vice President Dick Cheney. But today's GOP is driven by nationalists and populist activists empowered by former President Trump, and they are not going away.

SIMON: At the same time, we get what can almost seem like hourly updates on legal issues surrounding former President Trump and people in his orbit. What kind of danger does this perhaps pose for Republicans just a few months away from elections?

ELVING: In one sense, we can say it's been a boon for them. It excites the sense of grievance many of their voters have when it comes to the federal government. The party needs that going into the elections this November and beyond. But it's also obviously a distraction. Most Republicans would much rather have the national conversation focus on inflation or the bad memories of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan just a year ago. Instead, we're talking again about Trump and the multifront war that various legal authorities are fighting to hold him accountable for his actions in office and since. Now, the Mar-a-Lago search is just the sharpest arrow in that quiver right now.

We heard former Vice President Mike Pence this week saying, our party stands with the men and women who stand on the thin blue line at the federal and state and local level. And these attacks on the FBI must stop. That is the old Republican Party talking. It is not clear that the new Republican Party is even listening.

SIMON: Let me ask you about contrast with the Democrats because, of course, this week, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act. Are they coming into clearer focus as the midterms approach?

ELVING: We're about 80 days out from the midterms, roughly. That's at least 2 1/2 lifetimes away in political terms. Much is going to happen. Much is going to change. Right now, though, the Democrats are seeing remarkably encouraging polls in half a dozen toss up Senate races for this fall. So that's happening in Arizona and Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those are states that voted for Joe Biden in 2020. But we're also seeing competitive races with close polls persisting in Ohio and North Carolina, where Trump won twice. By the time we get into the baseball playoffs and the fall campaign season, it's possible that all of this Mar-a-Lago search and all of these other cases will keep grinding on, but also possible that people will get bored with all that and focus on gas prices, grocery prices.

Republicans are gearing up to make immigration a big focus again this fall. We still expect the House will go Republican in November, if only because of gerrymandering. But the Senate is quite a different story. There are individual candidates there who might matter more than party identity. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said as much this week, and that may have had mostly the purpose of sending a signal to Republican funders to get busy writing checks.

SIMON: Ron, what lessons do you take from history as you look at all this?

ELVING: We tend to look at the big midterm elections of the past, ones that really changed the landscape - 1994, 2010 - elections where Republicans captured the House. And they both happened right after a new Democratic president had taken office. But right now the polls suggest something much more modest may take place, something more like 1982, when Republican Ronald Reagan lost 26 seats in the House but held his own in the Senate. That, of course, raises again the cloud of election denialism, close races, rejecting the results, alleging some sort of nonexistent uncertainty - that kind of disruption now seems increasingly likely and has the potential to get ugly.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.