Two paths diverged in a wood.
In one direction lay Donald Trump and his millions of energised, in-your-face supporters, who backed his false claim the election was stolen.
The other led towards Liz Cheney, her insistence the election was not rigged, but also a near guarantee that to embrace her would likely lose the backing of the former president’s most loyal fans, and with them the chance of recapturing the House of Representatives in 2022.
And this time, it seems all but certain which path the Republican Party will opt for – to stick with Trump, and ditch Cheney.
On Wednesday, Republicans are due to hold a vote that will see Cheney lose her post as House Republican Conference Chair, the third most senior official in the chamber, and be replaced by Elise Stefanik, a congresswoman from New York.
Across a range of issues, Cheney, 54, the daughter of the former vice president Dick Cheney, has a voting record and worldview that is far more conservative than that of 36-year-old Stefanik. And just a few few years ago, Stefanik was protesting Trump’s insults of the families of military veterans and his bragging of sexually assaulting women.
In 2016 she could barely mention his name, even though he was her party’s nominee, and told the Times Union newspaper: “I’ve opposed his rhetoric numerous times toward women.”
That has all changed. In recent years, Stefanik has defended Trump in the most forceful terms, and was among the Republican members of Congress called upon to officially defend him during his first impeachment trial. She also, critically, supported his false claim the 2020 election was rigged and that Joe Biden was not the legitimate president.
Kevin McCarthy officials supports Elise Stefanik for GOP leadership
By contrast, Cheney was one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted with Democrats to impeach Trump, putting the blame for the 6 January storming of the US Capitol at his feet.
Having hung onto her job earlier this year when members voted in February to keep her, it appears this week she will be sent packing. The change from then to now – and hence the borrowing in the opening sentence of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken – is that the party appears to have recognised it has reached a fork in the road.
With Trump still denouncing Cheney and backing Stefanik for her job, and with Cheney refusing to change her views or keep them to herself – last week she published an op-ed in the Washington Post saying history would judge the party’s actions – the party’s leadership appears to believe it has no alternative but to dispatch her.
People such as the GOP leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, who not so long ago himself denounced Trump for inciting his supporters to act the way they did, appear to have made a very simple calculation: they need Trump’s supporters more than they do moderates, even if that means carrying the baggage of lies and dishonesty.
Typically, a party which holds the presidency loses one of the chambers of Congress in the midterms, and with some redistricting already set to push seats towards the Republicans, retaking the House and everything that would go with that prize, must be its priority.
“Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News last week.
He added: “I’ve always liked Liz Cheney, but she’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump. I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”
Larry Sabato, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, says Republicans are very focused on the midterms.
“The way McCarthy and his pals look at it, lying is a small price to pay in order to take control of the House in 2022 – even if the lie undermines our entire democratic system and promotes the worst president in US history,” he tells The Independent.
“Trump received 46-47 per cent of the national vote in two elections, and of that, 35-40 per cent is hardcore Trump. Turn the Trump base off, even a good part of it, and you lose. Plus, Trump himself would lead the parade to take down all of his enemies in the party.”
In her op-ed, Cheney, who represents Wyoming, said: “Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”
She added: “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”
Yet, while Cheney has accused Trump of dishonesty, others have pointed out she has previously been promoting dishonesty herself, in particular backing claims made by her father and George W Bush in 2003, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction – a falsehood that enabled the invasion of Iraq, with massive civilian casualties.
“Trump built a movement based on lies. The Cheneys showed him how it’s done,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote this week.
Cheney was once seen as a future potential presidential candidate for her party. For now, it seems she is going to be fighting just to be reelected to the congressional seat.
“Truthfully, there’s not a ton of room right now for any any Republican politician who’s on the opposite side of Trump to get traction in the Republican Party,” says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “Bear in mind, Trump’s approval among Republicans is still 85 to 90 per cent. He’s still the leader of the party and the de facto head. That’s not going to change anytime in the near future.”
While Trump was widely denounced for his false claims over the 2020 contest, he sought to use and weaponise the phrase “big lie”, that critics used for him.
Last week, he said in a statement: “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”
McCarthy has all but admitted the party would prefer Trump’s “big lie” to Cheney’s “truth and fidelity”.
Also speaking to Fox News, he said: “Any member can take whatever position they believe in … What we’re talking about is a position in leadership. As conference chair, you have one of the most critical jobs as a messenger going forward.”