Can Trump Oust Liz Cheney From Congress?

Can Trump Oust Liz Cheney From Congress?

Cheney is not running against Trump in her Republican primary this August. But Trump is definitely running against Cheney.

It sure sounded, on the evening of June 9, like Liz Cheney was prepared to sacrifice the political career she had spent a lifetime constructing in order to restore a measure of sanity to American governance. The Republican representative from Wyoming, who was raised amid the cutthroat politics of the Grand Old Party in the era when names like Reagan and Bush and Cheney still mattered, took a moment before the close of the first public hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol to call out lifelong allies for choosing an authoritarian course that threatens America’s future as a constitutional republic. “I say this to my colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone,” Cheney thundered, “but your dishonor will remain.”1

All the talk of honor and dishonor, duty and conscience made it seem as if the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney was breaking not just with her Trump-adoring colleagues in Congress but perhaps even with the scorched-earth conservatism that has defined the GOP since Cheney and her ilk embraced the hate-mongering politics of racial division, xenophobia, and big lies about everything from policing to immigration to the climate crisis. But the spell was broken by regular appeals for money to fund Cheney’s uphill bid for another term as the sole US representative of Wyoming, a state that the fiercely ambitious congresswoman desperately wants to keep as the base for her political ambitions. Liz Cheney is unwilling to accept that her future as a leader of conservative Republicans is over. The 55-year-old is not merely fighting Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election; she is fighting to outlast and replace him as the manager of the right-wing franchise in American politics.2

“As an unapologetic conservative in the United States House of Representatives, I am honored to lead the charge for our Republican agenda and shape a better future for our Party and our Nation,” declared the fund-raising missives that arrived in late May, around the time the committee hearings were ramping up. The plea for campaign cash ranted and raved about how “the Biden-Pelosi ‘Build Back Better’ plan” would lead to “massive Green New Deal–style spending” and “an overreaching, all-controlling federal government.” “Like you,” Cheney declared, “I am a staunch fiscal conservative and strongly oppose the massive waste and liberal priorities crammed into seemingly every bill the Democrats have put forward in the first year of the Biden administration.”3

Cheney’s appeal could easily have been confused with the “I Need Your Help to Drain the Swamp!” pleas for cash that conservative donors get regularly from Republican firebrands like Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar, with whom Cheney happily joined in ardent support for Trump during the former president’s four years in the White House. A carefully constructed reference to the congresswoman’s determination to uphold her oath to defend the Constitution “at all times…to just when it’s politically convenient” only hinted at her status as Trump’s most-targeted Republican. It did little to explain to potential donors why Cheney is now regularly praised on MSNBC and in liberal journals for her “courageous” break with the former president, which began when she led nine other Republican House members in voting to impeach him following a violent coup attempt by Trump supporters that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.4

The media coverage of Cheney’s reelection bid, as well as the conversations I had with Wyoming Republicans during a trip through the state in late June, have all portrayed the August 16 primary as a battle between the congresswoman and the ex-president whose agenda she supported 93 percent of the time between 2017 and 2021. But you wouldn’t know that from the Cheney ads that are flooding Wyoming television and radio, or the mailings and literature her campaign is distributing to even the smallest communities in the nation’s least-populous state. Trump’s name goes unmentioned. But there’s lots of talk about her fierce opposition to gun control, abortion rights, and “Green New Deal regulations [that] threaten to hamstring our producers and stifle economic growth in our communities.”5

Cheney is not running against Trump in Wyoming, a state the former president won by a 70 to 27 percent margin in 2020—the Republican ticket’s best showing anywhere in the nation. But Trump is definitely running against Cheney—via his chosen primary challenger to the three-term incumbent, Wyoming lawyer Harriet Hageman.6

A solid third-place finisher in the state’s 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, Hageman is mounting an overtly pro-Trump and anti-Cheney campaign that has made her the incumbent’s top opponent in a multi-candidate primary field. Hageman launched her media push last fall with an ad that featured cowboys talking about “the code of the West” and the state’s universally understood measure of loyalty: riding for the brand. “Instead of fighting for us, she’s fighting against President Trump,” one cowboy declares. “She betrayed us, she betrayed our values, she betrayed the brand.”7

“It’s not even Hageman; it’s Trump,” Wyoming state Representative Landon Brown said of the challenger’s campaign as we listened to local candidates speak at a Politics in the Park event promoted by the Laramie County GOP. A few feet away at Cheyenne’s Lions Park Amphitheater, where sprinklers occasionally went off and scattered the amused candidates and roughly 100 partisan die-hards, state Senator Stephan Pappas, a Republican who represents the area, said of the congressional race, “There’s not a big difference on the issues. But there is one big issue: Trump.”8

Hageman knows this. The top line of her campaign website declares “Endorsed by President Trump” before any mention of the issues or her background. The former president, who has made no secret of his determination to purge Congress of every Republican who voted to impeach him, flew into Casper in May with a crew of Trump White House hangers-on to rally over 9,400 Wyoming Republicans with a quick mention of Hageman and a fierce denunciation of Cheney. In another state and another race, Hageman might well have been dismissed by Trump: She once supported Cheney, and she opposed the billionaire’s bid in 2016. An ardent supporter of Ted Cruz in that year’s Republican presidential race, Hageman referred to candidate Trump as “racist and xenophobic.” Now, mirroring the journey of the many prominent Republican insiders who have moved from “Never Trump” to a supremely cynical “If you can’t beat him, join him” stance, the 59-year-old candidate describes her most prominent backer as “the greatest president in our lifetime.”9

Meanwhile, for Trump, the past is forgiven because Hageman is a convenient vehicle for his rage at Cheney. Hailing from a family with deep roots in Wyoming and in the state’s Republican Party, Hageman has already run a credible statewide race and has stayed on message, declaring: “Liz Cheney cast her lot with the Washington, D.C., elites and those who use their power to further their own agenda at our expense. She doesn’t represent Wyoming and she doesn’t represent conservatives.”10

The reference to Cheney as an outsider offers a none-too-subtle insight into the dynamics of the Wyoming contest. In the 2022 primary season, Trump has had a mixed record when it comes to his endorsements. A number of the candidates he has backed, including US Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, have won crowded contests for open seats. But Trump’s endorsees have struggled in races against well-established Republican incumbents who have gotten on the wrong side of the former president, such as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp or Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who committed Trumpworld’s cardinal sin of refusing to help overturn the 2020 election results and then compounded his transgression by agreeing to testify before the January 6 committee. But Kemp and Raffensperger, like Idaho Governor Brad Little and other survivors of Trump’s post-2020 wrath, had long records of involvement with their state’s Republican Party and broader electorate. No one questioned their home-state credentials. With Cheney, it’s different.11

“She’s not really in touch with Wyoming. She’s more a representative from Virginia,” Deborah Rich, a Laramie County retiree who proudly wore her “Ultra-MAGA” T-shirt, explained to me when I asked her about Cheney at a Republican event where Hageman was scheduled to appear. Republicans all over Wyoming told me that “Cheney’s from Virginia” and should have “R-Va.” listed after her name. Hageman’s campaign has mocked the incumbent by creating a “Cheney for Virginia” campaign website that announces, “Liz grew up right here in Northern Virginia and bases her family here. Liz is running because she understands the priorities of Northern Virginians, like funneling money to the military industrial complex, listening to big dollar DC lobbyists, and fighting for special interest groups.” A tap of the “donate” button leads to Hageman’s site and a message that declares, “Don’t let President Trump down. Help us defeat Liz Cheney.”12

Cheney has tried to counter the attack with a campaign that highlights the fact that “in June 1852, my family first came to Wyoming, walking across the Mormon Trail,” and recalls that her ancestors “built—and have served—our great state.”13

But Cheney was born in the liberal college town of Madison, Wis., in 1966, while her parents—Nebraska-born Richard and Wyoming-born Lynne—were graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. The Cheneys then moved to Washington, where Dick Cheney joined the Nixon and Ford administrations and became a consummate D.C. insider. Although he did run for and win Wyoming’s House seat in 1978—replacing Teno Roncalio, the last Democrat to hold it—Cheney quickly embedded himself inside the Beltway as a fierce cold warrior and champion of what would come to be known as neoconservatism. Then he quit Congress and Wyoming to become President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense in 1989 and, after a brief 1996 presidential bid of his own, settled into a gig as the CEO of Houston-based Halliburton. When Cheney succeeded in positioning himself to serve as George W. Bush’s vice presidential running mate in 2000, he had to quickly change his voter registration from Texas to Wyoming.14

Liz Cheney, who grew up in McLean, Va., returned to the Washington suburbs after attending college in Colorado and law school in Chicago. She worked in the State Department during the first and second Bush administrations and emerged as what The National Interest called the “heiress to a neoconservative throne.” A cable news firebrand who raised eyebrows by defending the right-wing “birthers” who falsely claimed that President Barack Obama had been born in Kenya, Cheney took a job with Fox News, sometimes filling in for Sean Hannity.15

When she finally decided to run for one of Wyoming’s US Senate seat in 2014, Cheney went public on a Facebook page that tagged her as a McLean resident. She scrambled to change her voter registration to the state in which she was running and was mocked for obtaining a Wyoming fishing license with a discount intended for longtime residents. “Hey, Liz Cheney,” an editorial in the Gillette (Wyoming) News-Record announced. “If you want to run for U.S. Senate, try it from Virginia or some other state.”16

When that 2014 challenge to Republican Senator Mike Enzi crashed and burned and Cheney quit the race before Election Day, it looked like her Cowboy State political career was done. But two years later, Wyoming’s House seat opened up, and Cheney mounted a lavishly funded campaign that won the Republican primary with 39 percent of the vote. That fall, running as an ardent supporter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, she got a ticket back to Washington, where she emerged as a fiercely ambitious partisan who in just two years rose to the No. 3 position in the House Republican Conference. As conference chair, she regularly—and viciously—attacked the Muslim members of Congress, such as Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and suggested that critics of Trump sounded like they were planning a “coup” and could be guilty of “treason.”17

Now, of course, Cheney is out as conference chair and fretting about Trump’s coup plotting. Her support for impeachment got her censured not just by Trump and the Republican National Committee but by county parties across Wyoming. Last November, the Wyoming Republican Party voted to no longer recognize Cheney as a member of the GOP, and when I visited the state party headquarters in Cheyenne in late June, I found no mention of her but plenty of Hageman paraphernalia. I also got a chance to see the party’s new “MAGA membership” card, which features a picture of Trump giving a thumbs-up to a group of cowboys.18

Landon Brown, the “unapologetically constitutional conservative” Republican whom I ran into at the Politics in the Park event in Cheyenne, pushed back against the membership card, arguing that “this sensationalism around [Trump] is dividing us further every day.” But, he admitted, his willingness to call out the GOP’s obsession with Trump and his outspoken support for Cheney’s reelection make him an outlier among Republican legislators. Since announcing his backing for the congresswoman, Brown said, “I’ve seen it all. Death threats. Demands that I resign. Accusations that I’m a Democrat. You name it. It’s been nonstop.”19

While Wyoming’s “Ultra-Maga”Republicans are very friendly when you meet them, they get a bit agitated when they’re asked about Cheney and her supporters. “I didn’t know how horrible she was until after January 6,” Deborah Rich told me. “I hate what she’s doing with the witch hunt,” Rich added of the select committee’s work. Her husband Randy, a hair stylist, said, “Liz Cheney seems to have an anger toward the Republican Party. I don’t know why she doesn’t run as a Democrat.”20

But, of course, there’s not much space these days for a Democrat who opposes abortion rights and labor rights, who decries efforts to respond to the climate crisis, who calls for massive increases in Pentagon spending, and who warns that “socialism [has] a chokehold on the Democratic platform.”21

Besides, Cheney still has ambitions within a Republican Party that she imagines—like many pundits—will eventually move beyond Trump and Trumpism. She even stirred talk of a potential GOP presidential bid when she visited the first primary state of New Hampshire last fall to deliver a speech in which she said, “I love my party. I love its history. I love its principles. But I love my country more. I know this nation needs a Republican Party that is based on truth, one that puts forward our ideals and our policies based on substance. One that is willing to reject the former president’s lies.”22

Cheney’s best shot at maintaining her political viability would be to win the August 16 primary in Wyoming. But that won’t be easy, if we can trust recent polling by the conservative Club for Growth that suggests Hageman has a 30-point lead over Cheney. Her only hope, I heard again and again, rests with Democrats who might pull a “crossover” and vote for her in the GOP primary. Crossover voting is not unheard of in Wyoming, where no Democratic presidential contender has won since 1964 and where Republican primaries usually settle statewide races.23

Trump was so concerned about crossover voting for Cheney that he pressured Wyoming’s legislature to do away with the rule that allows members of one party to reregister with the other party, cast a primary vote, and then renew their original registration after the primary. The bill, which Trump identified as “critically important,” passed the state Senate but failed in the House. Since then, Democrats have been getting mail from the Cheney campaign. “I’ve never voted Republican, and I got a mailer from her last week,” said Albany County Commissioner Peter Gosar, a former gubernatorial candidate who serves in one of the few Wyoming counties where Democrats often win elections.24

Some Democrats are openly advocating for crossover voting. In a late June edition of the Casper Star-Tribune, civil rights lawyer John Robinson reflected on the debate about the January 6 insurrection and observed, “Our republic hangs in the balance. The stakes could not be greater.” He concluded, “I am a lifelong Democrat. I proudly support Liz Cheney—a courageous Wyoming Representative who has honored her oath and defended our Constitution.”25

I contacted Robinson, who told me, “I was thinking about doing this for quite some time, and after I watched the hearings, I just felt like it was time to write something.” State Representative Trey Sherwood, an Albany County Democrat, said she’d heard a good deal about how the high-profile contest between Cheney and Hageman could draw a significant number of Democratic crossover voters. Democratic and Republican election observers explained the calculus: If the anti-Cheney vote were to split among Hageman and other Trump-aligned primary contenders, and if pro-Cheney Republicans and crossover Democrats backed the incumbent, Cheney might just squeak through.26

But even Robinson acknowledged that the numbers might not add up. “There aren’t that many Democrats in Wyoming,” he said. That’s true: Currently, the state has 197,868 registered Republicans, 44,643 registered Democrats, and 34,925 voters who register as unaffiliated. And then there’s the reality that a lot of Democrats, while they have no taste for Trump or Hageman, are not going to skip their own party’s primaries to vote for Liz Cheney. Still others, like Peter Gosar, who has had some experience with the growing extremism within the GOP (he’s the younger brother of the incendiary Republican Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona), say they’re not prepared to vote in a Republican primary—especially “for someone who voted 93 percent of the time with the former president.”27

There is desperate irony in a political calculus that looks to liberal Democrats to “save” a Republican as rigidly right-wing as Liz Cheney. But that is the calculus she has settled on in what has become a fight for the soul of the Republican Party. If Cheney somehow wins in Wyoming, she will deal Trump a blow that might just put him out of contention in 2024. If Wyoming follows the likelier path and rejects her, however, Cheney’s gambit will have strengthened Trump’s grip on the GOP, and with it the ongoing threat that he poses to American democracy.28

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