The election results out of Wyoming Tuesday night confirmed what much of the political universe had anticipated: Rep. Liz Cheney, once a rising star in the GOP, lost her seat in Congress to Harriet Hageman, a primary challenger endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Cheney, the daughter of a former Vice President, transformed over the last two years from someone who voted with Trump 93% of the time into one of his fiercest antagonists, a result of her refusal to abide by his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. She declined to vote to decertify the election results in key battleground states he lost, voted to impeach him for inciting an insurrection, and, most crucially, allowed Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint her as the vice chair on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
In a concession speech Tuesday night from Jackson, Wyoming, Cheney reminded her supporters that she handily won her last re-election. She said that her path to victory this time was clear, but that she could not go along with Trump’s lie and further fuel the notion that legitimate elections can be overturned through intimidation and violence.
“If we do not hold those responsible to account, we will be excusing this conduct, and it will become a feature of all elections,” Cheney said. “America will never be the same.”
While her unwillingness to remain in servitude to Trump—and the alacrity with which she stood up to his assaults on American democracy—made her something of a hero in liberal circles, it did not play well in ruby red Wyoming.
“What turned Wyoming Republicans against Liz Cheney is the feeling that she has been disloyal,” Stephanie Anderson, a politics professor at the University of Wyoming, tells TIME. “And loyalty is a very important value to Wyomingites. It’s part of their identity.” Her role on the Jan. 6 committee, she adds, was seen as “a betrayal of the Republican Party.”
Indeed, a Casper Star-Tribune poll of likely GOP voters conducted last month found that only 30% of the respondents said they planned to vote for Hageman because of Trump’s endorsement, whereas 60% said it was because they disapproved of Cheney’s role on the Jan. 6 panel.
Cheney’s national profile rose considerably this summer over the course of eight hearings from the Jan. 6 committee. From the first hearing in early June, they were must-watch television. As the committee unveiled damning evidence pointing to Trump’s culpability in the deadly attack, and heard from first-hand witnesses about his attempts to block the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden, the Justice Department took notice. Former federal prosecutors, some of whom had publicly expressed doubt that Attorney General Merrick Garland would ever prosecute a former President, began to rethink that assumption.
A turning point came during a July hearing featuring former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified that the Secret Service informed Trump on Jan. 6 that many of his supporters who had come to his rally near the White House were heavily armed. Trump urged them to go to the Capitol anyway. The 26-year-old ex-staffer also told the panel that Trump tried to march to the Capitol with them, even after White House Counsel Pat Cippolone warned the staff that Trump would be charged with “every crime imaginable” if he did. Cheney led the questioning of Hutchinson.
In each of the sessions, Cheney, 56, was a star, delivering opening and closing statements filled with sharp soundbites that would soon be all over Twitter and broadcast news segments. Some of her most memorable lines were directed at her fellow Republicans who continue to enable Trump. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone,” she said at one hearing. “But your dishonor will remain.”
The message didn’t resonate with Wyoming Republicans, a plurality of whom subscribe to Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen. A recent University of Wyoming survey found that just 16% of likely Hagemen voters thought that Biden legitimately won the election. By contrast, 94% of Cheney supporters believe he won fair and square. But those voters were too few and far between for Cheney to hold on.
“The people of Wyoming deserve leaders who reflect their views and values,” Hageman, 59, said in a statement last year before launching her campaign. “But Liz Cheney betrayed us because of her personal war with President Trump, who won Wyoming by massive majorities twice.”
Wyoming political insiders say that Cheney’s opponents also tried to paint her role on the Jan. 6 committee as a sign that she was out of touch with her own constituents. “Part of their message is that Cheney is too focused on Washington and not enough on Wyoming,” Jim King, a University of Wyoming political science professor, tells TIME.
Even her supporters in the state recognized that Cheney’s obligations on Capitol Hill gave her opponent a practical advantage. “The amount of time that she’s spending out there during the Jan. 6 hearings is pulling away from her ability to campaign here in Wyoming,” State Rep. Landon Brown told TIME last month. “And that’s not going to bode well when you look at Harriet, who basically has no other job but to travel the state of Wyoming.”
But Cheney’s duties in Washington weren’t the only thing that kept her off the campaign trail. According to The New York Times, she had to hire a private security detail because of the onslaught of death threats.
The risk of violence—and the possibility of being booed at public events that are staples for local political candidates—led her to abstain from some outings that she might have otherwise attended. Last month, for instance, she skipped the Cheyenne Frontier Days, the world’s largest outdoor rodeo that is practically required attendance for Wyoming politicians.
But Cheney’s closest confidantes say that she refused to let Trump’s vitriol—and the resentment toward her he whipped up in his acolytes—dissuade her from doing what she believes is right.
“Everybody knows who she is,” former Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, tells TIME. “She’s a gutsy, courageous person. She’s had a belly full of Donald J. Trump. So what if she loses? She’s a patriot. She sees this fictional character without any clothes on getting ready to run again. Of course, he hates her. And he’s not exactly a sweet old fart. He’s a revenge-filled guy.”
But while Trump will certainly take a victory lap after Cheney’s ouster from office, many pundits suspect she won’t be leaving the limelight any time soon. She still has the rest of her term to fill, which will include at least two more Jan. 6 hearings in September. And she has also taken steps that suggest a future on the national stage.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, hit the airwaves with an attack on the 45th president. “In our nation’s 246-year history, there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump,” says the elder Cheney, looking straight into the camera in an ad paid for by his daughter’s campaign.
“Liz is fearless,” he goes on. “She never backs down from the fight. There is nothing more important she will ever do than lead the effort to make sure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office, and she will succeed.”
Given Trump’s popularity in Wyoming, it wasn’t exactly a message expected to endear likely GOP primary voters to Cheney. If anything, it might have had more of a resonance with a national audience rooting for Cheney in her quest to rid the country of not only Trump, but Trumpism.
Whether that results in a future presidential run, as some have speculated, or another avenue of influence remains to be seen. It’s hard to imagine Cheney making much headway in GOP primaries in 2024. But it’s equally hard to imagine that her primary loss will compel her to retreat from public life.
“This primary election is over,” Cheney said Tuesday night, “but now the real work begins.”
August 17, 2022 at 08:46AM Eric Cortellessa