WASHINGTON (The Hill) — Rep. Liz Cheney may be about to lose her day job. If so, she’s totally OK with that.
Cheney, a third-term Wyoming Republican, is charging into Tuesday’s primary in the Cowboy State defiantly embracing the very message that’s sparked the conservative backlash brewing to oust her: Namely, that former President Donald Trump, with his baseless claims of a “stolen” election, poses an existential threat to the country’s democratic foundations and should be barred from holding future office.
That argument, combined with Cheney’s national prominence, has made her both the public face of the anti-Trump movement and a pariah in the eyes of the MAGA faithful, including those in ruby-red Wyoming where the former president remains wildly popular. Some recent polls have Cheney’s challenger—an election denier named Harriet Hageman—leading by almost 30 points.
The Cheney name has been revered in conservative Wyoming circles for decades; the seat she holds was once held by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney. And two years ago, the thought of her losing that seat would have been laughed out of Laramie.
Then came last year’s attack on the Capitol—a riot aimed at overturning Trump’s election defeat. Since then, Cheney has pursued the 45th president with a crusader’s zeal, becoming one of only 10 House Republicans to support Trump’s second impeachment, which deemed him responsible for inciting the insurrection, and then joining the January 6 select committee investigating the rampage. It was then, political experts say, that Cheney decided that the fight against Trump and his election lies was more important than keeping her job in Congress.
“She’s almost certainly toast,” said David Barker, a political scientist at American University. “My guess is that she knew that the second she decided to really join the Jan. 6 committee and pursue the president in that way.”
“She hasn’t just been kind of a passive member of the committee,” Barker added. “She’s been really leading the whole charge and doing so in the most provocative and high-profile ways.”
Indeed, Cheney, as vice chair of the select committee, has been the most prominently featured figure throughout the eight public hearings the panel has staged this summer. And heading into the final stretch of what appears to be a doomed campaign for a fourth term, Cheney is not dodging the anti-Trump sentiment that’s put her in hot water with Wyoming voters. She’s amplifying it.
“America cannot remain free if we abandon the truth. The lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is insidious — it preys on those who love their country,” Cheney said in a closing-argument campaign video released Thursday. “It is a door Donald Trump opened to manipulate Americans to abandon their principles, to sacrifice their freedom, to justify violence, to ignore the rulings of our courts and the rule of law.”
Cheney is 56 years old, and her own legacy—along with her political future—remains uncertain. But this much is clear: She’s gambled both on the notion that, in challenging the most popular figure in her own party, she can prevent him from becoming president once again. In that campaign, she’s essentially arguing that the GOP needs saving from itself—and she’ll either be the one to do it, or fall hard trying.
“She faced a binary choice between doing what she thought was right and necessary, after Jan. 6, and continuing her political career in the Republican Party,” said Bill Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Unlike most politicians, she made a clean and honorable choice. And she’s obviously prepared to take the consequences.”
In a last-ditch effort to gain ground in Tuesday’s primary contest, Cheney last week aired a public endorsement from her father. Appearing in a cowboy hat and questioning Trump’s masculinity, Dick Cheney called the former president “a coward” who “tried to steal the last election using lies and violence.”
“In our nation’s 246-year history, there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump,” he says in the minute-long ad.
Still, 70% of Wyoming voters chose Trump in 2020—the highest number of any state in the country. And even the appeals of a state institution like Dick Cheney aren’t expected to save his daughter in Tuesday’s race. The experts say the simple reason is that the GOP—as old-guard power brokers like Dick Cheney knew it—no longer exists.
“Donald Trump executed a hostile and irreversible takeover of the Republican Party,” Galston said. “The Reagan party that appealed to so many of the now middle-aged or even aging Republican conservatives in the 1980s and ’90s is gone. It’s not coming back.”
Cheney is hardly alone among GOP lawmakers suffering politically for clashing publicly with Trump over the Jan. 6 attack. Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year, only two are in line to return in the next Congress. Four others are retiring, while three more lost their primaries to Trump-endorsed conservatives who backed his false election claims. Cheney, of the 10, is the last outstanding race, and the outcome appears certain.
“Yeah, he won—in the short term, at least,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of the impeachment-supporting retirees, acknowledged to WGN-TV in Chicago last week. “There’s no use in pretending somehow I scored some major victory and saved the party.”
To Trump’s allies, the former president remains a heroic figure—the single most electrifying force in the GOP who launched the populist movement that toppled Hillary Clinton and continues to fuel expectations that Republicans will flip control of the House in November’s midterm elections. In that light, Cheney, Kinzinger and the other Trump critics are seen as apostates to the larger cause of winning power.
In February, the Republican National Committee took the remarkable step of voting to censure both Cheney and Kinzinger for their involvement in the January 6 investigation. It said the two were “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
Cheney’s likely defeat on Tuesday has raised plenty of speculation about potential next steps, including the possibility that she’d make a presidential run of her own in 2024—an idea she has not ruled out. Still, her success in such a contest would hinge squarely on the collapse of Trump’s popularity within the party, which is likely to endure, some experts said, longer than Cheney would prefer.
“My sense is that if it is [her plan], she’s going to have a long wait,” Galston said. “I don’t think that Donald Trump supporters will ever forgive her, nor do I think they’re going away. Where else would they go?”
Caroline Vakil contributed.