Harriet Hageman was at home on Nov. 8, 2016, the night Donald Trump was elected president. Her husband was out of town, so she sat and watched the election returns come in alone.
Most polls and pundits had predicted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would coast to victory. Instead, Trump emerged victorious and the “Clinton machine,” as Hageman puts it, had lost.
“I cannot tell you how excited I was about what had just happened,” Hageman told the Star-Tribune in a phone interview.
It was that night, and Trump’s victory over Clinton, that changed Hageman’s outlook on the businessman and reality TV star, she explained.
Because Hageman wasn’t always a Trump supporter.
“In 2016, I was skeptical of President Trump because he was a New York businessman,” she said.
During the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Hageman had backed another candidate. She was a delegate for Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz, one of Trump’s then chief rivals for the GOP nomination. That same year, she also backed Rep. Liz Cheney, who was seeking Wyoming’s then open U.S. House seat.
Five years later, Hageman is Trump’s choice to unseat Cheney, who became one of the former president’s biggest targets after she voted to impeach him following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Cheney blamed Trump for inciting the riot and has repeatedly criticized him for lying about the results of the 2020 presidential election.
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That drew not only Trump’s ire, but that of many Republicans in Wyoming and across the country. The congresswoman is now facing the toughest reelection challenge of her political career, and Hageman, having received Trump’s endorsement, is so far the highest-profile challenger in next year’s Republican primary. That's especially true considering how popular the former president is among Wyoming Republicans.
In contentious campaigns, past lives of candidates often crop up and then fade away. But Hageman’s past and present epitomizes what Wyoming’s House race is about: Cheney and Trump battling over the future of the Republican Party.
“I think it’s very much a referendum on the future of the party and the allegiance to Trump,” said JoAnn True, vice chairwoman of the Natrona County GOP.
Will Hageman’s anti-Cheney campaign and emphasis on her Trump endorsement be enough for voters to look beyond her past skepticism of the former president? And will Cheney, who’s amassed millions in donations, use her money and power to keep that past skepticism in the public eye?
From allies to foes
By trade, Hageman is a land-use lawyer, specializing in water and property rights. A fourth-generation Wyomingite who grew up on a ranch near Fort Laramie, Hageman earned a reputation for aggressively battling conversation groups and federal regulations in the courts.
“I’ve been known to be an aggressive attorney,” she told the Star-Tribune back in 2017. “I’m pretty effective at what I do.”
At the time, she was running for governor in a crowded field of Republican candidates. She ultimately lost the race to then-Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon, placing third with 21.5% of the vote. That race, like the one now, featured multiple conservative candidates including GOP megadonor Foster Friess.
Hageman also backed other campaigns. She supported Cheney’s failed run for Senate in 2013 and her successful 2016 House race. She donated $1,500 to Cheney’s House race and $500 to her Senate campaign.
The Cheney camp has emphasized some of their history in its campaign materials. Cheney, who declined to comment for this story, recently called Hageman’s entrance in the race with Trump’s endorsement, “tragic opportunism.”
Not only are Hageman and Cheney politically affiliated, but their families are longtime friends — Hageman’s father, the late state lawmaker, Jim Hageman, was a Young Republican with former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“You have a lot of overlap in Wyoming,” True said. “That’s pretty normal. But it’s interesting when those people run against each other.”.
But their time as allies seems to have more or less ended within the last couple years. Hageman says Cheney is out-of-step with Wyoming Republicans and has emboldened Democrats with her staunch criticism of Trump.
“The last time I texted with Liz Cheney was February of 2020,” Hageman said, adding that the last time they talked on the phone was shortly after the 2020 election.
“Liz Cheney and I are not BFFs,” she said. “We never have been.”
Coming around to Trump
In late September, Hageman tweeted a photo of a letter that Trump appears to have sent her.
“Harriet — You are going great. Interviews are fantastic,” he wrote on a printed out tweet of one of Hageman’s snarky replies to Cheney.
Roughly five years earlier, Hageman wasn't communicating with Trump, but with Cheney.
“I am a Cruz delegate,” she said in a March 2016 email exchange with Cheney.
What’s more, Hageman was part of an attempt to deny Trump the nomination in 2016 in a last-ditch effort at the Republican Convention, Politico reported at the time.
“I was concerned about his ability to understand and appreciate the Western issues that are so important to Wyoming,” Hageman told the Star-Tribune in a recent interview.
But she wasn’t just skeptical. She called Trump racist and xenophobic in 2016, according to the New York Times.
Hageman says she's changed her views on the former president -- and is hardly alone in that journey.
“I’ve traveled pretty much the same exact path that everyone in Wyoming traveled in 2016,” Hageman says now.
Cruz won Wyoming in the 2016 Republican primaries, with Trump finishing a distant third. But in November of that year, Trump received 68% of the vote in Wyoming’s presidential election. Hageman was among those Wyomingites who voted for him, a spokesman for her campaign says.
Since his victory over Clinton, Trump has been more popular in Wyoming than nearly anywhere else.
“She may have changed her mind or affiliations and that’s OK, we change,” said Denton Knapp, a retired Army colonel who’s also running for House in Wyoming.
But how far can the Trump endorsement carry her?
“Even within the party, people are looking to be told what to think and what to feel,” said Joey Correnti, chairman of the Carbon County GOP.
But not everyone. There are some voters who “didn’t like her for governor and don’t necessarily immediately take to Trump’s endorsement,” Correnti said. Some of Correnti’s colleagues have also pointed out that not all of Trump’s endorsements pan out. Take Susan Wright for example, a House candidate in a Texas special election who secured Trump’s endorsement, but lost in the Republican primary.
“They’re wary of that,” Correnti said.
Then there’s the question of how average voters will react to Hageman’s 2016 views on Trump. By the time of the House primary, those views will be 6 years old. Will voters still care — or even remember?
Jim King, professor of political science at the University of Wyoming, doesn’t think so.
“Voters generally have short memories,” he said. “Hageman’s positions now are what will be important to pro-Trump voters, not positions she might have taken in the past.”
The long campaign season could exacerbate the typical levels of voter fatigue. Wyoming’s political races — even at the federal level — don’t usually begin 18 months before the election. And the amounts of money being donated to House candidates is unprecedented.
Still, Cheney has an ample war chest — $3.7 million in cash on hand — that she can use to continually remind people of Hageman’s past.
Hageman, meanwhile, raised about $300,000 in the first three weeks of her campaign and had roughly $244,000 left in cash on hand on Sept. 30. If she maintained that pace and was in the race for the entire quarter, she would have raised over $1 million.
Nine months is also ample time for Cheney to change course and seek another office.
“I’m not convinced [Cheney’s] going to run for Congress in 2022,” Wyoming Republican strategist Bill Cubin previously told the Star-Tribune. Cheney has repeatedly said she is committed to running for Congress, but has not ruled out a 2024 presidential bid.
Cheney can legally use the funds she has raised in this campaign for a presidential campaign, as they are both federal seats.
If the presidential election were held today, 2% of Republicans and independents said they’d vote for Cheney, while 47% said they’d vote for Trump, according to a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll.
Trump may still have sway on Wyoming voters, and therefore a big influence on the House race, but how do Cheney and Hageman stack up outside of the former president?
Although their views on Trump may have changed — Cheney defended him during his first impeachment and voted with him on legislation over 90% of the time — their politics are similar. Both Hageman and Cheney are staunch conservatives who are outspoken in their criticism of the Biden administration and its policies.
“On the face of it, they’re very similar candidates,” True said.
They’re both vocally against federal government overreach, an issue that has taken on new significance to Wyomingites as the Biden administration halted oil and gas leasing and pushed for an employee vaccine mandate.
“Some say [Hageman will] be a tough candidate… and I’ve also had people say that she’s just like Cheney, and why would we want the same thing?” said Knapp.
Still, Trump’s role in this race shows no sign of fading. Both candidates are keeping him in voters’ minds, either by criticizing him, as Cheney has, or embracing him, as Hageman has done.
“(Cheney) doesn’t talk about anything, but President Trump, she’s obsessed with this,” Hageman said.
“And she turned on him,” Hageman added. “She turned on President Trump. But Wyoming hasn’t.”
The final say
Until recently, there was a common sentiment that Wyoming voters did not want outsiders telling them how to vote or how to run their state. For a long time, people plastered bumper stickers on their cars that said, “Welcome to Wyoming. We don’t care how you did it somewhere else.”
But Trump has changed American politics, and while Wyoming residents may have previously been averse to outsiders weighing in, that may no longer be the case. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida representative and staunch Trump ally, received a warm welcome in January when he traveled to Cheyenne for an anti-Cheney rally.
In other words, this campaign, with its length, money and national spotlight, is unlike anything Wyoming has seen. And so projecting what will happen becomes a challenge.
“People are really paying attention to it right now, but right now nine months is a long way away,” True said. “It’s hard to gauge.”
Some voters have made up their minds already. But, as usual, it’s those on the fence that the campaigns need to seize.
“People accept or internalize information that supports their current position or current choice of candidates. There are people who will be influenced by the campaign and the rhetoric of the candidates,” King said. “The unknown factor now is what proportion of the Republican primary electorate falls into that category,”
And even with Trump looming large over the state, the fate of the House race will ultimately be decided in Wyoming, not Washington.
“You have a guaranteed ballot to make this choice,” Correnti has been telling his fellow Republicans. “[Trump] doesn’t.”
Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis
Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis