As a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol last week, Rep. Liz Cheney didn’t hesitate to criticize the person she thought was ultimately responsible.
The attack, Cheney said in a nationally televised interview, was a result of President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept results of the election. It would serve as Trump’s legacy, she told an interviewer.
“The president incited the mob,” she said. “The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
One week later, Cheney — the face of the Republican establishment Trump has long sought to upend — would vote to impeach him, joined by nine Republican House members and every Democrat. The vote was one of conscience, Cheney said, and the ultimate indictment of a president whose previous impeachment she rejected.
Though Cheney had disagreed with the president at times and challenged his unfounded allegations that the 2020 election was rigged against him, Wyoming’s lone congresswoman had been a reliable and pragmatic ally for the president. She voted in favor of the president’s border wall and backed immigration initiatives he had favored while simultaneously finding inroads with her colleagues across the aisle, co-sponsoring 42 bills throughout her career with the same Democrats she was tasked with criticizing as third-ranking Republican in the House.
Cheney, on paper, seemed like the perfect conservative, with a close allegiance to the platform and an innate understanding of the D.C. machinery, which gave her an advantage over the well-known but legislatively ineffective Trump loyalists such as Reps. Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, and Louie Gohmert. That is, until she found herself opposing the leader of the modern Republican Party.
For Cheney, the vote was not a political one. “Some votes should never be partisan,” she told reporters in a press conference last week. And at that moment, the facts supporting impeachment were clear, she said.
After the attack on the Capitol started — an attack that grew out of a rally Trump had promoted — the president did little to stop it, she explained. As the mob descended on the Capitol, he attacked his own vice president on Twitter, perpetuating false claims that Mike Pence could unilaterally overturn the results of the election. In the days to follow, it would become clear that some of the president’s supporters — not left-wing groups, as some claimed — had been plotting violence for days.
In bluer parts of the country, Cheney’s vote was seen as a principled stand. But for many Republicans in Wyoming — a state that Trump won with roughly 70% of the vote — Cheney had betrayed her own party and the will of Wyoming’s people.
Scott Clem, a former state representative from Gillette and a leader of Wyoming’s hard-line conservative movement, called on Cheney to resign, arguing the vote for impeachment without an investigation was “a careless act and puts our nation at risk of more civil unrest.”
Lingle Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, who enlisted Cheney’s help in obtaining federal funding to offset devastating economic losses from a collapsed irrigation tunnel in her district in 2019, said Cheney had “abandoned the people of Wyoming and the President that they overwhelmingly voted for. Sen. Anthony Bouchard, another far right conservative lawmaker, threatened in a Facebook post to run against Cheney in two years, saying that she had “backed down” in the fight against the Democratic establishment in Washington.
The Wyoming Republican Party, which already has a somewhat tepid relationship with the state’s D.C. delegation, called Cheney’s vote a “true travesty for Wyoming and the country.” For some, the situation was so egregious that it prompted a form letter now circulating among conservative circles in Wyoming urging Republican members of Congress to remove Cheney from her leadership position as the House conference chair.
“Representative Cheney needs to consider the impact her various actions have had on the Republican Party since the November 3, 2020 elections,” the letter, a copy of which was forwarded to the Star-Tribune, reads. “She has failed to listen to a great majority of the voters in Wyoming and has failed to represent the Republican Party as a whole in her leadership position.”
Cheney, meanwhile, has stood fast, telling a reporter, “I’m not going anywhere.” Her vote — and the ensuing firestorm it inspired — highlights the longstanding rift among conservatives not only regarding their relationship with Trump, but over the party’s future as it seeks to reclaim power following a series of defeats on the national stage.
Cheney’s own future — and that of her party — could come to be defined in that struggle.
Impeachment in Wyoming
The name Cheney is synonymous with Wyoming politics.
Her father, Dick Cheney, ascended to Congress, George H.W. Bush’s cabinet and later, the vice presidency. Just as her father climbed the ladder to become one of the most powerful politicians on the planet, Cheney’s rise has been meteoric, achieving a position within House Republican leadership after just a single term in Congress.
“That’s unbelievable,” said Jimmy Orr, a power player in Wyoming politics and former spokesman for President George W. Bush’s White House. “That never happens.”
In her home state, however, Cheney has some competition for her voters’ loyalties — even if her dominant performances in two elections doesn’t exactly show it.
Once associated with aisle-crossing conservatives such as Alan Simpson, Wyoming conservatives have come to be defined on a national stage by their unyielding support for the outgoing president, approving of his job performance at a higher level than any other state throughout his tenure. In 2016 and 2020, he earned a greater share of the popular vote here than in any other state.
Though Trump leaves office this week, his influence is likely to be felt in conservative politics for years to come. Even as Trump’s approval rating plunged to an all-time low, according to a Friday poll by the Pew Research Center, Republican approval for Trump still sits at about 60% nationally. Most major polls show Trump as the front-runner in a hypothetical Republican field for the 2024 presidential election.
For some on the right, by voting to impeach Trump, Cheney voted in opposition to the entire conservative movement when she should have dug in and fought for the president’s right to due process, even as most legal scholars maintain that the timeline for Trump’s impeachment was appropriate.
“The Constitution is one of those things where you don’t get to pick and choose,” said David Iverson, the Buffalo-based host of conservative podcast Cowboy State Politics, which counts nearly 800 listeners around the state. “It’s like being a conservative in Wyoming. You can’t support one part and not the other. In Wyoming’s opinion, she doesn’t support the President’s right to due process, she doesn’t support the President’s right to confront his accusers. This move is seen by many people in Wyoming as just political posturing.
“After cooking her goose with Wyoming voters, I think she’s probably got her sights set elsewhere,” he added. “Because she’s going to face an election battle this time.”
Rough waters ahead?
There is already talk of mounting a primary challenge against Cheney. While Bouchard mulls a run, some Trump loyalists around the country have suggested enlisting an outsider to go up against her.
But could anyone actually pull it off? The 2022 primaries are still a long way off. Cheney, with an already conservative voting record, has ample opportunity to reaffirm her credibility with her base while standing up to Democratic majorities in Congress and a Democrat in the White House. With the level of power she’s already amassed — and most of the Republican Conference backing her despite some calls for her resignation — Cheney is better positioned to make a case for herself than most.
“Wyoming Republicans would have to balance this,” Orr said. “Do they give up someone who has rock solid conservative credentials and enormous influence over Congress because of one issue? This is really important because of her incredible rise to power. It is 100% safe to say that there is no one in Wyoming who could become that influential in such a short period of time. History has proven this. Never been done before, and it won’t be done again.
“That’s the perspective that voters will have to keep in mind,” he continued. “It’s incredible because it points to her influence. Congress is all about influence, and she has it.”
That influence alone would be a formidable opponent in a primary. No Republican incumbent in Wyoming has lost a House race since 1968, and Cheney — one of the most recognizable members of Congress today — has access to a fundraising network few political newcomers in the state could hope to match.
Even if that candidate was independently wealthy and able to finance their own campaign, Cheney would likely find a way to raise more.
“You’ve got to have financial resources behind you, and I think there are probably very few around that would be able to compete with her in that arena,” said Tim Stubson, a Casper Republican and former state legislator who ran against Cheney in the 2016 primary. “I remember doing a fundraiser that year, and we pulled in, like, three grand. I was stoked about it. I thought it was a pretty good night. Then I read in the paper the next day that Woody Johnson (the billionaire owner of the New York Jets football team), had held a fundraiser for Liz and they pulled in like 500 grand. It’s that sort of dynamic that we ran into.”
That’s not to say a primary challenge is impossible. Wyoming is a lightly populated state with inexpensive advertising, meaning fewer resources are necessary to build up a sizable coalition. In 2016, Darin Smith — a relatively unknown, hard-line conservative — managed to earn approximately 15% of the vote in a crowded primary for former Rep. Cynthia Lummis’ House seat.
But true success, according to several GOP operatives interviewed by the Star-Tribune, begins with the quality of the candidate and the networks they’ve established. Similar to what United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in a landmark 1964 case, good candidates are like obscenity, one strategist said: “you know it when you see it.”
When evaluating the field, there are two distinct classes of candidate who typically enter the race. There’s the activist, one who hopes to raise awareness for an issue by taking advantage of the platform afforded by a campaign for federal office.
Then there’s the candidate who truly believes they’re going to win, one who enters with established relationships around the state and a broad network of support that extends not just through their social media followings, but into chambers of commerce, rotary clubs and similar organizations.
While favor with the Wyoming Republican Party was once a must for any serious candidate, strategists say the party’s influence has subsided in recent years as those community leaders have ceased engaging with the party. Over the summer, the U.S. Senate candidate who won the party’s straw poll at its convention, Bryan Miller, ultimately finished with roughly 10% of the vote, in what turned out to be a landslide victory for Lummis.
Part of that has to do with its membership: the GOP of past decades, one Republican strategist said, was populated with bankers, business people and lawyers who approached issues with a civil tone, carried weight in their communities and had networks that extended beyond their party activism. The makeup of the party has changed in recent years, allowing candidates to work around the party establishment and appeal directly to the voters.
“It’s a party demanding stature it hasn’t earned,” said one strategist who used to serve on the Wyoming Republican Party’s executive committee.
Mounting a credible challenge against Cheney would require a candidate with similar gravitas and a case that they could do a better job. That’s tough to accomplish, especially if an incumbent has already made connections with community leaders.
“You can’t beat a somebody with a nobody,” one Republican strategist said.
But in an unprecedented time, is precedent really the best guide to determine a candidate’s viability?
Recent history has shown that no incumbent is safe as the country undergoes a momentous political realignment. Two years ago in New York City, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rose from nowhere to unseat a powerful incumbent in Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley. Meanwhile, far right conservatives including Colorado’s Lauren Boebert and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene scored massive upsets over mainstream candidates in this past year’s Republican primaries while lacking any substantial experience in politics.
Some believe a similar realignment is occurring in Wyoming, where far-right candidates aligned with Trump’s loyalists in the state scored a number of upsets against traditional conservatives in statehouse races this year, which conservative activists hope could translate into eventual wins for statewide and federal office.
“I don’t think that we should abandon the conservative awakening that [Trump] has created in the country,” said Iverson, the Buffalo podcast host. “If you look at our last election, at least in Wyoming, we replaced a lot of so-called ‘conservatives’ and so-called ‘moderates’ with real conservatives. And we did that on purpose. People are tired of being betrayed by people who claim to represent us and then do the opposite. We don’t elect somebody to go to Washington and to just do their own thing. We pay them and elect them to represent us. When you have an elected official that goes against what the vast majority of the state says, I think your political future is kind of in doubt.”
The rage from the party’s right wing has been palpable in recent weeks. Numerous petitions circulating on social media gathered thousands of signatures from conservatives hoping to recall Cheney for her impeachment vote (25,000 signatures and counting as of Friday), urging Barrasso to vote to overturn election results in key swing states won by President-elect Joe Biden, and railing against Gov. Mark Gordon, who has been attacked by the far right of his party for a statewide mask order intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Over the past weekend I must have read 500 or 600 comments on Facebook and other things from conservatives that are probably 100% negative toward her, with 80% or something saying, ‘I’m never going to vote for her again,’” said Sven Larson, an economist with close ties to Wyoming’s conservative movement.
“I don’t believe Liz Cheney hasn’t quite understood her electorate here,” he added. “Had she gone for a censure, she would have been closer to something that people could maybe understand and respect. I think this shows a sense of detachment from what people here want. If she’s playing Washington politics and there’s some kind of long-term game at play here, she needs to articulate that. She has a lot of explaining to do here, and I’m not sure a Facebook update is going to fix this.”
But can her critics build a winning coalition against her? Or are they merely a vocal minority?
In the wake of Cheney’s vote to impeach, many people have come out in support of the congresswoman, who has maintained that her vote was not the result of political considerations, but of her own conscience and constitutional obligation. Late last week, several dozen attorneys and judges across Wyoming signed onto a letter to the Star-Tribune in support of Cheney’s decision. While in Congress, many of her conservative peers – and even a House Freedom Caucus member – emerged to support her.
“I think it was a high-risk move politically,” said Boyd Wiggam, a Cheyenne attorney and a fifth-generation Wyoming native. “But I believe she will be on the right side of history and showed real leadership. I would even say she earned the right to run for president in her own right someday. The question will be whether she loses her seat in Congress in the meantime.”
“I actually called her office and told them, ‘Thank you,’” said Sheila Loney, a freelance photographer based in Cheyenne who describes herself as a Democratic Socialist. “She’s actually holding her oath to the Constitution. When you’re a federal employee, you’re taking an oath to the Constitution. You’re not taking an oath to the President. The way I see it, she’s putting country over party.”
There are now 576 days left until polls close in the 2022 Wyoming Republican primary: ample time for Cheney to make the case not only for herself, but for the Republican Party in the years following Trump’s presidency.
Under Trump, Republicans lost the White House, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, handing control of the country to the Democrats while the GOP struggles to make inroads with younger voters.
Cheney, entering her second term in the House minority, finds herself in a precarious position. She must balance the interests of the nation’s most conservative state at a time when it is at its least influential in the national conversation. She needs to lead a party at war with itself, torn between Trump backers and conservatives seeking to recapture a plurality.
As Trump’s popularity falls with Democrats and members of his own party alike, Republicans still control a majority of the nation’s state capitols and legislatures, showing that conservative ideas can still prevail in a country that will be run for the time being by Democrats. In the long term, will one vote make a difference?
After all, 576 days is a long time.
Amy Edmonds, a former Republican lawmaker and Cheney’s one-time communications director, once considered herself a close supporter of the president, and she was critical of Cheney on social media after the congresswoman called on Trump to produce evidence of voter fraud or concede the election.
In the days since the Capitol riot, however, Edmonds has returned to backing Cheney, calling the congresswoman’s decision to impeach the president “courageous” and the right thing to do.
“There’s been a lot of emotion and anger and outrage,” Edmonds said. “For myself, I know that decisions are best made when I’ve calmed down and taken a look at everything. We need to be thoughtful about what’s happening in our country right now, because there’s a level of emotion that I think is simply too high. For me, I think it just took some time to work through that anger.”
That anger, she said, helped drive the events of Jan. 6, when an emotional response to the president’s rhetoric resulted in violence. The images she saw on television, she said, led Edmonds to examine her own thinking.
“I just I think emotion is ruling the day right now,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a healthy way for us as a country to go forward. I think everybody just needs to calm down for a little while.”