Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Liz Cheney’s Trump-fueled Loss in Wyoming

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Liz Cheney lost Tuesday night. The question is whether it was a battle or a war.

The immediate political fate of the three-year member of the Wyoming Congress had been a foregone conclusion; In public polls, Cheney consistently lagged behind her Donald Trump-backed opponent Harriet Hageman, and the wide margins — 65 to 31 percent with 59 percent of the vote reported — came as no surprise either.

Instead, Cheney had tried to characterize her race as part of an existential struggle for American democracy that pitted her against Trump. Her closing ad featured her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, speak directly to the camera and insisting that “in the 246-year history of our nation, there has never been a person more of a threat to our republic than Donald Trump.”

In her comments after her defeat on Tuesday, Cheney echoed this message, showing her willingness to target Trump and the Republicans biting him. “Two years ago I won this primary with 73 percent of the vote,” she said. “I could have easily done the same thing again. The path was clear. But it would have required me to agree to President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election. It would have required me to facilitate his continued efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the very foundations of our republic. That was a road I couldn’t and didn’t want to take.”

Cheney repeatedly referred to the Civil War and made comparisons to the current political climate in the United States. “Our nation is once again headed for crisis, lawlessness and violence,” she said. She went on to seemingly declare war on much of the Republican Party — which has nominated candidates who have repeated Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election across the country — adding, “No American should support election deniers for a position of real responsibility.”

Cheney received her loudest applause towards the end of her comments when she told the crowd, “I have been saying since January 6 that I will do whatever it takes to ensure that Donald Trump is never near the Oval Office again. And I mean it.”

A Trump spokesperson, on the other hand released an edited video on Twitter of the former president dancing to the late 60s hit song ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’.

A protracted internal conflict between Wyoming Republican Party factions has deeply colored how voters in Cowboy State came to decisions about Cheney’s race. But it drew national attention as a referendum on Trump’s status and pull within the GOP. Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president and former speaker of the House Republican Conference, had seemingly impeccable conservative credentials — save, of course, for her vocal and virulent opposition to Trump in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. She was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president, becoming a total renegade when she became vice chair of the committee on Jan. 6.

Through this lens, Cheney’s loss is certainly a setback for the Never Trump forces within the Republican Party, but leaves the Wyoming Congress member’s ongoing fight to make Trump persona non grata within the GOP unresolved. Cheney has five months to continue her work on the Jan. 6 committee without a campaign hanging over her head. When Ahab chased Moby Dick after she left the Pequod to go on a whaling boat, she will be able to continue attacking Trump as a civilian even without her seat in Congress.

Over the past two years, Cheney has continued to build her national profile as Trump’s leading Republican opponent and will be able to draw on… a series of major donors both against Trump and a formidable campaign war chest with over $7 million remaining just weeks before the primary. Whether it’s through a super PAC or a kamikaze presidential campaign or something else, Cheney has more options than the typical anti-Trump Republican who leaves Congress for a cable news appearance.

While Cheney reaffirmed in her comments on Tuesday that “I am a conservative Republican,” she pitched herself in front of an impartial audience of all Americans who oppose Trump. “Let’s decide that we will stand together, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, against those who want to destroy our republic.”

Local factors mattered in Tuesday’s race. Wyoming has seen a long-running internal conflict between a more traditional GOP branch and a more fervently conservative new guard within the party. Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president, was destined by birth to enter the first camp. She also had personal luggage. Her crusade against Trump alienated Wyomingites not just because they were die-hard MAGA loyalists, but because it seemed like she was neglecting important local and parochial issues for the national spotlight. Hageman’s ads didn’t just hit Cheney for being anti-Trump; they also used that as a way of indicating that the three-year incumbent had no contact with voters. Cheney had also sparked the ire of local Republicans in 2013 when she launched a failed primary campaign against incumbent Senator Mike Enzi that focused heavily on her family legacy.

Cheney is the first federal incumbent in Wyoming to lose a primary since another political scion, William Henry Harrison III, lost his primary for Congress in 1968. While Harrison had a remarkable political genealogy (his grandfather and great-great-grandfather both served as presidents), he had little in common with Liz Cheney. Former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan, a Democrat, called him “kind of a weak link” and didn’t think there was “any comparison” to Cheney, whom he changed his party registration to vote for on Tuesday.

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