Liz Cheney lost on Tuesday night. The question is whether it was a battle or a war.
The immediate political fate of the three-term Wyoming Congress member had been a foregone conclusion; public polling consistently had Cheney lagging her Donald Trump-backed opponent Harriet Hageman, and the big margins — 66 to 30 percent with 93 percent of the votes reporting — also came as no surprise.
Instead, Cheney had sought 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, speaking straight to camera and insisting that “in our nation’s 246-year history, there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump.”
In her remarks after her defeat on Tuesday, Cheney returned to this message, showing her willingness to target Trump and the Republicans who abet him. “Two years ago, I won this primary with 73 percent of the vote,” she said. “I could easily have done the same again. The path was clear. But it would’ve required that I go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election. It would’ve required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic. That was a path I could not and would not take.”
Cheney repeatedly referenced the Civil War and drew comparisons to the current political climate in the United States. “Our nation is barreling, once again, toward 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 echoed Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election across the country — by adding, “No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility.”
Cheney got her loudest applause toward the end of her remarks when she told the crowd, “I have said since January 6 that I will do whatever it takes to ensure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office. And I mean it.”
In contrast, a Trump spokesperson released an edited video on Twitter of the former president dancing to the late 1960s hit “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”
A long-running internal conflict between factions of the Wyoming Republican Party deeply colored how voters in the Cowboy State made up their minds about Cheney’s race. But it captured national attention as a referendum on Trump’s standing and pull within the GOP. After all, Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president and former chair of the House Republican Conference, had seemingly impeccable conservative credentials — save, of course, for her vocal and virulent opposition to Trump in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. She was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president, and became a total apostate when she became the vice chair of the January 6 committee.
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 will have five more months to pursue her work on the January 6 committee without a campaign hanging over her head. Then, as Ahab pursued Moby Dick after leaving the Pequod for a whaling boat, she will be able to continue to target Trump as a private citizen even without her seat in Congress.
Cheney has further built up her national profile in the past two years as the leading Republican opponent of Trump and will be able to draw on an array of major donors opposed to Trump as well as a formidable campaign war chest with over $7 million still on hand only weeks before the primary. Whether via 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 gig.
While Cheney reaffirmed “I am a conservative Republican” in her remarks on Tuesday, she pitched herself to a nonpartisan audience of all Americans opposed to Trump. “Let us resolve that we will stand together, Republicans, Democrats, independents, against those who would destroy our republic.”
Local factors mattered in Tuesday’s race. Wyoming has seen a long-running internal conflict between a more traditional GOP establishment and a more ardently conservative new guard within the party. Cheney, as the daughter of a former vice president, was destined by birth to be in the first camp. She had personal baggage as well. Her crusade against Trump alienated Wyomingites not just because they were die-hard MAGA loyalists but because it seemed like her neglecting key 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 to indicate that the three-term incumbent was out of touch with voters. Cheney had also raised the ire of local Republicans in 2013 when she launched an abortive primary campaign against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi that was heavily focused 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 did have a notable political genealogy (his grandfather and great-great-grandfather both served as president), he had little else in common with Liz Cheney. Former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a Democrat, recalled him as “sort of a weak link” and didn’t think there was “any comparison” to Cheney, for whom he changed his party registration to vote on Tuesday.
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