Liz Cheney Lost Her Reelection Battle. Can She Win Her Trump War?

  • In Politics
  • 2022-08-17 02:22:37Z
  • By The Daily Beast
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images  

It didn't take long after the polls closed in Wyoming for Rep. Liz Cheney to get what she may have wanted all along: political martyrdom at the hands of Donald Trump's unforgiving Republican Party.

But it'll take longer to see if Cheney will get what she clearly wants next: to come back stronger than she was before.

Unsurprisingly, in Tuesday's primary election, Wyoming Republicans overwhelmingly voted to end Cheney's career in the U.S. House and to replace her with Harriet Hageman, a prominent local attorney who ran as Trump's instrument of revenge against his fiercest critic in the party.

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When the race was called, Hageman was leading Cheney by a wide margin.

The drubbing was an anticlimactic end to one of the most closely watched congressional primaries in history-largely because Cheney all but embraced defeat by refusing to compromise on her anti-Trump crusade in a state the former president carried by over 40 points.

Still, there has been plenty of drama surrounding the primary, nearly all of which stems from brewing intrigue about Cheney's political future. From her perch on the House select committee investigating Jan. 6, Cheney has unspooled a clinical case that Trump should never again be allowed near a position of power ever again.

That advocacy has turned Cheney, a rank-and-file House member, into a truly national political figure and a bipartisan cause celebre. Heading into the final stretch of the primary, Cheney was sitting on a remarkable campaign warchest of over $7 million, fueled largely by national donors.

That eye-popping sum of untouched cash is just one of the many things fueling speculation that Cheney might challenge Trump in the upcoming 2024 presidential election. While she herself has been coy about her plans, her 2022 campaign has at times looked more like a foundation for a longshot bid to stop Trump in 2024 than a reelection bid.

In Wyoming, Cheney was scarce on the campaign trail. Because of her pariah status among state and county-level GOP organizations-and amid serious concerns about her physical safety-her campaign consisted of private, invite-only events around the state.

Tellingly, Cheney's closing campaign message was a direct-to-camera scorching of Trump delivered by her father, former vice president Dick Cheney. "There has never been an individual who has been a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump," the elder Cheney said. The spot ran not just in Wyoming but on Fox News' national broadcast-during the shows of Trump allies Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

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In Cheney's defeat, Trump and the MAGA movement got the vengeance they craved for most. But, for Cheney, this may all be part of the plan.

"The one certainty is that she will not go away quietly," said Tim Stubson, a former state lawmaker who ran against Cheney in the 2016 House primary and has since become an ally.

"Frankly, Trump has made it his goal to get her out of Congress," Stubson said. "I think he may live to regret that decision."

Many of Cheney's biggest admirers-regardless of party-are holding out hope that's the case. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), who recorded a video last week encouraging Democrats in Wyoming to cast ballots for Cheney in the GOP primary, told The Daily Beast that win or lose, Cheney's "courage will go down in the annals of United States history."

"True American patriots join me in encouraging the continuation of her mission to prevent Donald Trump from destroying democracy," Phillips said, "and to restore respect for the rule of law to the Republican Party."

Cheney's defeat caps a six-year run in Congress that found her, more often than not, allied with Trump and his GOP agenda. During her tenure, Cheney voted with Trump's position over 92 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, and was a staunch critic of Democrats' efforts to investigate and impeach him over his effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden.

Still, Cheney maintained a rare ability to criticize Trump in certain instances-often his handling of national security and diplomacy issues-while remaining in his good graces. In the final stretch of the Trump presidency, Washington Republicans marveled at her successful balancing act; allies who later became fierce enemies, like Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), openly pitched her as the likely first-ever Republican woman to be Speaker of the House.

But Trump's propagation of election conspiracies after his defeat in 2020 ruptured the relationship, and his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection converted Cheney into a determined enemy.

Soon after Cheney's vote to impeach Trump in Jan. 2021, a crowded field of Wyoming Republicans materialized who were itching to take her on in the primary. It was a rogues' gallery of far-right lawmakers and assorted gadflies-including, notably, state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, who admitted last year to impregnating a 14-year old girl when he was 18 years old and compared it to "Romeo and Juliet."

But Hageman's entry into the primary late last year ensured that the anti-Cheney challenge would be a safe cause not just for the MAGA wing but the GOP establishment more broadly.

A natural resources attorney with a long history in Wyoming politics, Hageman was previously known as a high profile ally and supporter of Cheney's, dating back to 2014, when Cheney embarked on a short-lived campaign to challenge a sitting U.S. senator.

In 2016, Hageman-who supported Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign for president that year-condemned Trump in harsher terms than Cheney did, and worked hard behind the scenes of the Republican National Convention to block Trump's nomination.

Since then, however, Hageman has come around on Trump, and has validated his baseless claims of a stolen election in 2020-even if it took her nearly a year to fully say so.

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More broadly, her campaign has become a vehicle for Wyoming Republicans' frustration or anger at her insistence on calling out Trump in unequivocal terms. Stubson, who knows Hageman, said that he doubts Hageman actually believes the 2020 election was stolen. "She's saying it because it's her path to a seat in Congress," he said. "The clear through line for Harriet is her ambition, and that's what you see in this election."

Supporting Hageman ultimately became a litmus test for Republicans eager to find ways to remain on the good sides of both Trump and his base. That dynamic helps explain why House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) took the extraordinary step of endorsing, campaigning, and fundraising against one of his own incumbent members. A recent D.C. fundraiser for Hageman not only featured McCarthy but dozens of GOP members of Congress.

Clark Stith, a Wyoming state lawmaker who endorsed Cheney, argued that the two Republican women really are not ultimately that different. "Harriet Hageman and Liz Cheney do not differ on policy, but they differ on what's more important," he said. "Loyalty to Donald Trump, or to the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power."

For much of the last year and a half, conventional wisdom held that Cheney had a chance to keep the race competitive. But her embrace of her leadership role on the Jan. 6 committee when it began its public hearings this summer-and the relentless focus of those hearings on Trump's culpability-began to turn Tuesday's result into a foregone conclusion.

"Liz appreciated, as much as anyone, that her work on the Jan. 6 committee was not going to be helpful for her race in Wyoming," Stubson said. Other Republicans who voted to impeach Trump may have decided to try to put those stands in the rearview, he said. "Clearly, she made the decision she was not going to do that."

As she helped to put together a searing indictment of Trump's conduct before, during, and after Jan. 6, Hageman was in Wyoming focusing often on local issues. Stith said that in some cases-such as with water usage-Cheney had opportunities to exploit unpopular positions her opponent took. Instead, Stith said, "Liz's campaign has been at a high level-in the sense of high level and principled."

To some, the surest sign that Cheney knew where her campaign was heading wasn't anything she said about Trump, but her vote in favor of a bipartisan package to reform gun laws after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, earlier this year.

"When she voted in favor of the gun control legislation, that was a signal she had written off this race," Stith said.

Publicly, Cheney had always been clear-eyed about the bargain she made. "If the cost of standing up for the Constitution is losing the House seat, then that's a price I'm willing to pay," she told the New York Times in one of the rare pre-primary interviews she sat for.

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Even as she headed toward certain defeat, Cheney's campaign fundraising continued at a torrid pace. Between April and June of 2022-when the Jan. 6 committee's public hearings began-Cheney raised more money than she did for her entire 2020 campaign.

In the final six weeks of her campaign, Cheney could break a new record. Between July 1 and 27, the Cheney campaign raised a touch over $2 million, and reported an additional $423,000 between July 27 and Aug. 13 in a series of filings that only account for contributions of $1,000 or more. More than $180,000 of that $423,000 came between Aug. 11 and 13.

All in all, in the 19 months since Jan. 1, 2021, Cheney has raised more than $17 million. As of July 27, after spending $7 million on her primary bid, she had $7.5 million in cash on hand-cash she can use for future projects, including a White House run.

Asked repeatedly by the press about her future plans, Cheney has said she will decide about 2024 later. Trump, meanwhile, appears to have arrived at a decision long ago: his announcement of a third White House bid seems a matter of when, not if.

Ever the realist, Cheney certainly knows that her rejection in a state dominated by Trump would likely be replicated in a national party dominated by him, too. Instead, the idea among friends and supporters seems to be that she could somehow deny Trump a path to a second term as commander-in-chief, according to the Washington Post.

Stubson said he genuinely is not sure if Cheney has arrived at a decision yet. "The thing that is certain," he said, "is she'll have a voice in that campaign, no matter who's a candidate."

-with reporting from Roger Sollenberger

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