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Liz Cheney, unrepentant underdog in Wyoming primary

While her role in the congressional investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection likely plays a part in her fall from grace, her opposition to former President Trump might not be the only factor.

(CN) — Representative Liz Cheney faces an uphill battle to retain her congressional seat in Wyoming’s Aug. 16 primary election. While her role on the special committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection likely plays a part, her opposition to former President Trump might not be the only factor.

With the Wyoming primary just days away, Cheney doesn’t have much time to quell the tide of opposition to her candidacy that has grown since the beginning of the year.

Recent polls have her trailing her Republican challenger, attorney Harriet Hageman, for Wyoming’s lone congressional seat. A Caspar Star Tribune poll from early July put Cheney about 20 points behind, an unusual spot for an incumbent who’s served three terms and is the third-ranking leader in the House.

“There’s no question that I’m the underdog in this race, certainly,” Cheney told Wyoming Public Radio on July 29. “But I haven’t changed. My view of policy hasn’t changed, and my view of my obligation to the Constitution hasn’t changed. That’s very much how I’m working for every single vote across our state. But I’ve also been clear that I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to tell people what they want to hear. Certainly, my opponents in the race are doing that, and I think that’s disrespectful of the people of Wyoming and it’s dangerous for our Constitution.”

Cheney is far from your average incumbent.

Previously seen as a stalwart Republican — she won her 2020 race with 69% of the vote — Cheney cast three congressional votes at the beginning of her third term that put her at odds with Wyoming Republicans. She cast two votes to certify the Biden win in a couple of states and then she joined Democrats and nine other Republicans in voting to impeach Trump one week after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

While pundits predicted the impeachment vote likely doomed those 10 Republicans, they were surprised when two recently survived their primaries. Representative Dan Newhouse in Washington state survived challenges by two Trump-backed opponents. He joins Representative David Valadao of California, who will also move on to the general election.

However, Newhouse and Valadao likely benefitted from their states' Top-2 election system, where all candidates run against each other and the top two advance, regardless of party. Such systems tend to favor candidates with more crossover appeal, rather than the most extreme of the left or right, which are increasingly favored in regular primaries like those in Wyoming.

A month after the impeachment vote, 90% of the Wyoming Republican Central Committee voted to censure Cheney.

“We need to honor President Trump. All President Trump did was call for a peaceful assembly and protest for a fair and audited election,” Darin Smith, a Cheyenne attorney who lost to Cheney in 2016, told The Associated Press. “The Republican Party needs to put her on notice.”

Undaunted, Cheney agreed in June 2021 to be one of two Republicans to sit on the nine-member House Special Select Committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

That prompted the National Republican Committee to censure Cheney and the other Republican, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, this past February. The censure called for the party to refuse to recognize Cheney and Kinzinger as Republicans. Kinzinger is not running for reelection.

Not surprisingly, Trump endorsed Hageman in September, even though Hageman participated in efforts to block Trump’s nomination in 2016. At the time, Hageman also endorsed Cheney, calling Cheney “a proven, courageous, constitutional conservative, someone who has the education, the background and experience to fight effectively for Wyoming on a national stage."

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Since then, Cheney has chaired televised congressional hearings laying out evidence that Trump understood the effect of his actions and didn’t care when insurgents plunged the Capitol into violence.  

“She more than anyone else has been the face of the anti-Trump forces since Jan. 6, and she’s in this very prominent role of leading the hearings. She couldn’t possibly be more out there, front-and-center, as a Trump opponent," said University of Montana political scientist Robert Saldin. "She’s leaned into it in a way that a lot of the other people who voted for impeachment didn’t necessarily do after that. She didn’t back off an inch. All of these things are not a great fit for her constituency, which is very Republican and a very pro-Trump style of Republican."

While that might make it seem like Trump is the main factor behind Cheney’s popularity slide, University of Wyoming political scientist Jim King said it’s not that simple.

Acknowledging Wyoming gave Trump his biggest victory in 2016 with 70% of the vote, King says Wyoming isn’t necessarily a “pro-Trump state.”

“I don’t think the title of ‘reddest state’ or ‘most Trump state’ applies, because any characterization like that is based on one election,” King said. “In 2016, diving down into the polls a little bit, the vote looks very much as an anti-Clinton vote. The Republicans in Wyoming were going to support any Republican candidate over Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Trump had won a personal constituency. That election was more of a mix of pro-Trump and anti-Biden. So it’s hard to say this is Trump’s best state when his vote percentage differed little from what you saw for Romney, McCain, Bush, and Reagan going back.”

That strong Republican bent contributed to Cheney’s problems. Wyoming Republicans opposed her three votes in 2020 because they were seen as not supporting the candidate who won the state, regardless of who it was, King said.

On top of all that, Cheney is dealing with the Catch-22 of being an incumbent: If they’re in Washington, D.C., voting, then constituents complain that they’re not back home talking to the folks. If they’re back home talking to the folks, constituents complain that they’re not in Washington voting, King said. Sometimes, incumbents are ousted because they’re seen as having lost touch with their people. That’s the narrative Hageman has pushed.

“Liz Cheney has not been representing Wyoming for a year and a half. The moment she made the decision to go to war with Donald Trump, that’s really the only thing she’s been focusing on,” Hageman said a week ago.

The House adjourned for the summer break on Aug. 1. Cheney has been campaigning to the extent she can, although she’ll have to return to Washington at the end of this week to vote on the Inflation Reduction Act.

“I would expect there’s going to be more of a presence in the remaining days before the primary. But I don’t know whether that’s going to be enough to change where things appear to be headed,” King said.

A notable presence appeared last week when former Vice President Dick Cheney released a political ad for his daughter, calling Trump “a threat to our republic.”

“He is a coward. A real man wouldn’t lie to his supporters. He lost his election and he lost big. I know it, he knows it and deep down I think most Republicans know it,” Dick Cheney said in the ad.

Her decision to lead the Jan. 6 hearings lost her some Republican voters but has won over some Democrats and independents. And in Wyoming, they can switch parties and vote in the Republican primary, although King said there aren’t enough non-Republicans to make up the difference. Cheney has also raised three times as much campaign money as Hagemen, but much of it is coming from out-of-state and Democrats.

“I’m a Democrat and a liberal. But I feel like she is someone who has strong ethics and has stood up against some terrible things that have happened over the past five years,” Jackson Hole resident Dana Woods told NPR.

If Cheney loses, some pundits have suggested she might shoot for a 2024 presidential run. But Cheney has never mentioned such intentions. As far as Wyoming, King said she’ll probably never hold office there again, mainly because opportunities will be few and far between.

“I would think it would be difficult to resurrect in Wyoming,” King said. “There would have to be a change in the political climate before there would be a door open for her. I also don’t see any openings. I don’t see any indication that (John) Barrasso or (Cynthia) Lummis would give up a Senate seat. I’m sure if Hageman ultimately wins the House seat that she’s going to continue running for that seat. So there aren’t many options at the state level.”

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