CHEYENNE, Wyo. — When Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, decided to vote to impeach a president from her own party, she knew she’d cause some waves. She might not have expected the seismic impact at home.
But Cheney’s vote against Donald Trump has put her home state of Wyoming — by some measures the most Republican state in the country — on the front lines of the GOP civil war. The rising GOP leader and daughter of a former vice-president is now facing the prospect of censure from the state party, a primary challenge and the wrath of Trump and his loyalists vowing to make her pay.
On Thursday, Rep. Matt Gaetz, an ardent Trump ally from Florida, will stage a rally in Cheyenne at the Capitol, taking the fight to oust Cheney from her leadership post to her home turf and calling on “patriots” to turn out. House Republicans are expected to decide next week whether to strip Cheney of her job as House conference chair.
Cheney’s fate at home and in Washington will be one indicator of whether GOP traditionalists or Trump-aligned activists determine the direction of the party. Her troubles have already served as a warning for Republicans in the Senate, most of whom signalled Tuesday they would vote to acquit Trump on the charge of inciting an insurrection. Meanwhile, Trump’s political action committee, Save America, is using a poll it commissioned on Cheney’s popularity with Wyoming voters to taunt her — and show other Republicans what may lie ahead when they don’t support Trump.
Cheney’s defenders have sought to cast the blowback from her vote as ginned up by attention-seekers. “Wyoming doesn’t like it when outsiders come into our state and try to tell us what to do,” said Amy Edmonds, a former Cheney staffer and past state legislator, pointedly at Gaetz.
But there’s little doubt the lawmaker in her third term is facing homegrown opposition in a state where the establishment’s once-firm grip has been slipping.
Republican state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, a gun-rights activist, announced his primary challenge against Cheney one week after her impeachment vote, making a clear effort to rally Trump fans.
“The swamp was after me,” Bouchard said of his recent reelection to the statehouse despite being badly outspent by a Democrat. “I just don’t think that works any more in Wyoming. I think the people have figured it out.”
To be sure, Bouchard, who is little known outside the Cheyenne area, has a steep climb ahead. He is a relative political newcomer who raised just $12,000 for his last race. (Cheney amassed $2.5 million.) He says he may show up at the rally Thursday, one way to start raising his profile. Other Republicans are likely to jump in during the coming months.
Still, few imagined Cheney would draw a challenger after winning the state’s only congressional seat with a majority close to Trump’s — 70%, more than any other state.
Cheney spent the last four years dancing around Trump. She largely dodged questions about his racist comments and hard-line immigration moves, while occasionally criticizing his foreign policy. She called his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria “sickening.” When Trump began urging lawmakers to reject the Electoral College vote, she wrote a memo warning of a “tyranny of Congress.”
But Cheney, whose father held her seat for 10 years and who was raised in part in the Washington suburbs, described Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 as a breaking point. Trump called on supporters to “fight” to overturn his election loss, in a speech shortly before rioters stormed the Capitol in an insurrection that led to five deaths. Notably, Trump called Cheney out by name in his speech, telling his backers they should work to get rid of the lawmakers who “aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world.”
Cheney says she voted her conscience without regard for political consequences.
“It was something that I did with a heavy heart, but I did with a real understanding of the seriousness and the gravity of the moment,” Cheney said the day of the vote. “My oath to the Constitution is one I can’t walk away from, is one I can’t violate.”
She has since sought to marshal the state’s sizable Republican establishment in her defence. Aides have circulated approving editorials and letters to the editor, and long lists of supporters. Those backers include Gov. Mark Gordon, Sen. John Barrasso and Sen. Cynthia Lummis, who was one of just eight senators to vote against certifying Electoral College results in battleground states in the riot’s aftermath.
Cheney also has the support of two influential state interest groups: the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and Wyoming Mining Association.
That backing may be crucial as Wyoming prepares to fight new regulations from President Joe Biden’s administration that could hurt the struggling oil, gas and coal industries that are a pillar of the state’s economy.
“Intraparty fighting and blind obsession with retribution for perceived slights are not going to bring back one single job,” said Matt Micheli, a Cheney ally and former state GOP chair.
But in Wyoming, as in many states, the divide between traditional GOP interests and Trump-aligned, far-right activists is wide.
Local Republican Party officials in three of Wyoming’s 23 counties have voted to censure Cheney for her impeachment vote. In a fourth, Republicans at an informal meet-and-greet Monday held an unofficial straw poll ahead of plans for a formal censure vote.
“Based on what I saw last night, whew, it’s going to be overwhelmingly anti-Liz Cheney,” said Bob Rule, a radio station owner and GOP precinct committee member in western Wyoming’s sparsely populated Sublette County, a gas-drilling hotspot. “They felt she used her own personal feelings about the situation and not the feelings of the people of Wyoming.”
Several of the three dozen or so people at the meet-and-greet in the town of Marbleton, population 1,400, were newcomers there out of opposition to Cheney’s vote, Rule added.
The Republican State Central Committee could take up censuring Cheney when it meets in early February, though state GOP Chair Frank Eathorne declined to speculate whether it would happen.
Plenty of voters are suddenly receptive to the idea of not just politically dinging Cheney but also giving her the boot.
“I made a mistake voting for her,” said Misty Shassetz, 43, a grocery store employee in Casper.
“This is Trump country, you know, that’s who we voted for. What she did was wrong. I just feel like the voters need somebody who actually speaks for the voters,” Shassetz said. “And she is not it.”
Cheney has some time to try to win back voters like Shassetz, notes Don Warfield, a retired public relations consultant.
“If people are still as angry in the summer of 2022 as they are now, Liz Cheney faces some real problems,” Warfield said.
Mead Gruver, The Associated Press