Less than two weeks removed from her vote to impeach then President Trump, Wyoming Rep, Liz Cheney (R) faces an effort to oust her from party leadership in Washington, a series of censure motions in the state and a primary challenger from a prominent conservative state legislator. Heck, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is even headed to Wyoming to campaign against her.
So, how much trouble is Cheney in? I reached out to Nick Reynolds, a political reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune, for that answer – and more!
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Before Liz Cheney started speaking out against Trump, what was the consensus view of her in the state?
Reynolds: I would certainly say mixed. The activist wing of the Wyoming Republican Party hasn’t seen eye-to-eye with Cheney in the last few years, and at one point last year, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul came to Wyoming to assist a Republican lawmaker, Rep. Tyler Lindholm, with a piece of legislation many saw as a rebuke to Cheney’s stances on foreign policy.
On the other hand, Cheney has amassed an incredible amount of power in a very short amount of time, which has had some huge benefits for Wyoming. In the last four years, she has not faced a serious primary challenge and for the most part, has been a pretty effective voice for Wyoming interests even while serving in the minority.
Being in Congress isn’t just about passing bills, but about the details of your amendments, your ability to grease the wheels with federal agencies, and your ability to work with the other party. Power comes in handy there, and I think people recognize that.
But some of her positions do conflict with the interests of the state’s conservative establishment, including her occasional pushes back against former President Donald Trump, who is incredibly popular here. That, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, has resulted in quite a lot of blowback from the conservative base.
It’s a pretty unusual development given some of her past positions that have conflicted with Trump. Her criticism of the former president for his decision to withdraw American forces from Syria barely moved the needle here, and she was a very early critic of Trump when she came out against his decision to withdraw from NATO in 2017.
At the same time, she’s also voted with Trump very closely throughout her career, and has supported key initiatives he pushed for, including funding for the border wall. Beyond her foreign policy stances, her conservative credentials have never really been in question.
Cillizza: She ruffled feathers (at least in the DC world) when she launched a short-lived primary campaign against Mike Enzi. Did that impact her in Wyoming at all?
Reynolds: The Cheneys were a household name in Wyoming well before the congresswoman’s first campaign. The football field at the local high school bears her father’s name. There is a building downtown named after him as well. A young Liz Cheney attended middle school a few blocks from my apartment here in Casper.
But the perception of her being an outsider was a persistent one in that first campaign, and wasn’t helped by some of the gaffes she made on the campaign trail – including improperly applying for a resident fishing license. When I inherited my desk when I started here, I found a “Cheney for Virginia” bumper sticker in the top drawer of my desk scattered among the rest of the political memorabilia from past campaigns reporters have collected over the years.
It was a legitimate campaign issue then, and people still use it against her, even though she’s owned property in Teton County for the better part of a decade. For what it’s worth, it certainly didn’t hurt Foster Friess when he ran for governor in 2018: it’s a pretty open fact that he splits his time between his properties in Jackson Hole and Scottsdale, Arizona, and I rarely heard that brought up on the campaign trail then.
Enzi, up to that point, had followed the traditional progression of federal candidates follow in Wyoming politics. Like his predecessor, Al Simpson, Enzi had earned his stripes. He was a mayor for a while, served some time in the Wyoming Legislature, and had a proven record as a policymaker in Wyoming.
It was also a different time. Enzi’s first campaign was probably the first time we had serious money coming in from out-of-state, but in 2014, politics here was still extremely local. The city of Milwaukee has more residents than Wyoming, meaning to be successful, you needed deep-seated relationships with community leaders in small towns all across the state. Not everybody can do that.
Cheney didn’t make those mistakes in 2016. Most importantly, she also had a lot of money to back her up, helping her to defeat people like Leland Christensen (a long-time state legislator who currently works for Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming) and Tim Stubson, a Casper attorney who served close to a decade in the Wyoming legislature. The fact that there has been no serious primary challenge the last few years says a lot. But of course, not many people can match her fundraising capability… something I wrote about for the Star-Tribune the weekend after her vote.
Cillizza: How closely was Cheney’s vote for Trump’s impeachment followed in Wyoming? And was there a consensus as to why she did it?
Reynolds: Cheney’s impeachment vote has been THE story in Wyoming. As I write this, three county Republican parties have voted to censure her, and numerous people have already filed to run against her.
At the same time, a large number of very influential people in Wyoming politics – attorneys, former governors, you name it – have risen to support her as well. Shortly after her impeachment vote, former Wyoming Governors Matt Mead (a Republican) and Mike Sullivan (a Democrat) signed onto on op-ed in the Star-Tribune supporting her efforts to push back against Trump’s attempts to undermine the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming, one of the state’s most powerful industry groups in the state, has also put out a statement supporting her on Monday, saying Cheney’s voice “carries tremendous weight for all of Wyoming” in Congress. For a state with just three representatives in Washington, that’s a big deal.
As far as a consensus as to why she did it, I really can’t say. There is open speculation that she is considering a higher office – something she denied as a motivation for her vote when talking to the Wyoming press corps the day of the vote. And from what I’ve seen from Washington DC, it seems like the conference remains rather divided on what its future is. Given Trump’s performance here, Cheney is probably very well aware that her vote would have caused some of this blowback – something I think is worth remembering when she called her vote a “vote of conscience.” You don’t make a decision like that lightly.
Cillizza: A GOP state senator has already announced he will primary Cheney in 2022. How serious is that challenge?
Reynolds: State Sen. Anthony Bouchard is already pretty well-known in Wyoming politics. Prior to his time in the Wyoming legislature, he was the founder of a no-compromise gun rights group called Wyoming Gun Owners (which is now run by conservative activist Aaron Dorr) that was very active in helping to oust a number of moderate Republicans in the state house in last year’s primaries. That group is currently involved in a legal battle with the Wyoming Secretary of State after the office said it would require them to release their donors.
After two consecutive defeats for a seat in the Wyoming House of Representatives, Bouchard later rode that reputation to a narrow victory in one of the state’s few gerrymandered Republican districts in 2016 and, this year, scored a massive, 30-point victory over one of the best-funded Democratic state house campaigns in Wyoming history.
Whether the people who dislike Cheney are simply a vocal minority or a sign of a credible grassroots effort to replace her remains to be seen. In Cheney’s crowded 2016 primary election, the standard bearer of the Wyoming GOP’s conservative wing at the time, Darin Smith (who is also floating a primary challenge, per Wyoming Public Radio), only managed about 15% of the vote, and in this year’s Republican primaries, the winner of the Wyoming GOP’s straw poll, Bryan Miller, barely broke 10% of the electorate in a Senate primary loss to Lummis.
But there is some potential for growth. If you look at the state’s six-way 2018 Republican primary for governor, eventual winner Mark Gordon won with only about one-third of the total vote, while the two runners-up – Friess and current Wyoming Republican Party National Committeewoman Harriet Hageman – combined for nearly 48% of the vote. Both of those candidates were much more conservative than Gordon.
The best chance for the party’s right wing lies with them being able to produce a single, credible candidate with a strong ability to fundraise. Bouchard has sought to use the Internet and conservative media outlets to raise his own profile nationally and expand that donor base in an effort to even the odds.
However, it’s really hard to say whether the 2018 primary elections really inform how many voters would go against Cheney. She still has a very conservative voting record, and still has two years to prove her credentials against a Democratic trifecta in the Oval, the House and the Senate.
Wyoming also has very loose restrictions on voter registration, leading to a large amount of crossover voting in those primary races as well. While it wasn’t significant enough to impact the final result in Gordon’s favor in 2018, a contentious enough election could compel some more liberal-minded Wyoming voters to stay in the Republican Party and support Cheney in 2022.
And the dynamics of each campaign are completely different from one another. But we’ll see. In the past few years, we’ve also seen candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Lauren Boebert come out of nowhere to upend more establishment campaigns in their districts. It’d be naïve for anyone to say it couldn’t happen here.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “In January 2023, Liz Cheney will be _____________.” Now, explain.
Reynolds: I don’t think I can. It’s going to be an exciting two years, and I’m looking forward to covering it.