Sometimes in politics it’s not so much what you say, it’s where you say it.
Rep. Liz Cheney’s intolerance for former President Donald Trump’s lies and her fellow Republicans who “aid and abet” him are refrains we’ve heard from her in committee rooms and congressional hallways.
But that razor-sharp rebuke landed differently when the Wyoming Republican delivered it in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, a testing ground for potential national political candidates and, in this case, for a message that goes deep against the Trump grain.
If testing the waters was the point of her visit, as it appeared to be, they were rather warm at the storied New Hampshire Institute of Politics, where Cheney spoke on Tuesday. While the largely Republican crowd sat quietly without applauding during her speech, it was not because they didn’t agree with what they were hearing (she got a standing ovation at the end). It was because they were listening – really listening – to what she had to say.
“When our constitutional order is threatened, as it is now, rising above partisanship is not simply an aspiration. It is an obligation – an obligation of every one of us,” said Cheney, who is one of just two Republicans on the House select committee investigating the attack on the US Capitol.
She chastised House GOP leaders for hosting the former President at a fundraiser the night before, where he reportedly said the “insurrection was on November 3,” while the January 6 insurrection was a “protest” that was justified.
“Political leaders who sit silent in the face of these false and dangerous claims are aiding a former President who is at war with the rule of law and the Constitution,” Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said flatly.
The obvious question right now – more than two years out from the New Hampshire primary – is whether there is a lane for Cheney or someone like her.
Corky Messner, the Republican who challenged Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire in 2020 with Trump’s endorsement, says he doesn’t see it.
“I think the chances of Liz Cheney, or somebody like her, doing well here when they’ve been critical of President Trump, today her chances would be very, very, very low,” said Messner, who ended up losing the general election by 16 points while Biden carried the state by about 7 points.
“Because former President Trump is still very strong here in New Hampshire,” he added of her challenge in a primary.
Tom Rath, a former Republican national committeeman and veteran of New Hampshire GOP politics – and no fan of Trump – insists there is a path for Cheney.
“I believe there is, and I believe there must be. I think you’ve got to develop this discussion broader than being defined by somebody who had one term four years ago,” he said.
Rath admits that may be wishful thinking because Trump’s grip on the party is still strong.
“But when we go through the ’22 cycle, and we begin to see whether those who are the most loyal or tied to him don’t do as well, electorally, as you might think, I think it will change,” he said.
New Hampshire Republicans got schooled in the unpredictable nature of politics that morning, when GOP Gov. Chris Sununu declared he would not run for the Senate, as many had assumed he would. Granite State Republicans and leaders in Washington had seen the popular governor as their best hope of beating Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in 2022. Instead, Sununu said he will seek another term as governor.
Even Messner cautioned that 2024 is a lifetime away in politics.
“If it were to happen today, he would win easily,” he said of Trump’s potential in the 2024 New Hampshire primary. “What happens two years from January, it’s just hard to predict.”
Which is why Cheney made a point of reminding the crowd of New Hampshire Republicans that she is a conservative.
“I disagree strongly with nearly everything President Biden has done since he’s been in office,” she said.
“Limited government, low taxes, a strong national defense, the family – the family as the essential building block of our nation and our society, those are the right ideals for this country,” she added.
Matt Mayberry, a Trump delegate in 2016 and 2020 who came to hear Cheney speak, said underscoring her conservative credo was critical.
“Because there will be some in the party who think that if you go against the President, you go against the party, and if you go against the party, then you’re not a Republican. That’s not true,” said Mayberry.
With Cheney’s future at home in Wyoming up in the air thanks to a fierce Trump-backed primary challenge, her trip to New Hampshire indicates she’s thinking bigger.
“The Cheney family knows the calendar and knows where it starts, and this is not a bad place for her to be,” Rath said of the Granite State.
“Nothing that happens here is an accident,” he added with a smile.