Why top Republican Liz Cheney is close to losing the Wyoming primary

The National visits anti-Trump congresswoman's home state to discover why she might soon be out of a job

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Inside a doughnut shop that moonlights as a sushi restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a group called the Principles First Conservatives is trying to salvage the political career of one of the biggest names in US politics: Liz Cheney.

“We’re not affiliated with any of the campaigns,” said Heath Mayo, founder of Principles First.

“This is a completely grassroots effort of Republicans, some former Republicans and independents who, on their own dime and energy, have come here, volunteering their treasure, their sweat and their energy.”

Ms Cheney will need every ounce of their energy if she is to eke out a victory in the Republican congressional primary — but this appears less and less likely every day.

The daughter of former Republican vice president Dick Cheney shot to prominence following her strong rebuke of former president Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that he had won the 2020 presidential election.

This as well as her active involvement on the committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol has won her plaudits from many across the aisle, but many in her party have distanced themselves or even ridiculed the veteran politician for taking a stand against Mr Trump.

The former president himself has been vocal in his criticism of her and has endorsed her rival, Harriet Hageman, in the coming primary.

Mr Trump's mark of approval has proven to be mostly — but not always — a golden ticket for his chosen candidates, who have picked up nominations in key states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Liz and Dick Cheney join Democrats to mark January 6 attack anniversary

Ms Cheney herself is now more than 20 points behind Ms Hageman in the polls, as the August 16 primary approaches.

Locally, she has been attacked by fellow Republicans for “betraying” the state, with one local conservative radio host described her as “a Virginia Democrat posing as a Wyoming Republican”.

This is a common refrain among conservatives here in Wyoming, a mostly rural state speckled with coal mines, wind turbines and ranches. It is the least populated state in the US, with its biggest city, Cheyenne, having a population of only 64,000.

There is a pride that comes with being from the state, full of hardworking ranchers, fiercely independent farmers and lovers of wide-open spaces. It has been forged through the generations, and people from the state can at times take umbrage to outsiders.

“I consider her a carpetbagger,” said Vincent Vanada, who sits on Wyoming's Republican Party executive committee. “She lived outside Wyoming almost her entire life.”

Ms Cheney was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Wyoming and the Washington, DC, area, while her father climbed the Republican political ladder. She re-established residency in the state in 2012.

But some view her ties to the state as tenuous.

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“I found out she doesn’t live in Wyoming, she's in and out of Wyoming. I just like local stuff,” said Kevin McFadden, who works in the oil industry.

The Republican representative and her husband have homes in Wilson, Wyoming, and McLean, Virginia, outside of Washington. It’s common for politicians to split time between the capital and their home states.

Faced with a party that seems poised to reject her, Ms Cheney has said she is willing to lose, if it means standing up for the constitution. But she has run a listless campaign, choosing not to hold any large public events and opting for smaller, more intimate gatherings.

As the primary approached, she recently turned to her father for help. The former vice president, clad in a cowboy hat, recorded a message slamming Mr Trump as a “coward”, saying: “In our nation’s 246 year history, there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump.”

The Cheneys’ vocal distaste for the former president has rankled many in a state that voted overwhelmingly for him.

“Her and her father are so anti-Trump that it just turns my stomach,” said one woman, who was sitting on an American flag foldable chair during an outdoor music concert in central Cheyenne.

Ms Cheney was one of only 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Mr Trump — a move some say will come back to haunt her.

A campaign sign supporting Liz Cheney is displayed in Jackson, Wyoming. AP

“I just thought it was profoundly stupid and a really bad move for Liz Cheney to vote for impeachment on Donald Trump after that whole debacle at the Capitol,” Mr Vanada told The National.

The Hill reported last year that Ms Cheney had spent thousands of dollars on private security after receiving death threats following her vote to impeach Mr Trump. This could be one reason for the smaller gatherings during her campaign, as it makes it easier to manage security.

While Ms Cheney has struggled to find support from within her own party, she has been actively courting left-leaning voters.

She recently held a private campaign event in Jackson, the state’s only liberal enclave — and home to some of the richest people in the country. The event was packed with both Republicans and Democrats.

“It was unusual, I've never been to an event like that,” said Luther Propst, a Democrat, who is on the board of commissioners for Teton County, where Ms Cheney lives. “One, because I would say it was maybe 50 per cent Democrat, 50 per cent Republican.”

Mr Propst said Ms Cheney was actively trying to get the Democrats present to switch parties and vote for her.

“She was in campaign mode, for sure,” Mr Propst told The National. “She was encouraging the crossover vote.”

A quirk of the Wyoming political process allows voters to register their party up until the day of the primary.

At the Whole Foods in Jackson, where young, athletic-looking people ride in on electric bicycles or clamber out of heavy-duty 4X4 vehicles, a number of Democrats said they had already switched parties to vote for Ms Cheney.

“I don't agree with most of her politics,” said Susie Blasko. “But I do believe she's standing for America, and she's putting our country ahead of politics.”

Ms Blasko, a retiree originally from New York, said she was “really proud” when she registered as a Republican to support Ms Cheney, though she plans on switching back immediately following Tuesday’s primary.

Liz Cheney speaks during a hearing of the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. AP

Back in Cheyenne, as Mr Mayo marshalled a group of more than a dozen Cheney supporters to knock on doors, he complained about the current state of the Republican Party.

“Ever since 2016, I've felt completely politically homeless,” he told The National. “Things that I believe in, limited government, the constitution, just truth and honesty and good character, the Republican Party has kind of abandoned those things and chased popularity and personality.”

He’s not alone: Polly Calhoun drove more than 15 hours from rural Minnesota to help drum up support for Ms Cheney in Cheyenne.

“She’s been totally committed to the conservative principles,” explained Ms Calhoun.

Ms Cheney’s voting record is staunchly conservative and her votes in the House lined up quite closely with the views of Mr Trump before he began circulating claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Even Mr Vanada, the Republican Party executive committee member, conceded that she has “an outstanding voting record.”

But it appears that will not be enough for her to get through the primary.

Despite the bleak outlook, her supporters are hoping she will make a run for president in 2024, though that may be difficult.

“If there is a [political] reincarnation, I think it would have to come a few years down the road,” said James King, professor of political science at the University of Wyoming.

“Normally when someone loses a primary, one of the big issues is that the person has lost contact with the state, then it usually that means that there aren't going to be other avenues within the state for that candidate,” he told The National.

The fact that Ms Cheney — a household name across the country and heir to the state’s most powerful political family — may no longer have a home in the Republican Party shows how deep the rift has become between Mr Trump's supporters and his detractors.

Updated: August 15, 2022, 3:00 AM
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