Liz Cheney braces for primary loss as focus shifts to 2024

CHEYENNE, Wyo (AP) — Three weeks before the most important election of her political career, Liz Cheney was nowhere to be seen as thousands of voters gathered for a massive Midsummer rodeo and cowboy festival in Wyoming’s largest city.

Instead, the three-year Republican congresswoman was 1,600 miles away in Washington, presiding over a US House committee made up mostly of Democrats intent on exposing former President Donald Trump Attack on democracy during the January 6, 2021 uprising. As the cowboy fest raged at home, Cheney railed against Trump’s failure.

“Donald Trump made a conscious decision to break his oath of office,” she said during Thursday’s hearing.

Dean Finnerty, a Wheatland rancher who competes in the steer wrestling competition, was unmoved.

“I’ll tell you what: I voted for Cheney the last time she ran and I will never vote for her again,” Finnerty said. “I don’t know if she represents the conservative Americans who elected her.”

Cheney’s relentless criticism of Trump from a Capitol Hill boardroom is at the heart of an unconventional campaign strategy that could, at least in the short term, lead to her political downfall. Many Cheney allies are prepared – if not reconciled – to defeat in the Aug. 16 Republican primary in Wyoming against Trump-backed challenger Harriet Hageman.

But as primary day approaches, Cheney’s team has become convinced that her unorthodox strategy in 2022 could put her in a stronger position for the 2024 presidential election. Cheney’s fiercely anti-Trump message as vice chair of the congressional committee investigating the riot has bolstered her national brand while expanding a national network of bipartisan donors and Trump critics who could spur a possible run on the White House.

Cheney hasn’t made any decisions about 2024 yet, but she hasn’t ruled out running for president as a Republican or an independent.

“The most important thing is to protect the nation from Donald Trump,” Cheney said in an interview with ABC News that aired Friday. She said she would make a decision on a possible White House bid “soon.”

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Cheney’s supporters understand the political paradox she faces in Wyoming, the state where Trump achieved his widest lead of 43 points less than two years ago.

“She knew she was shooting herself in the foot politically (in Wyoming) and she was going to walk around limping for the rest of her life,” said Landon Brown, a Wyoming state representative and Cheney ally, of Cheney’s staunch criticism of Trump. “But I could see it growing into something bigger.”

Cheney, the 55-year-old daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheneyis perhaps the most prominent of a small group of so-called “Never Trump” Republicans weighing presidential bids for 2024. They include Maryland’s short-term governor, Larry Hogan, and Cheney’s only Republican colleague on the Jan. 6 commission, Rep. Adam KinzingerR-Ill., who chose not to run for re-election this fall.

Trump would likely dominate a large field of the president’s main opponents should he run again, as he has announced. But there is also a notable group of Republican voters anxious to get past Trump and his ongoing fight to reverse his 2020 election loss.

Still, few believe that an outspoken Trump critic could ultimately prevail in a Republican presidential primary. The vast majority of Republican voters still agree with Trump.

And while her allies may be optimistic about her long-term future, Cheney would certainly like to avoid a blowout loss in her home state next month.

It will not be easy.

Consistently and credibly faced death threats, she has been forced to abandon traditional retail campaigns and trade public rallies and town halls for private events at which her presence is often not revealed to the public until after they have concluded, if at all.

She was essentially excommunicated from the Wyoming Republican Party, which last year voted to censure Cheney before deciding to no longer recognize her as a Republican at all. Local GOP bureaus offer court tags for Hageman and many other Republicans on the ballot, but not Cheney.

With few options left, she has turned to Democrats for help. Your campaign website now includes a link to a form that voters can use to change their party affiliation to Republican in order to run in the Republican primary.

Kinzinger’s political team is helping to accelerate her crossover push.

“We need more principled leaders like Liz to make sure those who want our democracy to fail don’t succeed,” Kinzinger told the AP. “Never has it been more urgent for pro-democracy voters to participate in primary elections.”

Cheney has resisted private pressure from some allies to back away from her anti-Trump message. Many Republicans running for election this year who criticized Trump after Jan. 6 have since tried to dodge the controversy by focusing on local issues in their districts, President Joe Biden, or runaway inflation.

Cheney has refused to tone down her message, instead leaning on Trump during the biggest moments of her campaign.

In her reelection campaign announcement video in May this year, she vowed to “reject the lies” without surrendering to “pressure or intimidation.” In her closing statement at last month’s Republican primary debate, she said: She called out “the lies of Donald Trump” and vowed, “I will never put the party ahead of my duty to the country.”

Meanwhile, Trump has made Cheney’s defeat his top priority.

He called her a “despicable human being” on his social media page this month. And in May, Trump traveled to Wyoming’s second largest city, Casper, to rally support for his favored Cheney successor, conservative attorney Harriet Hageman.

While Cheney focuses her energies on the January 6 commission, Hageman has invaded the state, courting small, rural crowds in the traditional form of Wyoming politics. The approach is more akin to that used by Cheney himself in 2016 to lead a crowded Republican primary field to win Wyoming’s lone seat in the House of Representatives.

Friends and foes alike have noted her absence this year.

“I know Liz is dying to be there with all of our residents at the state meeting,” said Paul Ulrich, former chairman of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and a Cheney supporter. “It hurts her to have these safety concerns. It’s disgusting that it has come to this.”

Capitol Police assigned Cheney a personal security detail last August, a step taken only when members of Congress face credible security threats.

Dean “Doc” Schroeder, a registered Democrat who now plans to change his registration to vote for Cheney in the GOP primary, was impressed with Cheney’s leadership on the Jan. 6 commission. He said that given Wyoming’s overwhelming Republican majority, it may not matter if the congresswoman spends more time in the state.

“A very large part of it wouldn’t care if she was flown into the election on angel wings. They’re not going to vote for them,” said Schroeder, a retired psychologist and Frontier Days rodeo volunteer. “So I don’t know if it did her any harm. And I’m a perfect example of how her behavior in Washington helped her.”

Some Cheney allies are skeptical that there will be enough Democratic crossover votes to put her on top next month.

“I wouldn’t want to spend money on this race,” said Marilyn Kite, a former state Supreme Court Justice who supports Cheney. “I really hope she succeeds, but if she doesn’t, maybe in the long run it’s more important that she stay true to her oath.”

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Peoples reported from New York

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