CASPER, Wyo. – Since her father’s first victory 44 years ago, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney and her family have never lost an election in Wyoming. When George W. Bush picked Dick Cheney as his running mate, the Republican ticket won by about 40 points, twice.
Former president Donald Trump is determined to end that streak this summer, rallying aggressively behind primary challenger Harriet Hageman, who he is wagering can topple his most outspoken Republican critic in Congress.
He hit the trail over the weekend in a very different Wyoming from years past, one where thousands cheered him as he railed against Cheney and looped together what he called the “failed foreign policy of the Clintons, Bushes, the Obamas and the Bidens.”
Attendees laughed when a photo mash-up of the congresswoman’s body and former president George W. Bush’s face appeared on the Ford Wyoming Center’s highest screen. “I think she looks good,” Trump joked. “Liz Cheney is about America last.”
The Aug. 16 primary in Wyoming is shaping up as the next big test of Trump’s effort to unseat Republican elected officials who have been critical of him and who fought his falsehood-ridden attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
His crusade was dealt a major blow last week in Georgia, where Republican primary voters overwhelmingly renominated Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over candidates the former president vigorously supported.
Those losses followed a spotty record in earlier races that included high-profile defeats of his preferred candidates in Idaho, Nebraska and North Carolina. In Pennsylvania, the candidate Trump endorsed for U.S. Senate is in a recount. Taken together, the results have raised questions in the party about his influence.
The Saturday rally in Casper was a moment the former president and his movement used to try to regroup. After failing to oust Republicans in Georgia who’d rebuffed his attempts to subvert the election, Trump was pivoting to a campaign with better odds of success, due to a strong anti-Cheney sentiment in the state’s GOP ranks.
Cheney, who scrapped her weekend schedule after contracting COVID-19, declined to comment for this story. Hageman, an attorney and former Republican National Committeewoman, who declined to be interviewed, told the crowd in the 8395-seat arena here that conservative Wyoming was sick of Republicans “who work harder to deflect attention from the failures of the current administration than they do to protect us from it.”
Unlike in Georgia, where Kemp and Raffensperger ran more nuanced campaigns trying when it came to addressing Trump, Cheney, a three-term congresswoman who’s raised $10.1 million for her reelection campaign, has been unapologetic about opposing the 45th president, even as local Republicans have condemned her.
On Friday, in a video released after she filed for the primary, Cheney framed the race as a referendum on “the rule of law” and “our founding principles,” leaning into her role on a U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. The panel, which will hold public hearings in June, has interrogated and sought information from some of Trump’s closest allies, and some of the colleagues who booted her from the third-ranking House GOP leadership role she held until last May.
“I won’t waver or back down. I won’t surrender to pressure or intimidation. I know where to draw the line and I know that some things aren’t for sale,” said Cheney. “What we do in this election in Wyoming matters.”
Republican activists in Wyoming have taken multiple steps to reject and try to discredit Cheney. After she joined nine other House Republicans to impeach Trump after the insurrection at the Capitol, the state party voted to censure her; in November, it voted not to recognize her as the party’s candidate for Congress. Trump had endorsed Hageman, who’d once worked to block him from the party’s 2016 nomination, two months earlier.
In Casper, Republicans who’d come to see Trump, Hageman, and a constellation of MAGA-movement guest stars said they were outraged by Cheney’s actions, and agreed with Trump’s criticism of the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection.
George Clark, 69, a Buffalo, Wyoming, rancher supporting Hageman, said he had contacted her office multiple times during the investigation, and was annoyed when he got a form letter defending her.
“When she votes with the Democrats, it doesn’t just hurt Wyoming, it hurts the whole country,” said Clark. “So, Cheney and Trump didn’t get along. She decided to listen to her dad. Fine. She’s right for her dad, but not right for us.”
Trump has spent months trying to persuade Republicans to see things that way – and his supporters have also searched for ways to make it more difficult for Cheney to survive the challenge.
The former president and his allies tried unsuccessfully to change the voting rules in Wyoming, including through calls from Trump, top Trump advisers and others to pressure state officials and the Republican governor. Last year, the Republican-controlled state Senate defeated, by single vote, a bill that would have required runoff elections in primaries where no candidate won a majority of the vote. Trump was incensed at the governor, who he’d personally spoken to, advisers said.
A proposal to close the primaries to independents and Democrats went nowhere. The fear in Trump’s orbit, according to four advisers, is that so many Democrats will switch over and vote for Cheney that she can make the race closer than people expect.
Here in Casper, Trump told the crowd that he’d been greeted by Gov. Mark Gordon when he landed, and chided the governor for offering him a hat instead of the election changes he’d asked for.
“I’d rather not have the hat,” Trump said. “I’d rather have Democrats not voting in Republican primaries.”
Hageman’s campaign expressed confidence that crossover votes wouldn’t be enough to save Cheney, though they said they felt finding them was clearly part of the incumbent’s strategy.
Cheney’s campaign has worked to divide pro-Trump voters among the several challengers she faces, renting a billboard near the rally’s entrance with Hageman’s 2016 quotes attacking Trump as “xenophobic” and unfit to lead the party. That, argued Hageman spokesman Tim Murtaugh, was a “media play” that wouldn’t win votes.
Several Republicans, including state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, have defied calls to quit the race.
Hageman’s campaign is helmed by a coterie of Trump allies, including Murtaugh, Bill Stepien, Nick Trainor and Justin Clark.
In a recent interview, Trump boasted about his ability to defeat Cheney, and said the “people of Wyoming cannot stand her.” Advisers said that the former president frequently rants about the congresswoman, often raging about her family. Defeating her, they say, has been his top priority as he makes endorsements in the 2022 cycle. And in the interview, Trump even suggested, in vain, that Cheney might not file for reelection, even though she ultimately did.
“If someone is down at a low level, and they haven’t filed, I wonder why,” he said. “She’s at 15 percent.”
A poll released by the pro-Hageman Club for Growth on Friday put the challenger well ahead of Cheney, with just a quarter of Republican voters favoring the congresswoman. That was a stronger position than Trump-endorsed candidates in Georgia, and some other states, had been in ahead of primary defeats this year.
Several other candidates that Trump campaigned for elsewhere, including Nebraska gubernatorial contender Charles Herbster and Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Republican representing North Carolina, had tumbled in polls and were opposed financially by Republican establishment figures in their states.
Trump advisers said that the former president was angry over the defeat of former senator David Perdue, who lost to Kemp in Georgia, and Rep. Jody Hice, a Republican representing Georgia, who was defeated by Raffensperger. Trump had viewed both as embarrassments, and saw Perdue as lazy, advisers said. The advisers spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions.
In Casper, Trump barely mentioned the losses, except to chide the media for not covering his overall win record in primaries, where he has largely endorsed safe incumbents. He also denounced crossover voting in Georgia, where all voters can choose which primary they want to vote in, by Democrats who opposed Perdue and Hice.
In the interview, Trump bragged about how many pro-impeachment Republicans had already been forced into retirement, describing his brand in the Republican Party as “better than ever.” Four of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January of 2021 have opted to retire.
Trump’s team has also repeatedly pointed out his enduring popularity with Republicans in Wyoming and elsewhere. Here in Casper, the crowd easily set a record for the biggest political gathering in America’s least populous state. Attendees wore Trump gear from his previous campaigns, and hats and shirts that assumed a 2024 campaign was inevitable. Hundreds wore merchandise with some version of the phrase “Ultra MAGA,” a term coined by Democratic strategists as a disparaging label that was adopted almost immediately by Trump’s movement.
“Hello, Ultra MAGA-ers!” said Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, one of several pro-Trump Republicans who flew to Casper for the rally. GOP candidates from Utah and Colorado also made the trek, trying to get face time with Trump and his allies. Among them was Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who is seen as a potential Republican challenger to Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah in 2024.
“We need freedom fighters in Congress,” said Biggs. “We will lay the foundation for the return of our president, President Donald Trump, to the White House.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican representing California, did not appear in person at the rally, but when he appeared on-screen, hundreds of rallygoers booed McCarthy, some of them shouting “RINO,” an abbreviation for “Republican in Name Only.” There were loud cheers, and no boos, when Trump allies such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican representing Florida, and Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican representing Ohio, appeared on-screen.
Gaetz was one of several Trump allies who denounced Cheney over her foreign policy stances – reflecting how far many in the Trump-era GOP has have moved from the party that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Gaetz joked that Cheney’s short-lived 2014 campaign for U.S. Senate, which she ended before filing for the ballot, represented the first time “a Cheney had an exit strategy” – a reference to the Bush administration’s debacles in the Middle East.
That record didn’t stop Cheney from winning Wyoming’s sole House seat in 2016. Some Republicans who’d backed her then have been coming to her defense. Joe McGinley, a committeeman for the Natrona County GOP, said voters would respect Cheney’s honesty.
“I don’t think many people would say that what happened on Jan. 6 was a great thing,” he said.
But in the Ford Wyoming Center, plenty of Wyoming Republicans disagreed. Trump got some of his loudest cheers on Saturday when he referred to the rioters on trial for their role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as “political prisoners,” falsely suggesting that there had been no arrests or prosecutions of left-wing protesters who rioted in 2020.
Sue Edison, 74, said that Cheney’s positions were simply baffling.
“She doesn’t think that the 2020 election was stolen?” asked Edison, who echoed Trump’s false claims. “Jan. 6 was a Democrat setup, right from the get-go.”
Dawsey reported from Washington.