CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Jim Lish, an Iraq War veteran, recalls fondly how receptive his local congresswoman was when he visited her in Washington to talk about treatments for traumatic brain injury. He appreciated her efforts to bring a national Veterans Affairs cemetery to the state. And he admired her family, a political dynasty of sorts whose names are on high school soccer fields and whose books are displayed at the local library.
Now, he’s not so sure.
Ever since Rep. Liz Cheney voted to impeach President Donald Trump and accused him of the “greatest betrayal by a president of the United States of his office,” Lish has been questioning Cheney’s loyalty to the Republican Party and her commitment to her constituents.
“When she did that, I felt disenfranchised,” said Lish, who works at the local American Legion. “I love the Cheneys, both Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney. But she has to represent the people.”
A star of the Republican Party widely seen as a potential future House speaker, Cheney has suddenly emerged as a vivid example of something completely different — a traditional Republican who may no longer have a home in a party dominated by Trump and the far right.
No matter that she voted with Trump more than 90% of the time, or that she occupies the lone Wyoming congressional seat that her father, the former vice president, held for 10 years. Few voters care that as the third ranking Republican in the House she is well positioned to bring home federal spending.
In this city in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, her reputation has boiled down to a simple question: whether she is for Trump or against Trump. And, as far as many people here are concerned, with her Jan. 13 impeachment vote, Cheney staked her claim.
The anger has resonated among Cheney’s GOP colleagues in Washington, where House Republicans are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss calls by some members to censure Cheney or remove her from her leadership post.
The outcome of such discussions is still unclear, as Cheney has received support from influential lobbying groups and prominent Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referred to Cheney as “an important leader in our party and a nation” in a statement to CNN. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has also stated that he continues to back Cheney, and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon commended her for “voting her conscience on the issue,” urging residents to move on.
But many in the state are not yet ready to do so. The Republican Party chapter in at least 10 counties has condemned Cheney’s vote, while the Wyoming GOP put out a statement referring Cheney’s decision as a “travesty.” Local leaders are eager to find a viable candidate to challenge her in the 2022 primaries.
“I don’t think Wyoming needs the Cheney name anymore,” said Ocean Andrew, a newly elected state representative. He said he received so many complaints about Cheney that he invited one of her congressional nemeses, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, to speak on the Wyoming Capitol steps last week. Andrew hoped the rally would show potential candidates how much support existed in the state to oust Cheney in the next election.
“Liz Cheney is kind of the old establishment-type Republican,” Andrew said. “And Matt Gaetz kind of represents the new Republican Party that is very anti-establishment, more individualist and more noninterventionist.”
How Republicans would perceive Cheney’s vote on Trump was not clear cut when it happened on Jan. 13. Emotions were still raw from the shocking scene a week earlier, when a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol to disrupt Congress’s certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win.
The vote is typically seen as a formality, but Trump had spent months spreading the false claim that Biden had stolen the election and encouraged thousands to march to the Capitol and demand that lawmakers block Biden’s victory.
Cheney contended that Trump had “lit the flame” that sparked the riots. At the time, some suggested her words and the horrifying image of the takeover would break Trump’s hold on the GOP base.
In the end, though, Cheney was joined by just nine other House Republicans. The same appears true in the Senate, where only five Republicans voted against a procedural measure last week challenging the constitutionality of the process.
Cheney, 54, declined a request through her office to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, she pointed to another type of loyalty — an oath to defend the Constitution — as her guiding principle.
“Wyoming citizens know that this oath does not bend or yield to politics or partisanship,” Cheney said. “There is no more important part of my job than listening to and speaking with citizens all across our state. I will always fight for Wyoming values and stand up for our Western way of life.”
Her supporters have noted that Cheney’s name recognition and House leadership post give the state unique power at a time when they need it most as the Biden administration’s policies limiting fracking and mining could decimate the state’s energy-dependent economy.
Still, such concerns have not been able to stifle the resentment.
Hundreds showed up to hear Gaetz speak at the rally organized last week by Andrew, the state lawmaker.
To a cheering crowd, Gaetz mocked Cheney as a “fake cowgirl” who grew up in Virginia and did not understand the populism of Wyoming.
He chastised her positions on keeping troops in the Middle East and accused her of going to Washington to enrich herself, linking her with McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. He put his cellphone near the microphone and called up Donald Trump Jr., to the crowd’s delight.
“Defeat Liz Cheney in this upcoming election, and Wyoming will bring Washington to its knees,” Gaetz said to the crowd.
The new Republican Party that showed up to the “Stop Liz Cheney” rally carried more pro-Trump signs than anti-Cheney signs. They waved a flags for the Patriot Party, for Blue Lives Matter. One attendee carried a flag for the Confederacy.
In the back of the crowd was Brooke Dugan, 32, a stay-at-home mom, who knew Gaetz from his frequent appearances on Tucker Carlson’s television show. She put her two boys, Liam and Bubba, in masks with American flags and the words “God, Guns and Trump” on them to “teach them about patriotism.”
“We came because we Republicans need to stick together,” Dugan said. “They’re coming after our guns. They’re trying to tell us what to do, so we can’t have people who are not with us.”
At a coffee shop a few miles away, Amy Edmonds, a former state representative and friend of Cheney, said she feels like she is watching the disintegration of a political party. Edmonds, who voted for Trump twice, said she originally thought her congresswoman was being too harsh on the president when she challenged him in November to move on from his election challenges in the absence of hard evidence.
But after Trump lost court battle after court battle, Edmonds said her feelings about everything changed.
“I felt used and I felt lied to,” Edmonds said. “And then I began to think that all Trump gave us was promises. I’m not sure he kept them.”
The discussions between Edmonds and her friends continually got more heated as Trump continued to assert the election was stolen, then gave the speech that preceded insurrectionists storming the U.S. Capitol. They intensified when Edmonds continued to support Cheney after her impeachment statement. Now she’s losing friends.
“It’s like we’ve collectively lost our minds,” Edmonds said. “I don’t know how to make it better. I wish it could get better. I just hope that with time, maybe people will calm down.”
Edmonds said she was now being called what has become one of the harshest epithets in Wyoming politics — a “RINO,” which stands for Republican in Name Only.
“I’m pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-property rights and for small government,” Edmonds said. “But it seems like the new standard for being a Republican is standing forever with President Trump.”
Trump performed better in Wyoming that he did in any other state, garnering 70% of the vote. And the reasons that he engendered such support were both practical and personal.
It had been decades since residents here said they saw a president who was so aligned with preserving their way of life. In an economy so tied to coal, oil and gas — and to a lesser extent agriculture — residents were relieved when the Trump administration eased Obama-era regulations that complicated their lives, limiting everything from excavating on federal lands to the type of soil used on their farms.
Cheney was instrumental in guiding those decisions, according to Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. Obermueller said that Cheney knew the industry well enough to help federal agencies develop mixed-use plans for lands and could direct the Trump administration to other regulations that made life on the range easier.
The early indications are that the Biden administration will be even more restrictive than Obama’s, Obermueller said. And even though lobbying groups such as his were loath to get in the middle of political squabbles, he said his membership felt the risks in Washington were so great that they needed to put out a statement to support Cheney.
“Our issue is unrelated and has nothing to do with the impeachment vote,” said Obermueller. “Our issue is more practical.”
Increasingly, though, voters here are focusing instead on the passions of the moment.
In Wyoming, Trump’s professed love of the coal miner quickly linked with a small, growing libertarian movement that had long despised Cheney for her hawkish foreign policy leanings. Libertarians began rising through the ranks in local Republican parties, moving agendas toward the culture wars — the latest of which was whether they should censure Cheney.
Trump “was with us,” said William McNulty, a 53-year-old oil field worker who lives outside Cheyenne. “If Liz Cheney is a Republican, I don’t even know if I can consider myself a Republican anymore. When she decided she wasn’t with Trump, it was all I needed to know.”
One day last week, at a burger restaurant in the city of Torrington, population under 7,000, longtime political honcho Jackie Van Mark was describing the most recent meeting of the local Republican club with her friend Matt Teeters, a former state representative.
Of the 80 or so members in the room, only three said they did not want to impeach Cheney (which, regardless, is not something a state can do).
“There’s kind of a cult following for Trump,” Van Mark said. “And I think it’s dangerous. It is not good for a party to be built around one man.”
“Everyone is still angry that he lost the election and they’re looking for some way to express that anger,” Teeters said. “[Cheney’s] got two years to make it up.”
But Teeters noted that there are ways that Cheney could help the process. She could explain more frequently that she stood often with Trump. She could also meet voters face-to-face and explain her position. And she could continue to forcefully oppose Biden’s attempts to limit fracking.
In a booth nearby, Rick Greene, 51, was finishing up his meal before headed out to his daughter’s basketball game. As he bit into his burger, he could overhear some of the conversation happening between the two politicos.
His analysis was simple.
“Liz Cheney committed political suicide,” Greene said. “Why did she do it? I don’t know. But you can’t go against what the people want.”