correction

An earlier version of this column misidentified the organization that Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has received a 98 percent rating from. It is Heritage Action for America. This version has been corrected.

Nick Reynolds is the state politics and policy reporter for the Wyoming nonprofit news organization WyoFile and a former politics reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune.

In the Republican turmoil over Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s defiance of former president Donald Trump and his loyalists, much attention has focused on the battle in Washington. This week, Cheney appeared destined to be ousted from her No. 3 position in GOP House leadership amid criticism by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and, on Wednesday, a call for her ouster by the second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.).

But the real action to follow is here in Wyoming. How will Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters affect her prospects for surviving the Republican 2022 primary?

The first thing to understand about Wyoming politics: This is a red state. Deep, unwaveringly red. Fossil fuels drive the economy. In Casper, the industrial city where I live, a sign outside a drilling contract I pass almost daily reads “When regulations grow, freedom dies.” Even Wyoming’s Democrats are pro-gun.

Most of all, Wyoming loves Trump.

While voter participation in the 2016 presidential election was unexceptional, Wyoming set records with its turnout for Trump — records then easily broken when the chance arrived in 2020 to reelect him. Morning Consult polling showed Wyoming as Trump’s strongest state throughout his presidency.

No wonder Cheney’s reelection campaign is viewed by many observers as a sort of proxy battle for the soul of the GOP. This isn’t a battle to eject a too-soft Republican; Cheney is a traditional conservative, with a 98 percent rating by the conservative Heritage Action for America. She simply won’t indulge Trump’s fantasies of a stolen election.

The contest is quickly becoming a free-for-all. Following Cheney’s impeachment vote, the state party censured her, and several Wyoming politicians filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to challenge her. The most credible among them so far appears to be Anthony Bouchard, a state senator and gun-rights activist with an abrasive style that proved highly successful in his most recent campaign. Bouchard’s national social media campaign generated $400,000 in small donations from all 50 states in its first 10 weeks.

Lately, Bouchard’s campaign has juxtaposed an image of Cheney fist-bumping President Biden before his address to Congress last month with a photograph of Bouchard greeting Trump at a Palm Springs fundraiser in mid-April.

Chuck Gray, a state representative from Casper and talk-radio host, has also joined the effort to unseat Cheney. He has gained support from members of the state legislature’s Freedom Caucus and received donations from several prominent figures in Wyoming politics, according to campaign finance reports.

With more than a year until the 2022 GOP primary, the challengers are vying for clear supremacy as the most anti-Cheney candidate, hoping to avoid splitting the vote — a common downfall for insurgent populist campaigns in the state.

In a wild, six-way race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2018, then-State Treasurer Mark Gordon won with one-third of the vote. His two closest rivals — current Wyoming Republican National Committee member Harriet Hageman, and investment manager and conservative donor Foster Friess — combined for 47.3 percent. (Cheney will have noted a sign that, as much as Wyoming loves Trump, his ability to sway politics here may be limited: He backed Friess.)

Cheney herself won her 2016 Republican primary with just 39.9 percent of the vote; her three closest competitors took a combined 54.9 percent.

Republicans bent on ousting Cheney recognize the split-vote problem. After Cheney voted for impeachment, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. backed an effort to press the state legislature to switch to a run-off election system, which would help consolidate opposition to an incumbent. In March, lawmakers rejected the measure.

The challengers have a long, tough fight ahead of them. Cheney is well funded; her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, retains great respect in the state; and no incumbent has lost a congressional race here since 1976.

The effect of nationalizing the race is a wild card. In addition to Trump Jr.’s involvement, Trump himself and his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, are making inroads in Wyoming state politics — doubtless in preparation for the fight to come. They have established fundraising channels here to support Wyoming politicians. Trump has hinted at visiting the state.

But Wyoming voters might not warm to a surge of national attention. As Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) told Fox Radio when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) came to Wyoming for an anti-Cheney rally in January, “Wyoming people like to make their own decisions.” In the coming year, don’t bother paying much attention to polling in the race — the polling here is sparse and often unreliable.

As much as Cheney will be on trial with Wyoming Republican voters next year, so will Trump. In campaigning to defeat Cheney, how will Trump do in the state that loves him most? The answer will reveal much about the political identity of an entire state — and an entire party.

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