The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liz Cheney’s political life is likely ending — and just beginning

A sign in support of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is seen ahead of her primary election. Cheney, the vice chair of the Jan. 6 House select committee, is an underdog entering the Republican primary for the state's at-large U.S. House seat on Aug. 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

JACKSON, Wyo. — The two-minute video, meant ostensibly as the closing appeal to voters here, likely served much more as the launching point of a campaign that will last for years to come.

“No matter how long we must fight, this is a battle we will win,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) says to the camera, promising to lead “millions of Americans” of all ideological stripes “united in the cause of freedom.”

“This is our great task and we will prevail. I hope you will join me in this fight,” Cheney concludes.

Cheney is looking far beyond Tuesday’s Republican primary for this state’s at-large seat in the U.S. House, a race that she is likely to lose, barring an unprecedented surge of non-Republican voters into the GOP contest.

She entered Congress six years ago as a relative celebrity, the daughter of the former vice president who spent several years using Fox News appearances to deliver acid-tongued critiques of the Obama-Biden administration. And she could exit the U.S. Capitol, likely in 4½ months, as the face of an anti-Trump movement that has cost her old alliances but left her with new supporters, clamoring for a next act more nationally focused.

“I sure hope she runs for president,” James Rooks, elected to Jackson’s town council as a self-proclaimed “fierce independent,” said while sitting in a coffee shop looking up at Snow King Mountain.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), vice chair of the Jan. 6 select committee, may need to look for support outside of the GOP base to win her upcoming Wyoming primary. (Video: Libby Casey, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Cheney has fielded questions about her ambitions since first taking office, but the intensity ramped up after this summer’s blockbuster hearings, in which she has served as vice chairwoman of the committee investigating the ex-president’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.

“I’ll make a decision on 2024 down the road,” she told CNN in late July.

But Cheney is clear-eyed when it comes to her chances of actually winning the presidential nomination in a party that is still so loyal to former president Donald Trump, according to friends and advisers. She sees her future role similar to how she views the work of the Jan. 6 committee: Blocking any path for Trump back to the Oval Office.

“It’s about the danger that he poses to the country, and that he can’t be anywhere close to that power again,” she told a crowd of supporters in Cheyenne just before the committee hearings launched in early June.

Traditional conservatives opposed to Trump have already discussed the possibility of Cheney running for the White House. “That chatter was very strong even before that Dick Cheney commercial,” Dmitri Mehlhorn said, referring to a campaign ad that ran nationwide on Fox News and featured the former vice president denouncing Trump.

Mehlhorn advises several donors across the political spectrum who are opposed to Trump, including the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman. He said he and the donors he works with would consider funding a Cheney presidential bid.

In that regard, Cheney will spend the months after the committee concludes its work later this year figuring out her next steps. That might be launching a political organization that focuses on Trump, or some think-tank work matched with media appearances.

But, for certain, Cheney and a small but influential bloc of anti-Trump Republicans have decided that there must be a 2024 candidate who will run as an unabashed opponent of both the ex-president and other contenders who spew his mistruths about the 2020 election.

This anti-Trump group fears a repeat of the 2016 campaign, in which rivals refrained from attacking Trump’s unorthodox behavior and positions until it was too late. The emerging 2024 Republican presidential field consists of the former president, his allies looking to emulate him and a collection of other Republicans courting non-Trump voters but without forcefully denouncing Trump.

Cheney and her crowd want a candidate who would serve merely as a political kamikaze, blowing up his or her candidacy but also taking down Trump.

“You need that. I think it’s got to be somebody that’s willing to take the boos, take the yells,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), the only other Republican on the Jan. 6 committee, said in a recent interview. “Somebody [who] can stand on the stage and just tell people the truth, I think that would have a huge impact.”

Mehlhorn, the adviser to anti-Trump donors, said that if Cheney were to approach them “and say, you know, with an extra 10 million, I can make sure that Republican voters are reminded of how bad Trump is in a way that might allow someone else to emerge from the primary or might weaken him for the general, but I need another $10 or $20 million — look, we would take that seriously.”

The price of opposition

Cheney has been very outspoken in her denunciations of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other Republicans who have remained loyal to Trump despite his help precipitating the Capitol attack.

But she has also been upset with a separate group of Republicans who despise Trump but instead hope the ex-president will just fade away, particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“Where Kevin is like full-on public embrace, McConnell is: Ignore and hope he goes away. And that just doesn’t work,” Cheney told the authors of “This Will Not Pass,” a book about the fallout of the 2020 election.

But Cheney’s singular focus on preventing Trump from being reelected has come at a heavy cost. Her political world has turned upside down.

Over the weekend, McCarthy began hosting his annual big-donor fete in Teton Village, less than 15 miles north of Cheney’s polling place. It’s the same spot where Cheney and her father co-hosted a $1 million fundraiser on behalf of Trump in August 2019, but the resort owner has since denounced Cheney and is supporting her challenger, the Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman.

Instead of her traditional GOP support, Cheney is trying to rally tens of thousands of Democrats and independents across Wyoming to cross over into the Republican primary.

Anecdotally, local liberals are perplexed by their rush of support after decades of seeing the Cheney family as the political enemy.

“I can’t believe I’m thinking about this. This world is insane,” Diana Welch, an adviser to Christy Walton, a billionaire heir to the Walmart fortune, recalled thinking. But last Monday, Welch happily co-hosted an event in nearby Wilson where Democrats, including local elected officials, outnumbered Republicans.

Alli Noland, a local public relations executive, spent years as a Democrat but eventually gave up a few years ago because the GOP primaries were so critical in this deeply conservative state.

She now organizes regular meetups at the Stagecoach Bar just outside Jackson for liberals interested in learning how to support Cheney.

And there are people like Mike May, who told his friends Saturday evening how, since the early days of the Bush-Cheney administration, he owned a Volkswagen bus with a blunt bumper sticker: “Cheney is a creep.”

His more traditional truck now has a “Cheney for Wyoming” sticker on it. He said he attended the Monday event just to tell her “thank you” for standing up to Trump.

Democrats make the jump

According to state records, the shift is real.

On Jan. 1, Republicans had more than 196,000 registered voters, while Democrats had about 46,000. By Aug. 1, Republicans gained 11,000 new voters, Democrats lost 6,000 and those voters unaffiliated with either party dropped by 2,000.

Teton County, traditionally the only liberal-leaning spot in Wyoming, now has more registered Republicans than Democrats, and voters can switch parties up until Tuesday’s primary.

The Teton County clerk, Maureen Murphy, reported a stunning tilt in early voting toward Republicans: 3,749 votes had been cast in the GOP primaries by the end of Monday, and just 190 came in the Democratic contests.

Cheney supporters believe those numbers suggest a real surge in crossover voters. Rooks, the Jackson councilman, has spent the past weeks proselytizing to Democrats and independents to join him crossing into the GOP primary, with a good amount of success.

“I have two friends who just can’t do it,” Rooks said, recalling one who got into an early voting polling station and ran out without voting for Cheney.

Republican friends are a much tougher sell, he said. “I might as well be trying to tell them to denounce their faith.”

That scares Noland, who warns that the push to get non-Republicans into the primary has only driven traditional GOP voters away from Cheney. “It’s really fired up all the Republicans,” she said.

If Cheney loses the usual Wyoming Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin, as polls suggest, she would need something along the lines of 40,000 Democrats and independents to cross over — an insanely high figure in a state where just 115,000 voted in the last midterm GOP primary.

Even these crossover voters, like Patrice Kangas, have moved beyond Tuesday’s outcome and want to know what comes next. As she recounted at the Stagecoach, she waited in line quite awhile to meet Cheney after the Monday event ended and finally asked whether she would run for president.

“Go big?” Kangas said.

“Oh,” Cheney responded, “I don’t know yet.”

Hannah Knowles contributed from Washington

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified a town council member as James Brooks. His name is James Rooks. This version has been corrected. This story also has been corrected to clarify the circumstances in which anti-Trump donors would provide funding for a Cheney presidential bid.

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