Ten days ago, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) was already almost certainly going to lose her reelection bid. There wasn’t a lot of polling in the race, but what there was showed Cheney down by more than 20 points — the sort of margin that disinclines pollsters from spending their money conducting more polls. Cheney’s once-defiant rhetoric about the contest had become tinged with resignation.
The contest was not between Cheney and Harriet Hageman, declared the winner on Tuesday night of the Republican nomination for the state’s sole House seat. It was, instead, between Liz Cheney and Donald Trump, and Trump had the upper hand. Cheney’s earnest effort to draw a line between her Republican Party and Trump’s, a line running directly through the Capitol riot, showed that her Republican Party simply didn’t have very many members. Maybe in the suburbs of Virginia, but certainly not in Wyoming.
Then the one thing happened that could have made Cheney’s position worse: The search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club gave the GOP a new reason to rally to Trump’s defense.
Again, Cheney was going to lose anyway. Republican primary voters preferred Hageman/Trump and even if every Democrat and nonpartisan voter had registered with the GOP to aid Cheney (as some did), the number of existing Republicans still outnumbered them. To the extent that Cheney had any hope, though, it depended on something like Trump-loyal Republicans being indifferent and her base being energized.
I can’t say with certainty that this didn’t happen, in much the same sense that I can’t say with certainty that a lamppost won’t suddenly start shouting basketball scores. What I can say is that there was little reason to think this was likely before even consistently Trump-skeptical portions of the Republican Party suddenly picked him over the integrity of federal law enforcement. Cheney’s uphill fight had moved from Devils Tower to Mt. Everest.
Lots of things can be identified as the starting point for the road that led to Cheney’s defeat on Tuesday night. I’d offer this one, a news conference from late February 2021 on the eve of Trump’s appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was asked if Trump should speak and quickly supported the idea. The period of less than a week during which McCarthy had expressed concern about Trump’s actions surrounding the Capitol riot was no longer even visible in his rearview mirror. It was ancient history — a lost, forgotten civilization.
Then the reporter asked Cheney.
As McCarthy awkward fiddled with paper at the microphone, Cheney was blunt: Trump should not play a role in the future of the party.
“On that high note,” McCarthy concluded, “thank you very much.” With unintentional symbolism, he departed in one direction. Cheney left in another.
Over the next 18 months, McCarthy — the embodiment of the establishment’s friendliness to Trump — and Cheney dug into their positions. Cheney backed the creation of a select committee to probe the riot and was named its vice chair. Not through McCarthy’s doing, mind you. He opposed the committee and refused to appoint any Republicans to participate. In addition to exploring how Trump attempted to retain power after his 2020 loss, Cheney made obvious that one of her desired outcomes was to put obstacles between Trump and any return to the White House. (She said so explicitly in her concession speech.) Most Republicans — even ones who hoped they themselves might defeat Trump in the 2024 primary — either supported Trump over the committee or kept their thoughts to themselves.
Despite the strength of his political position, the former president decided to salt the earth. He raged against Cheney and the committee at every possible opportunity. He endorsed Hageman nearly a year ago and has disparaged Cheney any number of times since. It wasn’t just that he wanted to beat Cheney for voting to impeach him on Jan. 13, 2021. He wanted to destroy her career, to have the moment he’ll have on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning in which he loudly proclaims his victory. (Update: It came Tuesday night.) He wanted a proverbial head on a pike to plant outside the gates of Mar-a-Lago as a warning to anyone else.
Again: He was going to get that victory no matter what. But then the search happened.
Former vice president Mike Pence fell in line with Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) fell in line. Even blue-state Gov. Larry Hogan (R) of Maryland offered a Trump-sympathetic take. Conservative commentators who had been critical of Trump to some extent suddenly found themselves opining about the dangerous precedent of a “raid” on a former president. There had been some small pocket of air for Republicans who didn’t want to actively side with Trump — and then it appeared to be used up.
Two weeks ago, the story of the night might have been about how Cheney’s loss reveals the strength of Trump’s grip on the party. That, despite rumblings, it was his to do with as he pleased. But we don’t need to reinforce that lesson now. Cheney’s loss isn’t a rupture — it’s an aftershock.
In some other dimension, the revelation that Trump was hoarding documents at Mar-a-Lago would have inspired new caution within his party about his leadership. But if that was the dimension in which Cheney was running for reelection, it would have been Kevin McCarthy, not her, who rebuked Trump at the microphone in February 2021.