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Liz Cheney’s historic margin of defeat

Depending on how you slice it, it might be the biggest of the 21st century. And its nearest competitors have something in common.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is now looking far beyond her Republican primary loss and possibly toward the White House. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Rep. Liz Cheney’s loss in Tuesday’s Wyoming primary was a staggering setback for what exists of the anti-Trump movement in the Republican Party. She was defeated by more than 2-1 by Trump-backed Harriet Hageman, short-circuiting a once-promising political career and serving notice that, however much or little direct control the former president exercises over the party, running afoul of him remains perilous.

The result perhaps wasn’t too surprising in a state that gave Donald Trump 70 percent of the vote in the 2020 election — his best state in the country — but the size of Cheney’s loss shouldn’t be undersold.

In fact, depending upon how you slice the numbers, it might be the biggest incumbent primary loss of the 21st century.

The current results show Hageman taking 66.3 percent of the vote to Cheney’s 28.9 percent — a margin of more than 37 points — with 99 percent of expected votes counted.

Rep. Liz Cheney vowed to continue her fight against former president Donald Trump after losing Wyoming’s Republican primary on Aug. 16. (Video: AP)

Incumbents rarely lose primaries, but it has happened with increasing frequency in recent years. Yet only a few have rivaled Cheney’s margin of defeat.

Leading that list is someone once dubbed the “accidental congressman,” Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.). A long shot primary challenger, he won the seat in 2012 after the Republican incumbent failed to qualify for the primary ballot and then resigned. Two years later, Bentivolio — a novice politician with no real chance of winning in ordinary circumstances — lost his primary by 33 points.

Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.) lost a primary in 2004 by a 35-point margin, but that came after his district was massively overhauled, sharply diluting the number of White voters and opening the door to a Black primary challenger.

Like these examples, most of the largest margins, historically, have come amid unusual circumstances: dramatic redistricting, party switches, scandals or unusual primary processes. Many incumbents have lost primaries by double digits, and several have lost by 20 points or more, but mostly when these factors were present.

About the only intraparty rebuke this century that has been comparable to Cheney’s — both for its absence of those factors and the size of the defeat — came in South Carolina in 2010, when Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) found himself overcome by the tea party wave. But it required a two-candidate runoff before it got anywhere near as bad as Cheney’s loss.

Inglis was somewhat competitive in the primary with challenger Trey Gowdy, trailing by 12 points in a crowded field. But the runoff wound up being a rout, with Inglis losing by more than 41 points — 70.7 percent to 29.3 percent. Inglis alienated Republicans by bucking his party on climate change and the Iraq War. That margin appears to be the only one larger than Cheney’s on Tuesday, and it required a runoff.

Beyond the races mentioned above, the next-biggest primary defeat might sound familiar: The 27.5-point loss of Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) earlier this year. Rice, like Cheney, voted to impeach Trump.

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