CASPER, Wyo. — Liz Cheney strikes the same combative tone that her father did over more than four decades in the national spotlight: She wants lower taxes, less regulation, more ground troops in the Middle East and vows to go “toe to toe” with Hillary Clinton if the Democrat wins the presidency.
Yet Cheney is also an unabashed supporter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose ideological bearings run directly against much of what Richard B. Cheney stood for as a congressman, defense secretary and vice president.
“Right now there is no question that Trump is the better choice,” Liz Cheney, 51, a former State Department official who is running for Wyoming’s lone seat in the House, said Friday evening.
Sitting on a street corner near her parents’ high school, Cheney explained that she had substantive differences with Trump — particularly on foreign policy — but that she is ready to roll the dice with the first-time politician.
“He’s somebody who will probably shake things up, and so I think the presidency matters hugely,” she said in an hour-long interview, almost 300 miles from her home outside Jackson, a resort town over the Teton mountains.
As she attempts to win elective office in the year of Trump, some are asking: Just who is Liz Cheney? The fierce defender of her dad and former State Department aide in George W. Bush’s administration moved home to Wyoming to run for office but abruptly dropped out of a 2014 Senate bid to unseat Mike Enzi (R). Now that she’s running for the House, will she fight for Trump’s “America First” economic theories or champion the more traditional Republican foreign policy espoused by her father as Bush’s controversial vice president?
The answer remains to be seen. For now she’s trying to fuse parts of her father’s national security mantle with some of Trump’s economic views on trade and immigration, possibly creating a “Liz Cheney Republican” brand.
“Let me tell you what a Liz Cheney Republican is,” she said, rejecting the idea that she is either a “Dick Cheney Republican” or a “Trump Republican.” “You know, a Liz Cheney Republican is somebody who is a strong constitutional conservative, believes in limited government.”
The House seat for which Cheney is bidding in Tuesday’s crowded primary will not determine whether Republicans retain the majority, having been red since the elder Cheney first claimed it 38 years ago. But the race is about more than one of 435 House seats. The Cowboy State could send a national firebrand to Congress who would, if Trump continues his spiral and loses the White House, become a next-generation leader in her family’s image.
Liz Cheney could become a breakout star for conservatives hungering for a female lawmaker who is ready-made for the combat of 21st-century political news, having spent years as a commentator on Fox News Channel.
That the Cheneys have backed Trump surprises some longtime friends in Wyoming and creates tension among some donors.
Some of Liz Cheney’s donors have declined to support the businessman, most prominently former presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. Her father quietly backs the GOP nominee, but he has kept an unusually low profile in his daughter’s House race — rarely attending campaign events and saying little about Trump. Liz Cheney’s campaign declined to make the former vice president available for an interview for this article.
Some longtime Cheney friends here view the support for Trump as an attempt to avoid alienating his backers, and wonder whether the former vice president would oppose Trump if his daughter weren’t running. “I can’t imagine he’s happy,” said former governor Mike Sullivan (D), a family friend.
But some Bush-Cheney White House veterans long for someone to take up their cause against the Trump intrusion.
On Monday, Trump delivered a speech that rebuked President Obama but was also a tacit rejection of the Bush-Cheney years, built on “realism” and rejecting “nation building.”
If he loses, the GOP’s traditional foreign policy wing will look to reassert itself. And in Liz Cheney, it might have a prominent ally on Capitol Hill.
“The United States, since the end of World War II, has played a role unlike any other nation in the history of the world in terms of the defense of freedom, in terms of the security and peace of the world, and our own security depends upon it,” Cheney said. “And that’s what I believe in.”
Many Bush-Cheney alumni have helped build a fundraising operation for Liz — led by Richard and Lynne Cheney — rarely seen in the Cowboy State.
But to win in November, Cheney must first explain to voters here why, after spending most of her adult life in Northern Virginia, she has returned to her childhood home to throw herself into local politics. She has to fend off opponents who accuse her of carpetbagging for the sake of dynastic restoration to carry on her father’s neo-conservative principles.
After her aborted 2014 Senate bid, which has left some lingering bad blood, her political career seemed uncertain.
But Cheney is the clear front-runner to succeed retiring Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R).
The only public poll for the contest, conducted for the Casper Star-Tribune in late July, showed Cheney more than doubling her closest opponent, but with 52 percent of voters undecided.
A mid-July survey — conducted by Harper Polling on behalf of the Congressional Leadership Fund and provided to The Washington Post — gave Cheney a more commanding lead, with 41 percent and her nearest competitor, state Sen. Leland Christensen, with 11 percent of the GOP vote, and more than a third of voters undecided.
Longtime Wyoming Republicans think that large bloc of undecided voters is a sign of Cheney’s weakness. Her opponents question why she has received so much outside money — about 75 percent of the more than $1.5 million she has raised comes from other states and is helping her flood the airwaves after living here for just a couple of years.
“It’s okay to ask where your loyalties are,” state Rep. Tim Stubson (R) told about 50 supporters at an Italian restaurant recently two blocks from where Cheney spent the evening working a phone bank with supporters. Stubson said Cheney cannot understand the state’s unique reliance on somewhat obscure federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management’s oversight of 17.5 million acres here, affecting an energy sector that has been rocked by lower prices and federal regulations.
“You have to be here to know it,” he said.
“We’ve got her pretty nervous,” Christensen said, summing up his judgment of why Cheney still attacks his centrist, results-oriented legislative record.
In a sign of this upside-down era in GOP politics, the actual outsider, Cheney, is running as the insider. She touts her decades in Washington as a way to give national prominence to the state’s parochial interests.
“If Hillary is in the Oval Office, then we have to have a representative who can stand up credibly and legitimately go toe to toe against her, and fight to protect us from what we know she’s going to try to do,” Cheney said.
Along with her mother, Liz Cheney formed team “iron ass,” said Jon Meacham. In Meacham’s book about George H.W. Bush, the former president criticized Cheney’s wife and daughter for pushing Richard Cheney to be more conservative as vice president than he was as defense secretary. The Cheney women have adopted the moniker with pride.
On military matters, Liz Cheney falls squarely in line with her father’s hawk tradition. “You have to start by recognizing that we are in a generational civilizational war,” she said, blaming President Obama for not getting U.S. generals to implement a plan to destroy Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.
“We have to increase what we’re doing today, and we need more boots on the ground than we have today,” Cheney said.
But she rejects several positions of the Bush-Cheney administration, particularly on immigration and trade. She called those immigration proposals, which included legal status for undocumented immigrants, “too lenient.” She opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade deal whose negotiations began in the Bush-Cheney years, and she mocked past trade deals — many negotiated during that administration — as flawed because of “bad negotiators.”
Aside from promoting gun rights, she shies away from social issues — as do most of her opponents in this libertarian-leaning state — avoiding any discussion of same-sex marriage, a bitter dividing line in the Cheney family during her short Senate campaign.
Mary Cheney — Liz Cheney’s younger sister, who is a lesbian and married her partner in 2012 — went public when Liz Cheney campaigned against same-sex marriage, saying of her sister’s position: “You’re just wrong.” Their parents tried to referee the fight, but tension remained long after Liz Cheney abandoned her campaign.
“I love my sister and I’m not going to say any more about it because of my, just my respect for her. My views on it are clear,” Liz Cheney said.
She called representing Wyoming in Congress “a sacred duty” when pressed about her national ambition, trying to keep the focus on local issues. But she made clear that, should she win, she intends to be a force in the national conversation.
“We only have one representative,” she said, “and that person is gonna be somebody who can fight and who can lead on a national basis.”