Why does one become a political reporter? To get sent nice places around America. And with all due respect to Iowa state fairs, I’ve got to tip my cap to the many reporters who successfully tricked their editors into sending them to Jackson, Wyoming—a scenic, posh, blue dot in the reddest state in the country—to cover a House Republican primary that wasn’t competitive.
Harriet Hageman, whom Trump and House Republican leaders supported, cruised to victory over Rep. Liz Cheney in Tuesday’s contest. The defeat makes Cheney the fourth House Republican of the 10 who voted for Trump’s impeachment to fall to a Trump-backed challenger during this summer’s revenge tour. (Four others retired, while just two advanced to a general election.)
And Cheney’s loss was the most assured of them all.
She was never especially trusted in Wyoming in the first place. Back in 2013, she launched a misguided effort to primary sitting Sen. Mike Enzi approximately five minutes after moving to the state from Northern Virginia. She dropped out of that race before facing a certain stomping on Election Day, and then set about the next couple of years repairing the damage enough to win the state’s open House seat in 2016. Still, there’s been a simmering feud in Wyoming Republican politics between the old establishment, as manifested by her father, and the fringe element that sought to overtake them. The Trumpification of the Republican Party over the past few years was a boon to that new guard, which just needed an excuse to overthrow Cheney and stick it to the old guard.
Cheney gave them that excuse the moment when she voted to impeach Trump—and then some. She took on a highly public role as vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee to investigate his attempted overthrow of the election, and then she made blocking Trump from ever returning to power again her career goal. She not only committed the heresy, but leaned into it further.
Was victory completely impossible for Cheney? A couple of things needed to go her way if she was going to have a chance. She needed a splintered Republican primary opposition. That would have allowed her to build a coalition of Democrats and independents willing to switch their registrations to Republican, and the few Republicans who still weren’t actively hostile to her. But although there were other candidates in the race—Lordy, were there ever—the party was well organized in rallying its endorsements and fundraising behind Hageman.
The remaining Dems and independents were never going to be enough, even though there were indications of substantial registration-switching from Democrats hoping to bail out Cheney. The number of registered Democrats dropped from about 46,000 to 36,000 from the beginning of the year to primary day, while Republican registrations swelled from about 196,000 to 215,000.
But you can see the larger problem with those numbers. Outside of the handful of upscale liberals in the Jackson area, there just aren’t many Democrats in Wyoming. At the beginning of the year, 70 percent of Wyoming’s voters were registered Republicans, and Republicans hate Liz Cheney. Even if she converted nearly every Democrat in the state, the math would still be tight. And the very public fact that Cheney’s strategy was to traffic Democrats and independents into the Republican primary to save her only hardened Republicans’ antipathy towards her.
Last fall, after Trump endorsed Hageman, Cheney’s response was, “Bring it.” Maybe the confidence in her chances was a show; maybe she really felt she could de-Trumpify enough Republicans by election time.
But her behavior near the end of the campaign indicated she knew the cake was baked. She began entertaining more and more questions about her post-Congress future. She wasn’t holding a lot of campaign events or blanketing the state in TV ads, despite having more than enough campaign cash to buy up Wyoming airwaves several times over. What she did spend money on was an ad featuring her father calling Trump a “coward”—and it was a national ad buy to run on Fox News.
In her concession speech, Cheney suggested she knew the cake was baked all along. “Two years ago I won this primary with 73 percent of the vote,” she said. “I could’ve done the same again. The path was clear. But it would’ve required that I went along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election. That was a path I could not and would not take.”
Say what you will about the Cheneys, but when they commit to a cause, good or bad, they commit. They might be the only two remaining Americans, for example, who still believe the Iraq War was a smashing success. What Liz Cheney has now committed to, as she told reporters the day she lost her No. 3 position in the House Republican leadership last year, is that she “will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.” Her devotion to this cause, you can be certain, will not wane, even at the expense of her job.
That determination makes questions about her next steps interesting. If, on net, she calculates that her entry into the 2024 Republican primary would hurt Trump’s chances of renomination, she will do it. But if she assesses that it is more likely to just split opposition to Trump, she will probably do something else. She could start a well-funded super PAC. She could work behind the scenes to consolidate opposition to Trump. She could organize a campaign to slash a bunch of Trump voters’ tires on 2024 primary days. Whatever it is—if there is anything!—she will figure it out.
None of these questions about the future, though, necessitated a national media field trip to a Western resort town for a spa week. (Again, though, to those who pulled this off: nice.) The potential upset narrative, though, was irresistible: The politician who risked her career for principles’ sake comes from behind against all odds, defying Trump, and scoring a victory for the Truth. But that fantasy was never in the cards, and Tuesday’s outcome was sealed long before any early morning hikes in the Tetons were snuck in. Cheney chose martyrdom in her House race, and martyrdom she got.