There’s a surprise for the audience hidden behind the thick red curtain onstage. Nobody in the crowd seems to have noticed this surprise as the room slowly filled up or when everyone stood to pledge allegiance to the American flag hanging at the front of that same stage. But the surprise is sort of a joke, so the timing of its reveal is everything.
Many of the 100 or so Wyomingites here, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s, have driven more than an hour to be at tonight’s event. Plenty of them are wearing Trump hats and shirts — a woman near the back has a sweatshirt that reads “Clean up on aisle 46,” a reference to President Joe Biden — but the audience isn’t here to see former President Donald Trump. They’re here, in a low-slung, wood-paneled room at the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge in Casper on a Friday evening in mid-May, to hear from the only congressional candidate in Wyoming endorsed by Trump: a Cheyenne land-use attorney named Harriet Hageman. More specifically, the crowd is here to meet the woman they hope will replace Liz Cheney as the Republican Party nominee for Congress.
Hageman, wearing a cobalt blue trench coat and black shoes with buckles, was literally kissing babies as audience members came in. They surveyed the Swedish meatballs and Little Smokies — finger-size sausages cooked with sugar and barbecue sauce — and took their seats in the metal folding chairs lined up in front of the stage. Hageman starts her speech by describing her family’s four-generation history ranching in Wyoming. She excoriates the Biden administration, emphasizing the effects of nationwide inflation. Several minutes pass before anyone mentions Cheney by name. But when it happens, it’s the cue to reveal the surprise behind the curtain on stage.
One of the event’s organizers tells the crowd that the group hosting tonight’s rally reached out to the Cheney campaign and invited her to Casper. But they were told that Cheney wouldn’t attend because the organizers are also members of the far-right anti-government militia known as the Oath Keepers. (Cheney’s campaign didn’t confirm this, but it seems plausible.)
That’s when someone retrieves a life-size cardboard cutout of the congresswoman from Wyoming and brings it to the front of the stage. Surprise! The cardboard Liz Cheney is smirking, wearing a blue blazer and pearls and holding a piece of paper and a pen.
At the sight of their least favorite Wyoming pol — in their minds either too afraid to debate Hagerman or too afraid to confront Oath Keepers — reduced to a defenseless, two-dimensional simulacrum, the crowd laughs in unison.
Just a few years ago, a gathering like this in Wyoming would have been unthinkable. No Cheney has lost an election in this state in more than 40 years. Not so long ago Cheney’s father, the former vice president, was the driving force in the Republican Party in America. And carrying on her father’s values, Cheney is perhaps the most conservative member of the House, as pro-gun, pro-life, pro-business and pro-fossil fuels as anyone. She’s got an A rating from the National Rifle Association and has voted on the same side as the Heritage Foundation at nearly every opportunity. Liberal groups like Progressive Punch have given her an F every term she’s served.
Until recently, that’s all that mattered to voters. In 2020, the last time she was on the ballot, Cheney beat her closest opponent by more than 40 percentage points. But in the limited polling done ahead of the state’s August primary, Cheney is trailing Hageman — someone who was once a Cheney supporter and a family friend — by 30 points.
So what did Cheney do to lose so much political favor in her home state? What did she do to lose so many friends and allies? A hot-mic gaffe? A tabloid scandal? No, something much worse. Liz Cheney has made an enemy of Donald Trump.
The race has become the most-watched congressional contest in the country because the entire thing boils down to a single issue: Cheney has dared to suggest that the 2020 presidential election wasn’t stolen. She has repeated the notion that not only is Biden’s presidency legitimate, but that Trump incited an insurrection in an effort to subvert the constitutionally sanctioned peaceful transition of power. Cheney was one of only 10 Republican representatives who voted to impeach Trump.
But she didn’t stop there. She helped lead the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and what role Trump may have played in inciting the rioters that day as part of a coordinated campaign to overturn the election. During the committee’s opening hearing June 9 on primetime television she took center stage, declaring that the assault was the culmination of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election: “He summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”
For standing up to Trump, Cheney has received resounding praise in national media. She was featured on “60 Minutes” and in The New York Times Magazine. She was given the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award along with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But for sinning against Trump, Cheney has also been all but exiled from the party where her family was long-standing royalty. She was voted out of her leadership position in Congress. She was censured and essentially disowned by the GOP in Wyoming. Because she won’t back down — and she certainly won’t apologize for her criticism — Cheney has earned the ire of MAGA-supporters from all over the country.
In Hageman’s campaign ads, she accuses Cheney of not “riding for the brand,” a not-so-subtle callback to the code of the West, when cowboys were expected to do the bidding of the rancher who hired them. Trump himself has repeatedly called Cheney — someone who voted with Trump more consistently than even his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows — a RINO, a Republican in name only.
While Cheney has barely appeared in public in Wyoming for the better part of a year, Hageman has driven back and forth across the state, racking up thousands of miles stumping at events like this one in Casper, where she was introduced to the audience as a “true-blown Wyomingite.”
Looking at the cardboard cutout of Cheney, Hageman tells the room she hopes to send the sitting congresswoman “back to her home state — of Virginia.”
To an outsider, this is all so strange: Liz Cheney locked in a battle for her political future, Republicans convinced she isn’t Republican enough, liberals heaping praise upon her, the eyes of the nation turned to its least populated, most conservative state. The cardboard cutout, the strong aroma of sugared sausages — it’s a surreal and droll affair.
After talking to more than a dozen people who’ve worked with Cheney over the years, it’s clear that her supporters and detractors agree on at least one thing: This primary in Wyoming isn’t just about who will represent the state in Congress. It’s about something considerably more monumental. It’s about the future of the Republican Party.
Early in the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, Liz Cheney was in the Republican cloakroom, just off the House floor, when she got a phone call from her father. The elder Cheney informed his daughter that Trump had just mentioned her during a speech he was giving to supporters at the “Save America” rally outside the White House.
“We got to get rid of the weak Congress, people, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world,” Trump had told the crowd. “We got to get rid of them.”
Then Trump told his supporters: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol. And we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength. And you have to be strong.”
On the phone, Cheney’s father, the former vice president, wanted to know if she was safe. He wanted to know if this would have any impact on her decision to speak on the House floor in favor of counting electoral votes and certifying the election.
A few minutes later, Trump’s supporters famously stormed the Capitol. As members of House were being escorted out of the chamber and away from the mob, Cheney saw Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of Trump’s staunchest allies, in the aisle. Jordan explained that they needed to get the ladies out of the aisle and offered to help Cheney. She slapped his hand away.
“Get away from me,” she told Jordan. “You (expletive) did this.”
That night, members of the House didn’t return to the chamber until sometime around 9 p.m. Furniture used as a barricade against the rioting mob remained stacked against the walls. The chamber-door glass was shattered. There were still gas masks piled around the floor. Before House went back into session, Cheney decided to take a walk.
First she went to Statuary Hall, where the House of Representatives met from 1807 to 1857. There are brass plaques on the floor that mark where the desks of John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln once sat. The room is lined with statues of prominent Americans from history: Samuel Adams, Ethan Allen, Sam Houston, Thomas Edison, Brigham Young.
Most days the room is filled with tourists. That night, though, it was filled with police officers, many of whom were wearing black tactical gear. They were sitting on the floor, leaning against the statues, exhausted from hours of hand-to-hand combat with a violent mob. Cheney would later say that she tried to thank the officers, “but my words that night seemed inadequate.”
Before she left, Cheney stopped at the door under one of the oldest statues in the Capitol. It’s a sculpture of Clio, the Greek muse of history, riding in a winged chariot that represents the passage of time. In Clio’s hands is a book that records the deeds of humanity in the pages of history.
From Statuary Hall, Cheney walked to the Capitol rotunda, where some of the most beloved leaders in our nation’s history have laid in state. It’s surrounded by more statues: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan. There were more police officers there, dressed in riot gear. Federal agents leaned on the walls near historic paintings depicting some of the most important moments in America’s creation: The signing of the Declaration of Independence, the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, George Washington voluntarily resigning his commission as commander of the Continental Army — an early symbol for the peaceful transfer of power in America.
Cheney thought about this American tradition, the way often-opposing presidential administrations work together during transition periods. In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy called the transfer of power in America “a celebration of freedom.” President Ronald Reagan called it “a miracle.” She thought about how her own father’s administration worked with President Barack Obama’s team, even after a bitter election. It occurred to Cheney as she walked the halls of Congress that this tradition, this sacred obligation had been honored by every American president in history — except one.
“This is what America is not,” she told Fox News on the phone that day. “This is absolutely intolerable and unacceptable, and the mob will not prevail.”
When she got back to the House chamber that night, Cheney voted to certify the results of the election. And one week later, on Jan. 13, 2021, she voted to impeach Trump.
“The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack,” she said at the time. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
There’s not an enormous amount in her history that would make you think that Liz Cheney, of all people, would break fiercely with the leaders of her own political party. Her family has been a fundamental part of the Republican Party for nearly her entire life.
When she was 9, her father became President Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff. She’s told stories about how the elder Cheney would bring Liz and her younger sister, Mary, to the White House on Saturday mornings. As the adults were busy governing the country and piecing together the Republican Party in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation, Liz and Mary would sit on the floor of their dad’s office and watch cartoons on the wall of televisions. Sometimes the girls would wander over to then-domestic policy staffer Donald Rumsfeld’s office and search the desks of his assistants, looking for candy.
Liz went to middle school in Wyoming as her father campaigned for the same seat she now holds. She went to high school in suburban Virginia, where she was a cheerleader. She went to college in Colorado, law school in Chicago, worked at a Department of Defense consulting firm and for the State Department, an up-close witness to the inner gears of governance and bureaucracy.
When Dick Cheney became vice president in 2001, his oldest daughter, then 35 years old, became the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, promoting investment in the Middle East. She also worked on his campaigns, speaking at events around the country in an attempt to make Republican voters out of suburban and single women. Along the way, she married a D.C. attorney-lobbyist named Philip Perry and they had five kids. In her Twitter bio, she describes herself as a “proud rodeo mom, soccer mom, baseball mom, hockey mom,” and then as a “constitutional conservative.” She’s said that one of her daughters, a barrel racer, taught her the phrase “cowgirl up.”
During the Obama administration, Cheney became a fixture on cable news shows. She had the same plainspoken, sometimes-sneering delivery as her father, but with soundbites more conducive to the age of social media. It’s always about policy, history and facts, though. She seems constitutionally opposed to discussing her feelings in public. Last year a colleague told The New York Times that even while under fire from her own party, Cheney is “as emotional as algebra.”
In the summer of 2013, she announced that she would run for the U.S. Senate against Wyoming incumbent Mike Enzi — and Cheney was immediately accused of carpetbagging, having purchased a home in the state less than two years earlier. She played up her family’s roots in Wyoming, dating back to the 1850s, but her Facebook post announcing her run was geotagged to McLean, Virginia. Less than six months after announcing her run, Cheney dropped out of the race.
During that campaign, Cheney also voiced a strong opposition to same-sex marriage, despite the fact that her sister Mary is married to a woman, which led to a public family feud. (In contrast, their father voiced his support of same-sex marriage as far back as 2000.) When asked about this public stance on a 2021 segment of “60 Minutes,” Liz Cheney declared emphatically that she’d been wrong. She said she’d discussed the issue with Mary, and that she loved her sister and her sister’s family.
“Wow,” a stunned Leslie Stahl said during the “60 Minutes” interview. “I was not expecting that.”
In 2016, Cheney ran for Congress, and this campaign went much smoother. When she was elected — the same night as Trump — she seemed to prove that smart, policy-minded conservatives could ride the crude populist Trumpian wave into power. During the presidential campaign that year, Cheney called Hillary Clinton a “felon,” and after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape where Trump boasted about grabbing women, Cheney released a statement saying Clinton had done “far worse.” On policy, Cheney and Trump were on the same side of most issues: She voted against Obamacare, against gun control, against protections for the environment.
It’s hard to believe now, but when she was first elected, conservative leaders wondered aloud whether she might one day be the first Republican woman president. By the end of her first term, her party elected her to become the House GOP’s conference chair, the third most powerful Republican in the House.
Cheney didn’t agree with Trump on everything. She’d seen Republican Party leaders disagree with Republican presidents her entire life, so it probably seemed like she was upholding tradition when she criticized Trump’s removal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria and his coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those splits from the president might have actually given her more credibility when she sided with Trump during his first impeachment, for pressuring Zelenskyy to investigate Biden.
Even then, though, Cheney didn’t defend the merits of Trump’s behavior. In fact, she called Republicans “shameful” for questioning the patriotism of Alexander Vindman, the Army officer who testified against Trump. But Cheney was more critical of the Democrats’ rush to vote. On the House floor, she suggested the vote to impeach Trump “may permanently damage our republic.”
She started parting with Trump more publicly during the pandemic, perhaps because her father — someone she’s said she speaks to nearly every day — famously has some preexisting health conditions that would make coronavirus especially risky. When Trump and his supporters vilified Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Cheney tweeted that Fauci was “one of the finest public servants we have ever had.” In September 2020, when Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition if he lost the election, Cheney tweeted: “The peaceful transfer of power is enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic. America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath.”
“There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” — Rep. Liz Cheney
After the 2020 election, when some Republican elected officials started appearing at “Stop the Steal” rallies, Cheney’s office produced and distributed a 21-page memo highlighting the judicial decisions striking down fraud claims by Trump’s allies — many by judges appointed by Trump. She also made the case that the Constitution doesn’t allow the legislative or executive branches to overrule certified elections.
Immediately after the attack on the Capitol, it looked like most prominent Republican leaders agreed with Cheney that Trump’s behavior had crossed a line and that it was time to put the 2020 election behind them. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day, no question about it.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, originally called the riot a “terrorist attack.”
“All I can say is count me out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the floor of the Senate. “Enough is enough.”
Those sentiments didn’t last long. Within weeks, Cruz apologized for his harsh comments about the Capitol attack. McCarthy went to Florida to start rehabilitating Trump. Graham said any Republican leaders need to have a working relationship with Trump. McConnell has said he’d support Trump if Trump is the party’s presidential nominee in 2024.
Not Liz Cheney, though. She was the most vocal of the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment. She didn’t just defy Republican leaders by agreeing to be on the committee investigating what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. Cheney has essentially been the face of the group, taking the lead in all the most prominent hearings.
“The president formed the mob. The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob,” she’s said repeatedly since the insurrection. “He lit the flame.”
The blowback started quickly. Two weeks after the impeachment vote, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of Trump’s most staunch allies, flew to Cheyenne to campaign against Cheney — more than a year and a half before the 2022 primary.
“We are in a battle for the soul of the Republican Party,” Gaetz told a crowd on the steps of the state capitol. “And I intend to win it.”
Donald Trump Jr. called into the rally. “Liz Cheney’s favorables are only slightly worse than her father’s shooting skills,” he said, alluding to the elder Cheney’s famous South Texas hunting accident.
A few weeks after Gaetz’s appearance, the Republican House conference held a four-hour meeting to decide whether to remove Cheney from her leadership position.
A long line of speakers stood up to tell the group why they were voting against Cheney. One colleague told her he didn’t like her “defiant attitude.” Another said she wasn’t a “team player.” Another said that witnessing Cheney side with Democrats, against Trump, was like being at a football game and “You look up into the stands and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side.”
Cheney was asked to apologize for her vote. She said she wouldn’t. She was asked to resign her position. She said she wouldn’t.
It became clear that many of her Republican colleagues believed just as Cheney did, that the election was legitimate and that Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 were appalling. But nobody else, except maybe GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger from Illinois, was willing to raise the ire of Trump or risk their political career battling MAGA nation. The fact that Cheney has been willing to risk those things and willing to speak the plain truth about Trump — it’s emasculated a lot of Republicans.
Cheney won that February conference vote on her leadership. But the tides continued to turn. Trump and his allies repeated the claims of election fraud at every opportunity. So even as dozens of defendants from across the country were arrested — including the founders of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys — polls showed more and more Republicans believed that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that the events of Jan. 6 were overblown.
In May 2021, House Republicans held another vote on Cheney and she was replaced by Elise Stefanik from New York. Stefanik had only voted in favor of Trump policies around 70 percent of the time, compared to Cheney, who sided with Trump on 93 percent of her votes. But Stefanik backed Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.
In November 2021, the Wyoming Republican Party voted to stop recognizing Cheney as a member. In February 2022, the Republican National Committee voted to censure both Cheney and Kinzinger for taking part in the House investigation of the Capitol attack.
Still, Cheney hasn’t backed down. When Trump officially endorsed Hageman, he released a statement replete with his trademark capitalization: “Harriet has my Complete and Total Endorsement in replacing the Democrats number one provider of sound bites, Liz Cheney.”
Cheney tweeted a screenshot of Trump’s announcement along with a message of her own.
“Here’s a sound bite for you,” Cheney wrote. “Bring it.”
Even with polls showing her way behind among Republicans, Cheney might have a glimmer of hope in the August primary: Wyoming has open primaries. Any registered voter can change party affiliation the day of the election. So, if they’re inclined, Democrats and other non-Republicans can declare themselves Republicans for the day and cast a vote for Cheney over Hageman.
The fact that Cheney’s best hope of keeping her seat might be Democrats, less than two decades after her father was essentially Democrat enemy No. 1, is yet another strange twist in this bizarre political saga. But even that seems like a slim chance. Wyoming Democrats don’t have a great track record of showing up in midterm election primaries, and even if every Democrat in Wyoming changed parties and voted for Cheney it still might not be enough. There just aren’t that many Democrats in Wyoming — just under 45,000, compared to the roughly 200,000 registered Republicans in the state.
While Trump supporters in the state feel Cheney was not “riding for the brand,” many liberals and moderates have come to deeply respect her. Which is to say that at both ends of the political spectrum, the election comes down to a single issue: You’re either with Trump and his claims that the 2020 election was rigged, or you think Cheney has displayed unusual courage and integrity while speaking truth to power.
The same weekend as the Hageman rally in Casper, proponents of abortion rights held a march on the other side of town. It was part of the nationwide “Bans Off Our Bodies” rallies. Many women who attended said they disagreed with her on nearly every issue, but that they’d vote for Cheney in the primary anyway. Because for some people, defending the Constitution and the foundational principles of Democracy trump every other issue.
Cheney has said she believes enough people in the state side with her in the split with Trump — and that Trumpism is bad politics in general. After all, under his leadership, the Republican Party lost control of the House, the Senate and eventually the White House. But nearly every person who’s worked with and supported Cheney through the years also went out of their way to note that this isn’t some political calculation by Cheney. Her allies think she’s doing what she believes is best for the country and for Wyoming.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah voted against Trump on both impeachments and has long supported Cheney in her fight with the MAGA crowd.
“There are many people who solicit credit for truth they have spoken,” he told me. “What distinguished Liz Cheney is her courage to speak truth in the knowledge of the consequences. It is uncommon courage like hers that America so dearly needs.”
Wyoming state Rep. Landon Brown, a moderate Republican who also supports Cheney, told me that while there are plenty of Wyomingites who will never vote for Liz Cheney again — like his parents — there are also a lot of people who know what she’s done for the state, especially in the fossil fuel industry that employs so many people here. She hasn’t simply fought in favor of energy companies and against environmental regulation at every turn, she’s gone as far as asking the Department of Justice to investigate environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Nobody has worked harder for this state in that House than Liz Cheney,” Brown says. “We’ve had some good representation, but nobody is as effective and efficient as Liz Cheney.”
Brown has known Cheney for six years. He says the fact that she’s struggling among conservatives, and might actually need the support of liberals to win, never stops being strange.
“The name Cheney here in Wyoming means politics,” Brown told me. “It means smart. So this is a ‘Twilight Zone’ for her every single day. She’s waking up going, ‘I cannot believe this.’”
After a pause, Brown added: “I also think she knew what she was getting into.”
Back at the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge in Casper, it doesn’t take long before the conversation diverts into conspiracy theories. A man in the crowd asks Hageman if she believes Biden is “the legitimate president.” Hageman doesn’t say he is and she doesn’t say he isn’t.
“He’s the guy in the office right now,” she says.
A woman sitting near the back asks Hageman what she thinks of the theory that Trump installed a “Jason Bourne-type spy” high up in the government and that maybe Trump is still secretly president. The woman cites a website she’s read run by someone who uses Patriot as a last name.
Again, Hageman doesn’t take the bait, but she also doesn’t disavow the over-the-top theory. With a nodding smile, Hageman says she’ll look into it.
Despite Cheney’s best efforts, this is the mainstream of the Republican party right now. It’s not serious policy discussions. It’s conspiracy theories and petty rivalries. At some point while she’s answering questions from the crowd, Hageman volunteers that she’ll vote against all government spending until our country builds a wall along the Southern border — nearly 1,000 miles by car from Casper.
See, there’s an argument to be made that this whole thing is the fault of Cheney and her brand of conference-room Republicanism, too. She and so many other party leaders used Trump’s popularity to kick through all manner of conservative laws regarding everything from defense spending to environmental regulation. People like Cheney were complicit, so wary of a public battle with Trump that they didn’t speak out early enough or often enough. So, say some, it’s no wonder their voters believe his claims about the election. For years Trump has claimed he won the popular vote in 2016. He created a government commission to find evidence. Republicans knew he didn’t win the popular vote, knew this was an ego-driven waste of time and money, but they said nothing.
Two weeks after this gathering in Casper, Trump will be in town, his first visit to Wyoming. There will be shirts and banners, all the hallmarks of his speeches. He will again call Cheney a RINO and again recommend Hageman.
Around that same time, Cheney will be at the JFK Library in Boston accepting her Profiles in Courage Award. In her speech, she’ll recount her walk through the Capitol on the night of Jan. 6. She’ll quote leaders praising the traditional peaceful transfer of power and call Trump a danger to democracy.
Of course, even if Cheney loses in August, all of this might be preamble. She’s said she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running for president, if that’s what it takes to rid her party of Trump. So the real battle between Liz Cheney and the powers of MAGA country might actually take place in 2024.
Meanwhile, when Hageman is done talking at the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge, she sticks around for at least another half-hour, shaking hands and making small talk with the people of Casper. When she leaves, some of the stragglers in the crowd make their way over to the bar on the other side of the building. Some go straight home. Within a few hours, everyone here will pour out, go back to their lives. And someone will turn the lights out on the cardboard cutout of Liz Cheney.