Bracing for loss, Liz Cheney says primary is ‘beginning of the battle’

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., votes at the Teton County Library during the Republican primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

JACKSON, Wyo. – Rep. Liz Cheney – the once-high-ranking Republican who defied her party to wage a lonely crusade against former president Donald Trump – braced for a potentially resounding defeat Tuesday in her primary while framing it as “the beginning of the battle” for the future of American democracy.

Harriet Hageman, a lawyer with Trump’s endorsement, headed into the day as the overwhelming favorite, according to observers, widely expected to win the GOP nomination for deep-red Wyoming’s only House seat despite Cheney’s appeals to Democrats and independents to re-register as Republicans and vote for her. The race marked the last primary challenge to a small group of House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year and are mostly set to leave Congress after withering backlash.

The 45th president also loomed large Tuesday in two high-profile races in Alaska: Moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R, faced a Trump-backed challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, while former governor Sarah Palin – an anti-establishment Republican backed by Trump – vied for Alaska’s lone seat in the House.

But Cheney’s singular focus on denouncing the former president has made her an especially high-profile target. House Republicans ousted Cheney from their No. 3 leadership position last year after she refused to stop criticizing Trump, and she took a prominent role on the congressional committee investigating a pro-Trump mob’s storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the conduct of Trump and his aides on that day and leading up to it.

Campaigning in a state that Trump won by more than 40 points, Cheney used her last ads to take aim at the 45th president’s “poisonous” false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, stoking speculation that she might run for president just to continue condemning Trump on a national stage.

Waiting in line to vote Tuesday – with her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, at her side – the congresswoman told reporters she hoped to build her campaign into a national movement across party lines to defeat Trump’s influence. “Today, no matter what the outcome is, is certainly the beginning of the battle that is going to continue,” she said outside a library in Teton County, a liberal-leaning outlier.

“We are facing a moment where our democracy really is under attack and under threat, and those of us across the board – Republicans, Democrats and independents, who believe deeply in freedom and who care about the Constitution and the future of the country – I think have an obligation to put that above party,” she added.

If Hageman wins, Cheney would be the fourth House Republican to lose a primary after voting to impeach Trump last year, on charges that he incited a riot. The others are Reps. Tom Rice of South Carolina, Peter Meijer of Michigan and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, Wash., advanced to the general election this month as a slew of challengers split the GOP vote in an all-party primary, while Rep. David Valadao prevailed in another all-party primary in a blue-leaning California district where Trump declined to endorse an opponent. Four others who voted to impeach have declined to seek reelection.

Cheney has said that whatever the outcome Tuesday, she will keep working to block Trump from the White House. While others in the GOP have sought distance from Trump and competed for influence, few have been willing to oppose him so publicly as Cheney.

“There will come a point when Donald Trump is gone but your dishonor will remain,” she told GOP colleagues this summer as she helped open congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Hageman used to support Cheney and in 2016 opposed Trump, calling him “racist and xenophobic.” But she has come to embrace Trump and baselessly claims that the 2020 election was “rigged” against him, like many successful Republican candidates around the country. A Washington Post analysis found that in battleground states, candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 vote have won GOP nominations this year for nearly two-thirds of state and federal offices with power over elections.

Hageman has campaigned on her legal career fighting the federal government and its conservation efforts in Wyoming, while also attacking Cheney as unrepresentative of conservatives – someone who has “cast her lot with the Washington, D.C., elites.”

“Liz Cheney? She’s made her time in Congress and this election all about her,” Hageman says in one ad. Limited pre-primary polling in the race showed Cheney trailing Hageman by a wide margin.

Cheney has built a staunchly conservative voting record over nearly six years in Congress; when Trump was in office, she voted with him more than 90 percent of the time. Her family is Republican royalty in Wyoming.

That history has made her a strange ally to Democrats who admire her anti-Trump mission and her work on the Jan. 6 committee. Thousands of Democratic and independent voters have poured into the GOP primary, along with moderate Republicans who might have previously shied away from Cheney.

“I just want to shake your hand,” Kathy Tompkins told Cheney on Tuesday in Teton County, the only county in Wyoming to support President Biden in 2020 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Of the nearly 4,000 votes cast early in Teton County, just 190 came in the Democratic primary.

Then she thanked Dick Cheney. “You raised a good daughter,” said Tompkins, who considers herself a liberal but also a “strategic” Republican, voting whenever there is a moderate option.

Loring Woodman, a longtime Democrat and the retired host of a guest ranch, was reluctant to back Cheney even after her vote to impeach Trump. But then the Jan. 6 committee hearings began, and he decided he would do whatever he could to support her.

Alli Noland, who runs a public relations firm, said she fears all the focus on crossover voters has driven away conservatives. “It really fired up all the Republicans,” she said.

Cheney’s campaign openly sought support from Democrats this summer, mailing instructions on how to switch parties for the primary. But even allies doubted that could change her luck in a state where earlier this year Republicans held a more than 4-to-1 edge in voter registration. In 2018, about 115,000 votes were cast in the GOP primary, while 17,000 voted in the Democratic contest.

In Alaska’s Senate primary, Murkowski faced far better odds than Cheney heading into Tuesday, even though the centrist Republican has also broken with Trump and her party at times, including through her vote to convict Trump last year after the House impeached him. Political analysts expected Murkowski to benefit from Alaska’s new voting system, which uses all-party primaries and a ranked-choice process that boosts candidates with broad appeal.

Coming into Tuesday’s vote, Murkowski was favored to advance to November along with Tshibaka and Democrat Pat Chesbro, a retired school official. And she has survived challenges from her right before: In 2010, Murkowski lost the GOP primary but pulled off a remarkable comeback as a write-in candidate.

Tuesday’s vote could serve as another test of Trump’s ability’s to boost challengers to those he calls “RINOs,” or Republicans in name only. Despite Trump’s tremendous sway in the GOP, some of his primary picks this year have struggled against incumbents with established reputations in their states.

Murkowski drew particular criticism from the right after voting against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, with Trump predicting at the time that she would “never recover.” She has also joined with Democrats on key legislation, including last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which most Republicans worked to block.

Alaskans also voted Tuesday in a special election to replace Don Young, the Republican who held the state’s House seat for almost half a century and died suddenly in March. Palin got the most votes earlier this summer in a crowded primary that winnowed the field to four candidates, one of whom dropped out.

Alaska leans Republican. But political operatives said the Democratic candidate, former state legislator Mary Peltola, has a real shot in the House race given that Palin and the other GOP candidate, businessman Nick Begich III, were expected to split the conservative vote. Voters were asked to rank as many candidates as they wanted; if no one wins a majority of the initial votes, the lowest-performing candidate will be eliminated, and their votes will be redistributed. That process could hurt a polarizing figure like Palin.

Palin hit the national stage in 2008 as running mate of then-GOP presidential nominee John McCain, exciting the conservative base but also drawing ridicule from others. Palin resigned as Alaska governor after she and McCain lost but remained a celebrity on the right, appearing on Fox News and reality TV.

Some voters criticized Palin on Tuesday as overly focused on national issues and fame. “I hope that she gets run out of this state for good,” said Malcom Ray, an engineer. But others expressed support, citing Trump’s endorsement and Palin’s position on abortion.

The special election to serve out the rest of Young’s term unfolded the same day as a primary for the following term. Palin, Begich and Peltola are among nearly two dozen candidates in that parallel race.

The results of the special election will probably take weeks to emerge, as state election officials say they will not start counting voters’ second choices until an absentee ballot deadline. Ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day, but those mailed from outside the United States can arrive more than two weeks later and still be counted.