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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What Wyoming really thinks of Liz Cheney

Rep. Liz Cheney on Capitol Hill in Washington in July. Since entering the House in 2017, Cheney has never had a close primary or general election.  (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post)
By David Montgomery Washington Post

In Wyoming, even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid want to give Liz Cheney the boot. On a recent evening, they’re out committing mayhem in downtown Cody as part of a tourist attraction, the “Wild Bunch Gunfight” show. The gunfighters play cards, drink whiskey, rob a bank and take on the law. The script of their show is tuned to the political pitch of the Cowboy State, where 70% of voters chose to re-elect Donald Trump, making it the Trumpiest state in the nation.

At one point, when Sundance’s spirit flags, Butch scolds him: “I swear you give up your guns faster than somebody from California! … Haven’t you heard of BLM?” Sundance replies: “Butch’s Life Matters!”

Afterward, still in his Butch Cassidy costume, Bob Ferguson is relaxing on the porch of the Irma Hotel, a frontier landmark founded by Buffalo Bill Cody. I ask him about Cheney, 55, elder daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney and Wyoming’s lone representative to Congress. She’s been locked in a high-stakes political gunfight with Trump ever since she voted to impeach him for his role in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. “It’s kind of like a line in the sand was drawn,” says Ferguson, who voted for Cheney in 2020 but now sounds viscerally offended by her. “She hasn’t just turned on Donald Trump – she has turned on Donald Trump’s supporters. … She has insulted constituents in a very conservative state, called us insurrectionists. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Paul Lanchbury (Sundance) saunters over, spurs jangling. “She’s a puppet,” he practically spits. “Hell, she wants to be president.”

Cheney has insisted that her sole focus is serving the people of Wyoming and protecting the democracy from Trumpism, not angling to ascend to the White House as potentially the moral leader of a post-Trump GOP. But there’s no question that her showdown with Trump has assumed dimensions far beyond a sleepy midterm reelection campaign in the country’s least-populated state.

Since entering the House in 2017, Cheney has never had a close primary or general election. She was embraced by the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C., and quickly rose to the No. 3 position of leadership in the GOP caucus, giving Wyoming outsize clout for such a small population. She was re-elected in November with nearly 69% of the vote.

Her problems began when she cast doubt on Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen. Cheney circulated a 21-page white paper highlighting the judicial decisions striking down fraud claims by Trump’s allies, and describing why the Constitution doesn’t allow Congress or the vice president to overrule certified state electoral votes.

On Jan. 6, Trump called out Cheney by name during his speech on the Ellipse. She was on the House floor when rioters broke into the Capitol. When leading Trump advocate Rep. Jim Jordan from Ohio offered to help her from the aisle, she later recalled smacking his hand away and telling him, “Get away from me,” according to the book “I Alone Can Fix It” by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker.

Cheney went on to vote for Trump’s second impeachment in January (she had voted against the first impeachment, in 2019). She was ejected from the House leadership in May, but has since doubled and tripled down on her anti-Trump stance, taking a key role on the Democratic-led committee to investigate Jan. 6 and firing volley after gleeful volley at the former president. She tweeted in August that Trump “continues to use the same type of language he knows provoked violence in the past.” Five days later, she told the Commonwealth Club public affairs forum in San Francisco that Trump “continues to be an ongoing, clear and present danger to this democracy.”

Meanwhile, in the months after the impeachment, a hodgepodge of seven state legislators, activists and novices came gunning for Cheney with primary bids. Such an early start to a congressional campaign, nearly two years before the general election, is unheard of in Wyoming.

Trump invited contenders to his New Jersey golf club to decide whom he would endorse to take down his No. 1 target in the midterms. In September he picked Harriet Hageman, who wasn’t even in the race yet, a land-use lawyer who placed third in the 2018 GOP primary for governor. Trump’s endorsement of Hageman caused three of the others to drop out. At last count there are six in the race, including Cheney. “Unlike RINO Liz Cheney, Harriet is all in for America First,” Trump said in his endorsement. “Harriet has my Complete and Total Endorsement in replacing the Democrats number one provider of sound bites, Liz Cheney.” Responded Cheney on Twitter: “Here’s a sound bite for you: Bring it.”

Cheney’s conservatism is not in doubt; she is pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-fossil fuels, pro-tax cuts, pro-defense spending, and voted with Trump 93% of the time. “If you look at it from a political philosophy standpoint, Liz Cheney is absolutely a conservative, right across the board,” says Matt Micheli, a former chairman of the Wyoming GOP who calls Cheney “a phenomenal representative for our state.” As he puts it, the question at stake in next year’s primary will be: “What is the future of the conservative movement in America? Is it one that’s styled after the Ronald Reagan brand of conservatism, or the more populist, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene brand of conservatism?”

I recently spent 10 days traveling 2,100 miles up and down the state, talking with more than 60 residents to see how Wyoming is processing this choice. Nearly everywhere I went, rage against Cheney erupted as regularly as a Yellowstone geyser. Support for her was harder to find, though equally passionate. But whatever side they are on, Wyoming voters draw their heat for this race from the same source: their knowledge that this is no ordinary political grudge match, but rather a test of the party’s future.

Early September was a strange time to be in Wyoming. California forest fires that scientists increasingly blame on climate change were belching a haze over a state where the economy has long relied on oil, gas, coal and cows. You couldn’t smell the smoke, but daily news bulletins updated air quality levels. The iconic Teton and Big Horn mountain ranges looked like ghosts of themselves. You’d wake up with a little tightness in the chest and wonder if it was the onset of COVID-19 or just the smoke. Hardly anyone wore a mask, as far as I could tell, except in Teton County (which includes Jackson Hole) where – cue eye roll from the rest of the state – the ruling local Democrats insist. And yet even with the smoke and the virus, the land was beautiful – endless prairies, terrifying heights, infinite solitude.

The first person I interviewed, in Cheyenne at the southern edge of the state, was a retired elementary school teacher walking her dog near the state Capitol. She said she admired Cheney for standing up to Trump. She added, “I don’t know anyone else in Wyoming who supports her except me.” Passing the storefront office of the state GOP, I couldn’t help noticing a poster celebrating “Premier Wyoming Republican Women.” Of the seven women listed, two were dead and none was Liz Cheney.

To understand the origins of the grassroots anti-Cheney movement, I knew I had to head west into Carbon County. Despite its name, the county is home to some of Wyoming’s most impressive wind farms. Herds of beef cattle grazed placidly beneath swooping turbines tilting at a carbonless future. I pulled into the town of Saratoga (population 1,615), where I found the Whistle Pig Saloon. Joey Correnti IV, chairman of the Carbon County GOP, was waiting for me. He wore a cap with a red, white and blue buffalo on the front, a white shirt, black vest, jeans, cowboy boots and a pistol on his hip. I mention the gun only because it was the first of many that I saw in this open-carry state, and soon I stopped noticing them. “I don’t see any reason not to have a firearm with me at all times,” Correnti told me in a rust-bucket baritone that I recognized from his appearances on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.

If anyone gets credit for helping spark the prairie fire of resistance to Cheney, it’s Correnti. The day of the impeachment vote, Correnti found himself fielding spontaneous impassioned rants from members of the party in Carbon County. That night he put together a Zoom meeting with maybe 50 people. They vented and began to brainstorm. Three consecutive nights of Zooms culminated in a virtual town hall with about 150 people from around the state. “Being rural Wyoming, if you have 150 people in a captive audience, you’re actually talking to about 15,000 people,” Correnti says. “It’s literally some people’s jobs in communities to be the person to know about this and bring it back to the coffee shop or whatever.” The next day, Jan. 16, the county party passed the first censure of Cheney. In coming weeks, all but a few of the state’s 23 county GOP chapters followed, modeling their resolutions on Carbon County’s, and so did the state GOP.

“It’s not because we’re Trump fanatics,” Correnti insists. “My problem with my representative is she’s continuing to focus my voice as my representative on somebody who’s not president and may never be president again, and not focusing on fixing election concerns and the problems facing Wyoming.” Correnti lit one cigarette after another and drank diet soda as he continued. “If (Trump) chooses to never come back to running for office or politics again, he has still left us with … a reawakening of the grass-roots voice. It’s our responsibility to pick up that ball and run with it.”

I left Saratoga and headed north toward Buffalo. On the way, rocketing past Casper at the state speed limit of 80 mph, I spotted a Joe Biden banner outside a house beside the interstate. It would be the only Biden sign I saw in all of Wyoming. I made a mental note to go back and visit.

Buffalo is nestled below the Bighorn Mountains on the old Bozeman Trail gold rush route, where I met David Iverson at the Bozeman Trail Steakhouse. As creator and host of the “Cowboy State Politics” podcast, Iverson offers grassroots conservative perspectives on a wide variety of topics, including local tax referendums and Washington follies. I knew how significant he considers this contest because earlier, on the phone, he had said: “If Liz Cheney wins this race, that’s going to send a signal to the left that they’ve pretty much flipped Wyoming, because Liz Cheney is by far the most liberal representative that we could possibly have right now. … If you can do it in Wyoming, you can do it across the country, no matter what the electoral makeup of that state happens to be.

Cheney’s conservative credentials are not spotless, in Iverson’s view, citing her support for foreign interventions by American forces. Yet few had wanted to kick her out for that. Why, I asked him, in light of Cheney’s solid conservative record, has her vote on impeachment made all the difference? It’s complicated, but in the first place, Iverson said, by voting to impeach Trump, she was not “defending the Constitution.” Her action was constitutionally suspect because she voted before there was any time for hearings or investigations, he said, denying Trump “due process.”

Correnti had said the same thing. As I would discover, masses of people across Wyoming fervently insist that Cheney’s vote was somehow unconstitutional or illegal. Those people are misinformed: The Constitution says the House can basically run an impeachment any way it wants; there are no rules to break. Meanwhile, the Fifth and 14th Amendments define where due process pertains: No one shall be deprived of “life, liberty or property” without due process of law. Cheney’s vote, and the impeachment itself, deprived Trump of none of those things. Can a Cheney critic make a political argument that the Democratic-led impeachment was unfair or unnecessary? Sure. I began to think of “unconstitutional” as Wyoming-speak for “unfair.”

Two other reasons that Iverson and others say Cheney’s vote is so unforgivable are less rebuttable and may ultimately have more impact. First, on a matter of utmost importance to many residents, she unapologetically, enthusiastically went the other way. In the process, an unspoken bond was broken. Why should they trust her again? And second, the people of Wyoming are sensitive to any hint of someone talking down to them. To their ears, Cheney’s lectures about Trump are beginning to have that ring. “The reason why people live here is so we don’t have to be told how to live, how to believe,” Iverson said. “When you have a representative who’s saying, ‘President Trump is a bad person, President Trump started this riot, President Trump needs to be impeached’ … you’re telling people what they are to believe.”

The next day I reached Cody, a hotbed of bubbling-up anti-Cheney resistance, and attended the Park County GOP’s regular meeting in the Cody Cowboy Church. Bob Ferguson, former managing director of a major Wall Street investment firm, and Paul Lanchbury, a retired transmission lineman who raises cattle, were still wearing their Butch and Sundance get-ups because there was no time to change after that evening’s performance. The church walls were decorated with coiled ropes to which American flags had been tied with bandannas. County GOP chairman Martin Kimmet, a self-described “old cowboy” who raises cattle, called the meeting to order.

New business included planning for the upcoming Patriot’s Day Dinner fundraiser, with a live auction featuring a buffalo hunt, a pair of guns and other items. Cheney had not been invited; Hageman was scheduled to give a nonpolitical talk on patriotism. Cheney used to be welcome at events like this. Kimmet recalls how she would give him a hug when they greeted. Not anymore; not since the Cody chapter of the party voted in August to tell Cheney she was “fired” as their representative. She can’t be trusted to represent the people anymore, Kimmet told me: “Seemingly she just doesn’t really care what we want her to do.”

Cowboys were roping steers and riding bucking broncs on an emerald field in the Bighorn foothills of Sheridan, at the northern edge of the state, as the campaign entered its retail-politics phase over Labor Day weekend. Three of Cheney’s challengers in the Aug. 16 primary worked the crowd of thousands gathered for this annual rodeo held in honor of a revered local saddle-making family. Wyoming primaries themselves are a bit like rodeos, with lots of contenders and dark-horse surprises. The state’s distinctive electoral mechanics present both tactical challenges and opportunities for Cheney, and all were on display at the rodeo.

Marissa Selvig, a musician and former mayor of Pavillion, greeted voters with her husband and four children in tow. She has musical notation for part of the chorus of the Christian anthem “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” tattooed on her arm. “I’m running against Liz Cheney,” she told a woman at the rodeo. “Yay, yay, yay!” the woman cheered in return. “I want to give the people of Wyoming someone who is like them,” Selvig said in an interview. “I’m just a mom and a musician who loves Wyoming and who loves America, just like they do. And I think that I could be a more relatable voice in Washington than what we currently have.”

Robyn Belinskey, who runs a business organizing people’s homes, arrived in her campaign car painted red, white and blue; “Don’t Tread on Me” was printed on the back. “This is a grass-roots conservative effort,” she told me. “I’m not a politician. I’m not an attorney. I am a we-the-people person, a patriot.”

Candidate Denton Knapp was at the rodeo, too, somewhere, but I missed him and caught up with him later in Gillette. The retired Army colonel told me that his 30-year military career – including deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq – gave him leadership experience that the other challengers lack. “I’m the best for Wyoming,” he said. “If (Cheney) wins, Wyoming is going to take a hard look at itself because that’s the last thing you want to happen.”

Analysts consider the candidates looking to replace Cheney less formidable so far because of their relative lack of political experience and fundraising. But all have refused to drop out despite Trump’s endorsement of Hageman. A potentially strong contender is Anthony Bouchard, a Republican state senator and gun rights advocate whom I’d met earlier at a Chick-fil-A in Cheyenne. “With the highest financial support coming from ordinary folks, and over a thousand donors in Wyoming, I’m not leaving this race,” he vowed. In the spring it emerged that nearly 40 years ago, when he was 18, he impregnated a 14-year-old girl. The couple married and had a child. The woman later died by suicide. “When push comes to shove, (voters) are going to see that I have the experience, not to mention the fortitude, to stand up to what’s really wrong,” he said.

Hageman, a lawyer who has specialized in protecting property rights and water rights, has better statewide name recognition than other challengers after her 2018 primary race for governor, though she got less than 22% of the vote. Trump’s endorsement should open a spigot of outside cash and assistance for her. The former president has dispatched a team of political advisers to boost her campaign, and Donald Trump Jr. will serve as honorary chair of a super PAC aiding the effort, Politico reported.

Hageman supported Cheney in earlier races. “When Liz Cheney voted to impeach President Trump, she betrayed Wyoming, she betrayed this country, and she betrayed me,” Hageman said in an email, in response to questions I sent via a former Trump campaign official who is now assisting her. “At a time when we needed all hands on deck, Liz Cheney jumped ship, dogpaddled to the other side, and is now shooting back at us.”

When I asked who she thinks won the presidential election, Hageman replied that there are “legitimate questions about what happened in 2020. … It won’t change the outcome, Joe Biden is the president today, but we ought to know what happened going forward so that people can begin to have faith in our electoral process again.”

Beyond Trump and the impeachment, I wanted to know what Hageman would do differently on conservative issues that matter to Wyoming. She offered few specifics but said Cheney’s prominent role in investigating Jan. 6 serves to generally enable Democrats and “deflect attention from the abject and total disaster that is the Biden administration.”

Cheney declined to comment for this story. Her campaign distributed a transcript of a recent conversation she had with Wyoming reporters. She called Hageman’s entry into the race with Trump’s endorsement “tragic opportunism” and said her old ally is “abandoning her duty to the people of Wyoming in order to pledge loyalty to Donald Trump. … If Harriet wants to cast her lot with those folks, you know, I would note that they’re the same people who were involved in misleading millions of Americans about the election in 2020.”

While not stepping back from her skirmishes with Trump and his congressional acolytes, Cheney is also trying to make the race about the rest of her conservative record. This year she has introduced bills to block moratoriums on oil and gas leases and to protect property rights – and she has taken advantage of every microphone and camera to bash Biden over Afghanistan and other issues. “Liz has been a rock star for our state,” says Landon Brown, a Republican state representative. “There is no better determination of Trump’s stranglehold on this country than the Liz Cheney race.”

In the end, though, Cheney’s fate may lie with those three candidates at the rodeo, and with Bouchard. Hardly anyone I talked with thinks she can win a head-to-head race against Hageman – not because Hageman is so strong, but because Cheney’s war with Trump has made her so vulnerable. If two or more challengers remain in the race, “it will be much closer than any of us would like, but Liz will walk away with the win,” says Brown. “If it goes down to a two-way race … I think Harriet wins.”

There’s no parallel pro-Cheney grass-roots movement working to counteract the anti-Cheney activists at the local level. Hard-right pro-Trump Republicans have taken control of the party apparatus in nearly all the counties. Still, more moderate (by Wyoming standards), less doctrinaire Republicans remain successful at getting elected to the state legislature – suggesting that plenty of Wyoming voters haven’t given up on the Cheney wing of the GOP.

Cheney herself is not holding any events that the general public can get into. Her supporters acknowledge that a public meeting in Wyoming would likely get ugly. Instead, she is attending small, private gatherings and holding invitation-only conference calls. She raised $3.4 million in two record fundraising quarters this year. Former president George W. Bush was scheduled to headline a fundraiser for her this month in Dallas.

A number of Cheney’s supporters told me that she could change the tone and improve her chances if she would lay off Trump. But she shows no inclination to do so. Last month on “60 Minutes,” Cheney offered an explanation for her continued drumbeat on the subject. “If Republican leaders don’t stand up and condemn what happened, then the voices in the party that are so dangerous will only get louder and stronger,” she said. “Silence enables the liar, and silence helps (misinformation) to spread. … If we do that we are contributing to the undermining of our system.”

Dee Bott, a retired hospital executive in Torrington, told me over the phone she thought Cheney’s vote for impeachment was a mistake: “Why would you hang your hat on something that wasn’t going to do anything but cause you grief?” And yet, “I will definitely vote for her again,” Bott said, citing a list of Cheney’s accomplishments for her state. “She knows exactly what Wyoming is. How can you put that in your back pocket and be upset because she voted to impeach Trump?”

Bott also thinks significant Cheney support is flying under the radar because of all the hostility. “We have a ton of friends who are saying the same thing,” she said. “ ‘We’re not going to get out there and get yelled at and have eggs thrown at us. We’re just going to the polls and we’re voting for Liz.’ ”

There’s one more Wyoming primary dynamic to take into account: Democrats. They are so vanishingly rare in the state that they hardly count for anything – except, potentially, on primary day. Wyoming law allows people to change their affiliation right up to the primary. Past races have featured thousands of Democrats and unaffiliated voters doing so, conceivably to back more-moderate Republicans. There’s no evidence they’ve swung a major race before, but they could make the difference in a close one.

In the spring Cheney attended a small gathering in the Cody area. Scott Weber, who works in firearms sales, got a chance to talk with her about the race. “She is the most charismatic speaker, and she captivates the room,” he told me. “She’s got the right amount of humor. She knows everything about Wyoming. She’s deeply committed. She hates liberals, so she has all these jokes about” them. Weber was impressed and thought she might be running for president, which he said she denied when they chatted at the event. As they spoke, Weber made the obvious observation that she had so many challengers. She looked at him with a twinkle, he recalled, and said, “The more, the merrier!”

Toward the end of my trip I headed to Jackson Hole, Cheney country. I commuted through Yellowstone National Park, past buffalo that looked noble even while chewing, stopping to check that the geysers remained faithful in spite of everything. The famous postcard view of the Grand Tetons appeared wan in the smoky exhales from California.

Across the Snake River from Jackson lay Wilson, the little community where Cheney has a house. I climbed onto the wooden front porch of Hungry Jack’s General Store. “I feel much more positive about her now than I have ever felt for her or any of the Cheneys ever,” said Jana Stearns, whose family has owned Jack’s for nearly 70 years. She told me she would consider changing her registration from Democrat to Republican to vote for Cheney in the primary. “I admire her courage to stand up for what’s right,” she said.

The front porch of Hungry Jack’s was the only place in the state where, in my experience, Cheney supporters – including Republicans – slightly outnumbered detractors. Photographer Jeff Foott stopped by. “I never thought I’d be rooting for Liz Cheney, but I am,” he said. He’s also thinking about changing his registration from Democrat to vote for her. “I don’t agree with most of her politics, but what she’s done is pretty courageous.” Registered Republican Caryn Haman said: “She comes closer to the old style of working back-and-forth when necessary to get something done.”

Until now, I’d experienced pro- and anti-Cheney sentiment as existing in separate bubbles, where separate realities prevailed. Back across the Snake, at the historic Wort Hotel in downtown Jackson, the bubbles merged.

Mary Martin, chair of the Teton County GOP, assembled a focus group in a private dining room at the Wort and invited me to listen and ask questions. Martin was one of a handful of state party officials who withstood enormous pressure and voted against censuring Cheney. But Martin’s vote didn’t necessarily mean she approved of Cheney’s vote for impeachment. Martin is a proud Trump supporter who feels her trust in Cheney has been damaged. (As a party official, she’s neutral in the primary.) Nevertheless, one of her personal missions is to create space in her party where people can disagree and, hopefully, learn from one another.

The group consisted of three Cheney critics and one supporter. For 90 spirited minutes the group batted around Cheney’s merits and demerits: Jan. 6, the impeachment, her service on the committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. “She decided that she did not want to be on the team,” said John Fox, an active conservative retired from Wall Street. “And I think Trump commands loyalty and deserves loyalty. … Now she’s not just off the loyalty train, but she’s actually, in my opinion, a Democrat.”

”We’re all Republicans here, so we’re very unhappy with what’s happened in the leadership in Washington, D.C., and yet I’m going to have a different perspective,” said Paul Vogelheim, a former county commissioner. He told the story of his late friend, the Rev. Ubald Rugirangoga, a Rwandan priest and survivor of that nation’s genocide, who died of COVID the day after the Capitol riot. When the priest learned of the riot, among his last words to Vogelheim were how America must not tear itself apart like his country. “The violence that occurred in our capital, and how the world looked at that … really hit me,” Vogelheim said. “So I appreciate that she’s made a stand.”

Steve Duerr, a lawyer, spoke up. “Conservative people have different ways of showing it. Trump’s conservatism was, in my opinion, individual rights, American enterprise, self-reliance, business, a strong military. Take care of America first, make America great again.” He continued: “Paul can say on principle, she’s defending the Constitution by voting to impeach Trump and giving her name to ‘Eva’ Pelosi on this committee. I don’t buy it. It’s pure hubris… . She wants to be the Trump opponent in 2024… . She’s not thinking about Wyoming.”

Vogelheim has certainly considered whether Cheney’s motivations include political gain. “But I still believe that she is coming from this place of principle, Constitution first,” he said. ” ‘This man has done something wrong and I’m going to expose it.’ “

When the conversation was over, no one had changed their fundamental position, but they realized they had something in common that made them so passionate – on both sides – about the subject of Liz Cheney. “Just hearing the anger here today,” Vogelheim said, “a lot of (it) is a broader issue, a big-picture issue of: What’s happening to our country?”

One fan of Cheney’s couldn’t make it to the gathering, so I spoke to him by phone. His name is John Turner, and he’s a former wildlife and environmental official in both Bush administrations. “It’s absolutely insane that Wyoming voters would even consider jettisoning one of the most articulate, experienced, eloquent spokesmen for conservative values in Washington,” he told me. “There’s a lot at stake for this country. We’re really at a crossroads. We need experienced conservatives like Liz to stay in the saddle to combat the frightening foolishness we see in Washington right now.”

Turner and Vogelheim had both made explicit the subtext of many of the conversations I’d had in Wyoming: What has gone wrong in America? Pulling the lever for or against Cheney would be a Wyoming voter’s way of trying to answer that question. I recalled the anxious things Wyomingites had said. From Tim Wade, a fly fishing outfitter in Cody, who disapproves of Cheney: “The freedoms that we Americans expect under the Constitution are riding on this.” From Drew Perkins, a state senator finishing nine holes of golf after work in Saratoga, who admires Cheney: “We need problem solvers in Washington; we don’t need people back there making political statements.” From Joseph McGinley, a radiologist and entrepreneur in Casper, who also approves of Cheney: “We have to get rid of the extremism. We have to get back to principles.”

Just before my flight out of Casper, I made it back to that Joe Biden banner I had seen a week earlier. It was partially furled on a wire fence enclosing a lot filled with cars and equipment on the edge of the plains. Two dogs galloped toward me while I toed the property border, marked by a no-trespassing sign.

A shirtless man emerged from the house and hollered at me to state my business. I hollered at him about my story on Liz Cheney. He hollered that he couldn’t hear me and waved me forward. “They won’t bite,” he said of the dogs. As I crossed the fence line, a sudden gust of wind unfurled the banner. I saw a word I had missed before, above Biden’s name, in screaming capital red letters: “F—-.”

The man introduced himself as Tom Hood. He had the same four-letter political analysis of Cheney. Didn’t care too much for the state’s senior U.S. senator either. To Hood, most politicians blur into one figure of indifference toward people like him. He’s 63 and had worked for 35 years in the oil fields, until a chunk of ice landed on his head and disabled him. He’d had to sell the cattle he used to keep behind his house. But he still owned the land where the cattle once grazed, he said proudly. Whatever else might have gone wrong, a piece of the American plains was his.

Trump and Cheney have done a lot to frame this race as a duel between two sworn enemies, but the people I talked with instinctively realize there’s more to it than that. In Hood’s case, if he votes in the primary – the challenger he mentioned liking has since dropped out – it’ll be for someone he thinks understands the view from his patch of ground. The Wyoming primary will be one of the first times voters get to have their say about the events of Jan. 6. People on the losing side will feel, I suspect, not just that their candidate has lost, but that it may no longer be their America.