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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cheney facing GOP music in Wyoming primary

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2020.    (Samuel Corum/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Stephanie Akin CQ-Roll Call

WASHINGTON — In a video Rep. Liz Cheney’s campaign touted as her closing argument ahead of Tuesday’s primary against a challenger backed by former President Donald Trump, the Wyoming Republican looks directly at the camera and says, “I want to talk to citizens across our great state and all across our country.”

The message is clear: With recent polls showing attorney Harriet Hageman winning by double digits in a state that awarded Trump his biggest margin of victory in 2020, Cheney is not just talking to primary voters in Wyoming. She’s not just talking about whether she wins or loses the nomination for a fourth term. She is making an appeal for the future of American democracy.

“Like many candidates across this country, my opponents in Wyoming have said that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen,” she says. “No one who understands our nation’s laws, no one with an honest, honorable, genuine commitment to our Constitution, would say that. It is a cancer that threatens our great republic. If we do not condemn these lies, if we do not hold those responsible to account, we will be excusing this conduct and it will become a feature of all elections. America will never be the same.”

Cheney is the last of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump to face a primary, and the one who, by most measures, faces the steepest odds to reelection. That doesn’t bode well for her prospects, although recent reports indicate she could be making a case for a 2024 presidential bid.

After Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler became the third Republican impeachment supporter defeated in a primary, and four others decided not even to run again this year, only Reps. Dan Newhouse of Washington and David Valadao of California have made it onto the November ballot.

Cheney’s race is by far the highest profile of the bunch, owing to her family pedigree as the daughter of a Republican vice president, her former position in GOP House leadership and her role as vice chair of the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.

All of those factors have combined to help Cheney build a staggering fundraising advantage in her race, with more than $15 million in receipts to Hageman’s $4.4 million, as of July 27.

Cheney’s campaign has used that money to make a pitch to the state’s largely rural voters, who, her supporters say, are willing to give Cheney credit for her solid conservative voting record during her three terms in the House. She was the highest-ranking GOP woman in the House before she was ousted from her position as GOP conference chairwoman at the beginning of the 117th Congress for criticizing Trump.

Her campaign ads have featured well-known local figures — like former Sen. Alan Simpson — and an array of regular-looking Wyoming voters touting such accomplishments as support for rural health care, public lands, the military and the petroleum industry.

Cheney’s campaign bought national ad time on Fox News to run a spot featuring former Vice President Dick Cheney, her father, that went viral after it aired in Wyoming. In it, Dick Cheney calls Trump a coward who “tried to steal the last election using lies and violence to keep himself in power after the voters had rejected him.”

Cheney’s supporters have pointed to data they say show that she still commands local support that could make a big difference in a primary. In March, the Republican-led state legislature killed a bill that would have banned Democrats voting in the Republican primary and vice versa, a measure Trump had supported as he sought to cut off Cheney’s avenues to victory.

Cheney owes her best shot at keeping her seat to the crossover vote, with early reports indicating that a significant number of voters have changed their registration to Republican to vote in the primary. Those voters don’t necessarily show up in public opinion surveys — like the one released Aug. 11 from the University of Wyoming that showed Cheney losing by more than 30 points. And the state’s largely rural population is notoriously difficult to survey.

But all but $380,000 in Cheney’s contributions came from outside Wyoming, compared to almost $1 million of in-state donations for Hageman.

And while outside groups have spent more than $2.5 million on the race — more than doubling state records for outside spending in Wyoming — the majority of it has gone to support Hageman and oppose Cheney.

There are also three other Republicans on the ballot who argue that they are better representatives of local values, further complicating the race.

Proxy war

In one sign of how much Cheney’s campaign has captured the proxy war playing out in the GOP, her donations included more than $95,000 from her colleagues in Congress and other candidates, most of them Republicans who have stood out at some point for the willingness to question the former president. The Leadership PACs of GOP Sens. Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins have all donated, along with those of former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump-adjacent South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Hageman, in turn, collected more than $125,000 from Leadership PACs and other candidates, many of them associated with Republicans who have amplified Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

Democratic Reps. Tom Malinowski and Dean Phillips both recorded ads for Wyomingites Defending Freedom and Democracy, a group urging more Democrats in the state to change their registration to vote in the primary.

That group has spent $188,000 supporting Cheney in the primary. She also got $37,000 in support from a group called The Thomas Payne Society. Three groups have spent a combined $350,000 opposing her. The majority of that has come from Wyoming Values PAC, a super PAC chaired by Donald Trump Jr. that has been running a three-week TV ad blitz attacking Cheney.

Wyoming Values has also spent $684,000 supporting Hageman — the biggest share of the $1.7 million she had received in outside support. Other groups supporting Hageman include the anti-tax Club for Growth, which also spent money attacking Cheney; the House Freedom Action and House Freedom Fund, groups aligned with the far-right House Freedom Caucus; and Protect Freedom PAC, a group started by former aides to Sen. Rand Paul and his father, former Sen. Ron Paul.

Another group, Americans Keeping Country First, reported spending $331,000 supporting Hageman, but that may be a clerical error because the group was founded by allies of Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, another impeachment supporter and member of the Jan. 6 committee, to support Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. It has been airing ads attacking Hageman as a “typical politician” who backed “a scheme to send water from Wyoming to Colorado.”

The anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, the left-leaning Priorities USA and a group called Conservatives for a Strong America PAC spent a combined $70,000 opposing Hageman. The majority of that came from Conservatives for a Strong America, which calls Cheney a RINO (Republican in Name Only), and also spent money to support state Sen. Anthony Bouchard and retired retired Army Col. Denton Knapp in the primary.

Hageman’s pitch

Hageman, a former water and natural resources attorney who ran for governor in 2018, has cast Cheney as an elitist who has sided with Democrats and those in power in Washington at the expense of people in her home state. Hageman opposed Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. She has since said she was misled by corporate media and she believes the 2020 election was stolen.

She presents herself as a “true conservative” and party loyalist — she says her experience growing up on a ranch in rural Wyoming taught her the value of what she calls “riding for the brand” — who during her career has fought federal agencies to preserve Wyoming public land. She has also attempted to use the national audience drawn to Cheney’s plight against the incumbent, saying in her closing campaign ad that she — not Cheney — is the candidate looking out for Wyoming voters’ interests.

“She’s made her time in Congress, and this election, all about her.” Hageman says in the ad. “Well, it’s not about her. It’s about you.”