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Cheney tries to hold on in tough Wyoming primary reshaped by Trump

<i>Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images</i><br/>GOP Rep. Liz Cheney
Getty Images
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
GOP Rep. Liz Cheney

By Eric Bradner and Jeff Zeleny, CNN

Six years ago, when Rep. Liz Cheney first ran for Wyoming’s lone House seat, Nicholas Houfek said he saw the long-time Virginia resident, who had purchased a home in Jackson Hole four years earlier, as a “carpetbagger.”

Now, Houfek, a registered Republican who works in real estate, is staunchly behind Cheney in Tuesday’s primary against Harriet Hageman and three other candidates.

He asked Cheney’s campaign for a yard sign, which he and his wife Payson Houfek proudly display in their front yard. The two said many of their Democratic friends in the area have switched their party registration to vote for Cheney.

“This is not the Republican Party my dad and grandpa supported,” Nicholas Houfek said. “I support Cheney because she actually supports the election results. She’s a true Republican and always has been.”

The contest between Cheney and Hageman, who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, stands as a telling bookend of the Republican Party’s evolution through the Trump era.

Even before Trump ran for office, the GOP in Wyoming was embroiled in a years-long feud between establishment Republicans and a more conservative wing that had increasingly seized power in party organizations throughout the state.

During Trump’s presidency, Cheney — whom Wyoming voters first elected to Congress on the same night Trump won the presidency in 2016 — had not just survived those factional battles but risen to the No. 3 spot in the House Republican conference.

But the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 — followed by Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump and her leading role on the House select committee investigating the attack and its causes — reshaped those allegiances and rivalries.

Many of Cheney’s establishment Republican allies have abandoned her ahead of a primary she is widely expected to lose. Meanwhile, Democrats and moderate Republicans — many of whom still say they oppose Cheney’s neoconservative ideology — have rallied to her defense.

‘We’re all questioning what she’s doing’

The Cheneys have been a part of political life for decades. Dick Cheney won the state’s at-large congressional seat in 1978, serving for more than a decade before stepping down to become secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush and later becoming vice president under President George W. Bush.

Nearly 40 years after her father first won it, Wyoming voters elected Liz Cheney to the same seat while voting for Trump for president.

But now Trump is at the center of Cheney’s political woes in a state where he won 70% of the vote in 2020, his widest margin anywhere.

When Trump visited Wyoming for a rally in May, he left voters with blunt instructions: “Fire Liz.”

Stacy Jones, a Republican from the coal mining town of Rock Springs, has been going door-to-door in her own race for a seat in the state senate. She said she has heard an earful about Cheney and how voters believe she’s abandoned Trump and Wyoming.

“A lot of the choices she’s made lately are not the ones Wyoming is behind,” Jones said in an interview. “In the beginning, she really had our backs and she came out strong. But now we’re all questioning what she’s doing.”

A University of Wyoming poll released late last week found that Cheney is trailing Hageman by 29 percentage points among likely primary voters. Several longtime political observers said the biggest remaining wild card is how many Democrats and independents switch parties to support Cheney, along with how many Republicans are hesitant to publicly admit their support for the congresswoman, given the Trump-fueled vitriol against her.

“There are a lot of people out there who are supportive of Representative Cheney, but they are just afraid to speak up,” said Joe McGinley, a former chairman of the Natrona County Republican Party who is supporting Cheney. “It’s a silent majority.”

Cheney’s campaign has courted the state’s small number of registered Democrats, sending them instructions on how to change their party registration ahead of the primary with the expectation that they would back Cheney, long loathed by liberals, over a Trump-aligned rival.

The number of registered Democrats in Wyoming has dropped since January by 6,069, according to the secretary of state, while the number of registered Republicans has increased by 11,495. The number of unaffiliated voters dropped by 1,575 over that period, which officials say almost certainly indicates a reflection of support for Cheney.

Cheney focuses on Jackson Hole

The home of Jackson Hole, a resort community near Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, in northwestern Wyoming’s Teton County is Democrats’ only real foothold in the state. President Joe Biden won it by 38 percentage points in the 2020 election.

“It’s the navy blue corner of a crimson-red state,” said Payson Houfek, a lifelong Republican originally from New Jersey who works in financial services.

And it’s where Cheney — whose home is in Wilson, part of the Jackson Hole region — spent the final stretch of the campaign. Neither candidate has held any public events in the race’s closing days, but CNN spotted Cheney on Saturday at an outdoor gathering of volunteers who had been door-knocking and holding signs in Jackson’s town square.

If she is to survive on Tuesday, Cheney needs high turnout and huge margins in the county.

Alan Reid, a finance executive in Alpine who said he considers himself a Libertarian, said he met conservatives who are “embarrassed” by Trump’s actions — a feeling he said that was strengthened by the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago last week.

“I think that they realize that this was a mistake,” he said. “But it’s hard, especially for people to say it publicly. It’s hard for people to be willing to talk. There’s a lot of pressure out there.”

Alexandra Alessandro, a lifelong Republican who works in marketing, said in Teton County, “People are really realizing more and more how terrible the events on January 6 were.”

She said the Mar-a-Lago search “really reinforced” the importance of Cheney’s work on the House select committee, of which she is the vice chair and one of only two Republicans.

“We’re at a really critical place right now — obviously with this election here in Wyoming, but for the country,” she said. “I just think there’s a lot at stake. I think there’s a lot people need to stand up for and fight for what’s right for the country.”

‘Shot herself in the foot’

A deluge of television ads from Hageman and Cheney contribute to the feeling that the race is revolving, to a large degree, around the bitter feud between Cheney and Trump.

“Liz Cheney, she’s made her time in Congress and this election all about her,” Hageman says in a TV ad. “Well, it’s not about her. It’s about you.”

The sentiment about Cheney’s relentless focus on Trump echoed in conversations with more than two dozen people across Wyoming in recent days.

“She reminds me more of Hillary Clinton than any other person on earth,” said Rebecca Bextel, a Jackson real estate salesperson who was an alternate delegate to the 2020 Republican National Convention and said she had met with Hageman on Friday night in Teton County.

Bextel said she has never supported Cheney, but is particularly incensed — as are other Republicans she’s spoken with — about the congresswoman’s involvement in the House’s January 6 probe, which she said is “just a way for her to get at Donald Trump.”

She complained that Cheney has not sought to investigate Hunter Biden, the President’s son, or alleged crimes stemming from Black Lives Matter protests.

“It’s like all of a sudden she’s got this huge push for justice, but there’s one person in the crosshairs,” Bextel said.

“Liz Cheney has absolutely no integrity,” she said. “She’s now come to Wyoming to try to get the Democrats to vote her into office so that she can continue to be a Republican. I mean, how slimy is that? There’s nothing that she’s not willing to do to try to win.”

Jenille Thomas, a mortgage analyst from Rock Springs, hugged Hageman when she saw her late last week at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. She thanked her for delivering what she thinks is a strong message on energy policy in support of the coal industry.

“She gives me hope,” Thomas said in an interview. “My husband works for a coal mine. It’s a critical resource for our family.”

Thomas first saw Hageman at the Trump rally in Casper in May and said she had become an instant admirer. She said Cheney has been too focused on trying to take down the former President.

“We love Trump,” Thomas said, acknowledging that his endorsement of Hageman contributed to her support for her candidacy. “Wyoming people stick together. Liz is not from Wyoming.”

The other night at the Laramie County Fair, Bryce Freeman said Cheney “shot herself in the foot with her impeachment vote.” Her work on the January 6 committee sealed his view that she was unduly obsessed with Trump, he said, calling the investigation “a Democratic hit job.”

Freeman said support for Hageman was not only rooted in a dislike for Cheney, but also in appreciation for her work helping protect Wyoming lands and natural resources.

“She’s campaigned hard for this office,” said Freeman, a Republican county commissioner. “She wasn’t a stalking horse. She didn’t come out of nowhere.”

Cheney told CNN in an interview earlier this month that she doesn’t expect to lose. “I’m working hard to earn every single vote and, ultimately, I really believe that the people of Wyoming fundamentally understand how important fidelity to the Constitution is.”

Even most Cheney supporters acknowledged in interviews over the last week that political lightning would have to strike for her to triumph on Tuesday, but several said they intended to support her in hopes of keeping the margin far tighter than it might otherwise be.

Former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a lifelong Democrat who served from 1987 to 1995, said he proudly planted a Cheney sign in his front yard on the edge of downtown Casper to show that party politics should take a backseat to leadership.

“I admire and respect the position that she’s taken,” Sullivan said in an interview. “Without regard to her politics, she has reflected herself as a leader. History will prove the legacy that she leaves will be a very impressive and important one.”

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