IT WAS A scenic spot for a swansong. Liz Cheney (pictured), who lost the Republican primary election for Wyoming’s lone congressional district on August 16th, gave her concession speech from a ranch near Jackson. Framed by the Teton mountain range, she told her audience that she could have won, “but it would have required that I go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election”, and “that was a path I could not and would not take.” America’s least-populous state is a deep ruby red, meaning Republican primary votes are more important than general elections. The vast majority of voters opted to send Harriet Hageman, a lawyer endorsed by Donald Trump, to Congress instead. “She won,” Ms Cheney said simply, “This primary election is over.”
Ms Cheney’s loss reverberates far beyond the state’s borders. She has been the Republican Party’s fiercest critic of Mr Trump since his supporters invaded the Capitol building on January 6th last year. Her ousting from the House of Representatives is a victory for the former president, whose vendetta against her intensified as she helped lead the hearings that probed his role in the insurrection. He has, at various points, called Ms Cheney a “RINO” (Republican in name only), and “a bitter, horrible human being”.
The result offers yet more evidence of the stranglehold the former president retains on his party. Ten House Republicans voted to impeach Mr Trump after the riot, including Ms Cheney. Of that group, only two survived their primary contests. The rest lost their seats or decided to retire rather than face a challenge.
Ms Cheney is the highest-profile politician so far to be vanquished by an acolyte of Mr Trump. Her father, Dick Cheney, is a former vice-president who once also represented Wyoming’s at-large district. Her election to the House in 2016 and rapid rise to become the lower chamber’s third-ranking Republican seemed to cement the existence of a political dynasty. She initially supported Mr Trump, and voted in line with his positions 93% of the time. But her revulsion at the Capitol insurrection created a rift between Ms Cheney and her fellow Republicans. The Republican National Committee voted to censure her earlier this year for her participation on the January 6th committee. House Republicans stripped her of her leadership post soon afterwards.
Ms Cheney’s loss, then, was all but certain. Mr Trump won Wyoming with 70% of the vote in 2020, the highest proportion of any state. A University of Wyoming poll released the week before the primary showed Ms Cheney trailing Ms Hageman by nearly 30 points. Teton County, a wealthy and tourist-riddled area where Ms Cheney resides when she is not at her main Virginia home, was her biggest stronghold.
A former adviser to Ms Cheney, Ms Hageman’s credentials suggest a brand of libertarianism common in Wyoming. Her law firm in Cheyenne, the state’s capital, often fights against federal environmental regulations—a favourite foil among western Republicans. Yet she has fully embraced Trumpism. When she appeared alongside Mr Trump at a rally in Casper in May she played the role of a loyal soldier, railing against the “radical Biden agenda”, critical race theory and the January 6th committee. Ms Hageman’s about-face reflects the character of Wyoming’s Republican Party, which is led by a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group, who was present at the Capitol on January 6th.
In her bid to keep her seat, Ms Cheney found few allies. Of Wyoming’s two Republican senators Cynthia Lummis endorsed Ms Hageman and the other, John Barrasso, kept shtum. To make up for her party’s dereliction Ms Cheney courted votes and cash from Democrats who recognised that her victory would at least guarantee them a defender of democracy. Voter-registration data suggest that thousands of Wyoming Democrats recently registered as Republicans to try to swing the primary for Ms Cheney. Most of the millions Ms Cheney raised for her campaign came from outside Wyoming, often from Democratic bastions such as California, New York and Washington, DC.
But Ms Cheney’s political demise in Wyoming may not spell the end of her career. Her $7m warchest of unspent campaign funds is fuelling speculation that she may run for president in 2024 as an alternative to Mr Trump, who could announce his own campaign soon. But it is not clear who her constituency would be. The Democrats who filled her coffers won’t abandon their party to elect a Republican, even one who has fought to protect democratic institutions. The Never-Trumpers, her would-be political tribe, have largely been cowed into silence for fear of losing their seats.
If she abandons her party to run as an independent, she could potentially pull votes from Mr Trump in the general election—assuming he wins the Republican nomination. (Though Democrats may fret that she could do the same with Joe Biden.) With such a narrow path to the presidency herself, stymying Mr Trump’s comeback may be her real goal. “I have said since January 6th that I will do whatever it takes to ensure Donald Trump is never again anywhere near the Oval Office,” Ms Cheney told her election-night crowd in Jackson. “And I mean it.”