In 1868, in a country riven with divisions and struggling to recover from an actual civil war, a Republican legislator from Kansas broke with the rest of his party and provided the deciding vote that saved President Andrew Johnson from Senate conviction after he had been impeached in the House of Representatives.
“I almost literally looked down into my open grave,” said Edmund G. Ross. “Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.”
This week, Representative Liz Cheney, too, is looking down into her open grave.
Just as Mr. Ross lost his re-election bid, Ms. Cheney – the most prominent Republican voice against Donald Trump, a woman who has vowed to try to keep the 45th president from becoming the 47th – is likely to be defeated in a bruising Wyoming congressional primary Tuesday.
In doing so, her eyes seem to be more on what her obituary will say than on what her résumé will state.
She might consider placing a call to former Republican representative Bob Inglis, who served in the House when her father, Dick Cheney, was vice-president. He once believed climate change was a hoax and he mocked former vice-president Al Gore for his preoccupation with global warming. But after Mr. Inglis changed his mind on the climate issue and then took the next step of apostasy by introducing legislation to impose a carbon tax, a man who twice was elected with margins exceeding 70 per cent received only 27 per cent in the Republican primary in his South Carolina district in 2010.
“In terms of emotional impact, going against the party you grew up with is tantamount to a political divorce,” Mr. Inglis said in an interview. “If you lose in a general election, the party will celebrate you for fighting the good fight and for falling in the line of duty. But if you lose in a primary, they don’t invite you to the next Lincoln Day dinner. There is no home to go home to. It was the roughest thing I went through in politics. I basically was told: ‘We don’t like you, we don’t want you in our party, we want you to leave.’”
That is precisely what Mr. Trump, the new Republican Party and the voters of Wyoming are saying about Ms. Cheney, who was on a path that might have led her to become House speaker but now has lost her voice in her party.
But it is not what her father is saying. Wearing the cowboy hat that is the symbol of Wyoming, Mr. Cheney, now 81, cut a video this summer saying how proud he and his wife, Lynne, were of their daughter and how repugnant they believe Mr. Trump is (“He is a coward. A real man wouldn’t lie to his supporters.”).
Nor is it what Democrats – who until recently reviled her as a hidebound right winger with an American Conservative Union rating of more than 90 per cent – are saying. They may take issue with her opposition to abortion rights and her support for gun rights, and they may have recoiled when, on NBC’s Meet the Press, she once called the Democrats “the party of anti-semitism, the party of infanticide, the party of socialism.” But this week they are rooting for her to survive in the state that gave Mr. Trump his greatest margin (70 per cent of the vote).
“She is an authentic, all-American all-star,” said former senator Paul Kirk of Massachusetts, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “When you think about how she stood up – and what she gave up – you can only be in awe how she has battled for democracy and for American values. This is what the people who built the country had in mind for American leadership.”
The primary battle Ms. Cheney is fighting against attorney Harriet Hageman, who has the full-throated endorsement of Mr. Trump, is a peculiarly modern contest in a peculiarly American corner of the country.
Wyoming, where historically the principal pugilists have been sheep farmers and cattle ranchers, is unusually prone to conflict, often with out-of-state combatants like the Texas gunmen the cattlemen shipped into Cheyenne in 1892 in sealed boxcars, the precursors of the contributors who have poured money into the campaign coffers of both candidates.
In his 1956 book Profiles in Courage, then-senator John F. Kennedy spoke of lawmakers who showed courage by demonstrating grace in enduring “the risks of their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and, sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”
Mr. Inglis, the former South Carolina lawmaker, has special perspective on Ms. Cheney, who – unlike four of the other nine Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump and decided not to seek re-election – remained in the fight through this week’s primary.
“It is so much more honourable for Liz to face the voters rather than to slink off into the night,” he said. “Losing an election is bad, but the worst thing is losing your soul. Some Republicans have lost their souls. Liz has not lost hers.”