The last time Mark Armstrong saw Liz Cheney was three years ago. The Wyoming Republican organizer pulled the congresswoman aside after she gave a speech at a local party event. He told her that he hoped she would one day become the first woman elected U.S. president.
So it was with as much disappointment as anger that he watched her vote to impeach Donald Trump over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“Liz has one of the most conservative records in Congress. She’s not a liberal. She’s very right wing,” said Mr. Armstrong, a 65-year-old geotechnical engineer in Laramie, Wyo. “But I cannot vote for her, I cannot support her after Jan. 6.”
Ms. Cheney’s trajectory from rising Republican star to party apostate may reach its conclusion Tuesday in the primary election for this deep-red state’s lone House seat. Polls show her trailing Trump-backed challenger Harriet Hageman by more than 20 percentage points.
The vote is a major inflection point for the Republicans. If a conservative as rock-ribbed as Ms. Cheney is banished to the political wilderness, it will cement Mr. Trump’s hold on the party.
It is all unfolding as the former president mulls a 2024 comeback bid, and a week after the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago estate in one of the expanding criminal probes of his conduct.
Far from playing down her dissent, Ms. Cheney has campaigned consistently on her work with the congressional committee investigating Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn his re-election loss. In a series of hearings this summer, the panel laid out bombshell evidence that he worked to foment insurrection.
“America cannot remain free if we abandon the truth. The lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is insidious,” Ms. Cheney said in her final election ad. “History has shown us over and over again how these types of poisonous lies destroy free nations.”
Around this western state of prairie, desert and mountains – where 600,000 people are spread across a landmass the size of Britain – many Republicans said they hoped Ms. Cheney’s defeat would signal a purge of those disloyal to Mr. Trump.
“I think the election is going to sweep away all the RINOs – Republicans in name only,” said Zaida Zoller, a 69-year-old paralegal in the ranching town of Buffalo. Every time she sees one of Ms. Cheney’s campaign signs, Ms. Zoller said, she shouts “Liz Cheney’s a traitor” out her car window.
“It’s not really a Republican Party any more, it’s a Trump Party,” said Susan Martin, 58, a retired teacher with a Hageman sign in the plain of sagebrush surrounding her rural grey clapboard house.
“You know who really should have been impeached? Every Democrat in office who stole the election,” said Terri Yeadon, a fiftysomething voter in Casper. Added her son, Nathaniel, 21: “Liz Cheney needs to burn in hell.”
For the congresswoman’s remaining supporters, such talk is the latest marker of the country’s slide toward authoritarianism in the Trump era.
“He’s dishonest. He’s arrogant. He’ll do anything to get into office. Cheney is standing up for our constitution and she’s hopefully going to bring him to justice,” said Richard Wilson, 77, a retired heavy engine mechanic and lifelong Republican.
Standing on the steps of his bungalow in Casper, a 59,000-strong oil town, Mr. Wilson pointed to two houses on the block that had Cheney lawn signs stolen in the past week. Another sign a few streets away was vandalized with spray paint, Ms. Cheney’s name crossed out and “don’t vote RINO” written underneath.
Randy Ford, 70, one of the few voters still undecided ahead of the primary, said he backed Mr. Trump through two elections, enthused with his policies on cutting taxes and renegotiating trade deals. But Mr. Ford soured on the former president when he tried to reverse his 2020 loss.
“I just wish the Department of Justice would jump in there and help the committee resolve all this,” said Mr. Ford, a 70-year-old retired financial planner, at a gathering of Republicans in a Casper park. “If Trump’s guilty, I sure wouldn’t want him running again. What would we be saying to our children? That it’s okay to cheat and lie?”
No one better illustrates the party’s coalescing around Mr. Trump than Ms. Hageman. In 2016, she referred to the billionaire as “racist and xenophobic” in e-mails leaked to the New York Times. Now, she describes him as the “greatest president of my lifetime” and the 2020 election as “rigged.”
Ms. Cheney’s slim hope of survival rests on a Wyoming electoral rule that allows voters to switch their party affiliation at any time before an election. Her campaign has been actively encouraging Democrats to temporarily join the Republicans to back her.
It’s a particularly ironic strategy given Ms. Cheney’s history as a stalwart of Republican orthodoxy: anti-abortion, pro-guns and a supporter of fossil fuels in a state where oil, gas and coal dominate the economy. In Congress, Ms. Cheney voted with Mr. Trump more than 90 per cent of the time.
Jane Ifland, a Casper social-justice activist, has been on the opposite side of nearly every issue from Ms. Cheney. She even recalls confronting the congresswoman over single-payer health care at an open house a few years ago. But in an advance poll last week, Ms. Ifland voted for a Republican for the first time in her 77 years.
“I was crying about it,” she said. “I certainly wasn’t voting for any policy that Cheney supports, but I was voting because I want to continue to live in a democracy.”
There may not be enough Democrats for this to make a difference in Wyoming, which Mr. Trump carried with nearly 70 per cent of the vote in 2020. But it has stoked dark talk among Republicans of election rigging.
At a meeting of the local party in Laramie, organizers expressed fears that elections workers were encouraging Democrats to switch their voter registrations. They warned that Democrats might bus people from out of state to vote illegally.
“We’re going to make sure that caravans aren’t coming across that border,” said Katrina Cox, 52, the county party vice-chair. “The crossover vote is a big dinger. I think it’s cheating.”
Others in the room said Ms. Cheney’s problems in the state predated her impeachment vote. Having spent much of her life in Washington, she has faced questions about her ties to Wyoming since her first election in 2016.
“I’ve listened to Harriet Hageman speak four times in the last year. I’ve never met Liz. That’s a problem,” said Brandon Newman, 37, who works as an instructor at a trade school.
Ms. Cheney’s status as local political royalty cuts both ways. Her father, former vice-president Dick Cheney, made an ad for his daughter in which he excoriated Mr. Trump as a “coward” and the largest threat to democracy in U.S. history. But as a chief architect of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, he is a persistent reminder of one reason so many Republicans rejected the party establishment and embraced Mr. Trump in the first place.
Amid an avalanche of threats over her opposition to Mr. Trump, Ms. Cheney has kept a low profile in the state. She does not hold public campaign events, instead opting for private gatherings in the homes of supporters. She has been assigned a police bodyguard.
Her endgame is currently unclear. In speeches and interviews, she has seemed to tacitly concede that running on her opposition to Mr. Trump will cost her House seat, stoking speculation that her real aim is to set up a 2024 presidential bid. In her final ad, however, she explained her decision as a simple commitment to stop Mr. Trump, whatever the cost.
“Millions of Americans across our nation – Republicans, Democrats, independents – stand united in the cause of freedom,” she said. “We are stronger, more dedicated and more determined than those trying to destroy our republic. This is our great task and we will prevail.”
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