WASHINGTON — Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who bucked her party by denouncing and then investigating former president Donald Trump’s doomed attempt to overturn the 2020 election, conceded her race to Trump-endorsed lawyer Harriet Hageman on Tuesday night.
“Our work is far from over,” Cheney told her supporters on Tuesday night in a speech that criticized her party for embracing “dangerous conspiracies” and invoked former President Abraham Lincoln. The AP projected her loss as early returns showed her greatly trailing Hageman.
The third-term congresswoman is a staunch conservative and the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, but she sealed her fate with a Republican base still devoted to the former president by becoming his boldest intraparty critic. Her allies have cast her loss as a necessary cost as she wages a bigger fight to save democracy, one some hope will include a future bid for the presidency, even though it also serves as another reminder for the GOP of the perils of taking Trump on.
On Wednesday morning, Cheney said on NBC’s “Today Show” that she is “thinking” of a presidential run and would decide in the coming months.
At a time when most successful Republican candidates have sought Trump’s favor to boost their candidacies, Cheney made repudiating the former president central to hers. She cut ads that called him a coward and a threat to the republic while ridiculing her opponents’ fealty to his false claims about fraud in the 2020 election. She spent little time campaigning in Wyoming this summer, something her aides attributed to the volume of threats directed her way, instead prosecuting her case against Trump as the vice chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Jan. 6.
It was not a successful reelection strategy for a state where 70 percent of voters backed Trump in 2020. But it has helped her build a large war chest — she had more than $7 million as of a few weeks ago — and made her the face of the Republican effort to block Trump’s attempts to return to the White House.
“She’s after someone who is trying to distort democracy,” former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, a Republican and Cheney ally, said earlier this summer. “That’s a bigger goal than anything at the ballot box.”
In her concession speech, Cheney made clear she sees herself fighting a bigger battle than for Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat.
“History has shown us over and over again how poisonous lies destroy free nations,” she said, warning of the “lawlessness” that would take hold if Trump-inspired election deniers continue to gain higher office. “Our survival is not guaranteed.”
Cheney is the latest — and most high-profile — critic of Trump to fall after he directed his fury their way. Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after he encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, only two, Representative Dan Newhouse of Washington and Representative David Valadao of California, have advanced to the general election this fall. The others, including Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina and Peter Meijer of Michigan, either lost their primaries or opted to not to run again.
Among the retirements is Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the only other Republican on the Jan. 6 committee.
Trump’s ire is hardly limited to Republicans in the House. In Alaska, he is determined to defeat GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was expected to advance to the general election on Tuesday but will face a difficult fight against a Republican with his stamp of approval and two other candidates in the fall. And he has intervened in local races by, for example, endorsing the opponent of Arizona’s GOP House speaker, Rusty Bowers, who testified before the Jan. 6 committee earlier this summer, in his race for a state Senate seat. (Bowers lost that primary.)
“Donald Trump has unleashed a force of the Republican Party that has changed it, maybe not forever, but certainly for the near term,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who leads anti-Trump efforts including the Republican Accountability Project, which seeks to defeat election deniers and boost Republicans it believes are defending democracy.
That Cheney could be so decisively dispatched by her constituents is the latest sign of just how thoroughly her party has remade itself in the former president’s image. As she became an increasingly vocal opponent of Trump, the state GOP in Wyoming censured her and even voted to stop recognizing her as a Republican, mystifying those who subscribe to a more traditional brand of conservative politics.
“In what reality is it that Liz Cheney’s not a Republican?” asked Tom Lubnau, a former GOP House speaker in Wyoming who nevertheless supported another candidate, his childhood friend Denton Knapp, in the primary. “Her father had deep ties. The same group of people that voted her off the island heartily endorsed her in ‘16 and ‘18.”
Cheney’s team recruited independents and Democrats to vote for her in the primary, but the strategy was not enough to put her over the line in such a deeply red state.
Cheney was a conservative darling when she first ran for Congress in 2016, and quickly rose to become the chair of the Republican conference — the No. 3 spot in the House GOP.
But when Trump continued to contest his 2020 election loss long after electors in every state had certified it, she decided to speak out against him.
“Those of us who are elected officials have a duty to the Constitution and a duty to put the Constitution above party and above politics,” she told the Globe in an interview last summer. “I don’t believe that there’s any other way that you could have sort of handled what Donald Trump was doing.”
Before voting to impeach him, Cheney gave a fiery speech laying the deadly Capitol riot at Trump’s feet, and kept up her criticism, prompting the GOP caucus to vote her out of leadership. On the first anniversary of Jan. 6, she and her father were the only Republicans present in Congress to mark the occasion.
While some of Cheney’s constituents appear to have absorbed elements of her warnings about Trump, many still saw her crusade as a betrayal.
“She’s torn down a lot of Republican principles. I’m a Trump fan, she’s trying to destroy him, so I’m not a fan of that,” said Harry Kimbley, a retired Republican who attended a Hageman campaign event in the small town of Buffalo earlier this summer.
Other voters interviewed in Wyoming this summer said they believed Cheney was grandstanding, describing her role in the Jan. 6 hearings as an empty exercise that told them nothing more than the extent of Cheney’s ambition.
“They’re posing in front of the cameras. And it’s not for nothing really, it’s just a show for 2024,” said, Brian Novotny, 69, over a beer at a sports bar in Casper, Wyo.
Some anti-Trump strategists are jumping at the idea of a potential Cheney candidacy, hoping she could act as a spoiler if Trump runs in 2024. If the final tally in Cheney’s congressional race still shows her earning a significant chunk of the Republican base, they believe, it is a sign that she could erode his support nationally. On Tuesday night, she mentioned that Lincoln “was defeated in elections for the Senate and House before he won the most important election of all.”
“It’s a referendum on whether there is a lane, there is a discernible faction” of Republicans willing to vote for a GOP opponent to Trump, said Mike Madrid, an anti-Trump Republican strategist. “The goal here ... is to protect the institutions of democracy for this country.”