JACKSON, Wyo. – Rep. Liz Cheney had it all two years ago.
She won her 2020 primary with 73% of the vote, she was already the No. 3 ranking House GOP leader, and she was well on her way to becoming the first female Republican speaker.
All the Wyoming Republican had to do was keep quiet, like almost all her male GOP colleagues had decided to do.
“I could easily have done the same again, the path was clear, but it would have required that I go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election,” Cheney told a crowd of about 100 supporters gathered in a valley inside the Teton Mountain range. “It would have required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic.
“That was a path I could not and would not take.”
Cheney used her defiant concession speech Tuesday night, after losing badly in the GOP primary to Trump’s handpicked candidate, to promise a sustained campaign against the ex-president and his allies. She surrendered her rising-star status in Congress in a sacrificial manner toward a higher calling to take on the most powerful figure in her increasingly conspiratorial political party.
Cynics back in Washington discounted this race long ago as lacking importance, given that it was trading one deeply conservative Republican for another. Cheney, after all, voted with Trump and the GOP leaders she now decries more than 90% of time.
But congressional historians say that’s missing the point: What Cheney has done, in sacrificing her seat and yet fighting to the finish without wavering, is just not common in this era.
“I cannot recall anyone who compares to Liz Cheney’s ‘full force’ confrontation with Trump and company, especially post-World War II,” Donald R. Wolfensberger, a scholar at the Wilson Institute, said Tuesday.
As she has done from her perch on the committee investigating the Trump-inspired 2021 attack on the Capitol, Cheney laid out the terms of how she will judge the success of her effort.
“We must be very clear-eyed about the threat we face and about what is required to defeat it. I have said since January 6, that I will do whatever it takes to ensure Donald Trump is never again anywhere near the Oval Office. And I mean this,” she said, drawing cheers from a crowd that featured a few newfound admirers among local liberals but was largely made up of old-time hands from Wyoming Republican politics. Tucked off to the side of the crowd sat two of the most notable of the latter group: Cheney’s parents, former vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, herself a former chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities in the Reagan and Bush administrations.
It will be more difficult for the younger Cheney to garner the same level of attention next year, when she is out of office, after just six years and at the politically young age of 56. She won’t have the vice-chair perch she currently enjoys on the Jan. 6 committee, whose hearings have drawn tens of millions of viewers on national TV.
But she has gained a level of attention that now dwarfs almost every other member of Congress, commanding a platform that all but a handful of other Republicans in the Capitol have attempted.
And she has become a prolific fundraiser, where in the past she would raise the minimum necessary to win in this small-population state where only the GOP primary matters.
Many supporters want her to run for president in 2024, some a bit naive in thinking she would be a top-tier contender. Cheney did little to tamp that down in Tuesday night’s speech.
Bales of hay surrounded a stage set on a ranch outside this resort town, with two American flags flanking each side. The speech’s timing had less to do with the results of the primary for the at-large seat — she conceded before she spoke — and more about hitting the precise image of the mountain range behind her as the sun set, creating the perfect golden-hour glow.
Not to mention, taking the stage before 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, Cheney reached a few million viewers back East who watched as cable networks covered the speech live. From the stage, Cheney looked straight up a mountain range that, on the other side, is home to the Spring Creek Ranch, where a longtime family supporter hosted a fundraiser last year for Trump’s truest believers in the House.
To be even less subtle, as Cheney’s speech ended, the sound system blared Tom Petty’s defiant anthem “I Won’t Back Down:”
“No I won’t back down/You could stand me up at the gates of hell/But I won’t back down.”
Cheney rejected input from advisers and traditional conservative Republicans here. They wanted her to run a campaign about all the work she had done on Wyoming issues, particularly on energy and federal lands policy that she helped move the Trump administration in her state’s direction.
A large chunk of Wyoming Republicans had lost interest in Trump and his ongoing mistruths about the 2020 election, but that meant they also just wanted Cheney to focus on those local issues.
Instead, after some early positive advertisements that discussed those matters, Cheney focused her final weeks almost singularly on prosecuting the case against Trump and those local Republicans who tout his fallacies about the 2020 election. Right down to running a 60-second ad featuring her father calling Trump a “coward.”
On Tuesday morning, just before she cast her vote here at the county library, she once again politely rejected that advice about focusing on issues other than Trump.
“I have no regrets,” she told a few reporters, expressing pride in the work she has done on Wyoming issues but explaining bigger issues were at play. “There is nothing more important than the defense of our Constitution. And so I’m going to continue to work and ensure that we’re doing that in a way that is nonpartisan.”
Liz Cheney is no longer just her father’s daughter. She has taken a role and an image unto herself, something the former vice president is now appreciative of, as he demonstrated Tuesday when he stood away from the cameras to let Liz be the focus of interviews at the polling place.
“Be in the shot, Dad,” the daughter told her father, pulling him in so he could be on camera.
“I had to ask permission,” the elder Cheney responded.
“I know,” his daughter retorted, laughing.
Cheney now joins other lawmakers who have demonstrated a political conscience in maintaining their positions even as they know it’s unpopular with voters in their party.
In the early 1950s, first-term Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, led the counterattack to McCarthyism. In 2006, as Democratic voters recoiled against the Iraq War, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., stood in support of a troop surge in the conflict. And in 1993, first-term Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, D-Pa., broke her promise not to raise taxes to cast the deciding vote approving a tax-hiking budget that set the nation on the course to remarkable economic stability.
Smith served another 20 years, getting rewarded for her opposition to McCarthy. Lieberman lost his primary but then ran as an independent and won another six-year term. Margolies-Mezvinsky lost in 1994, but her politically courageous vote did not create nearly as many death threats as Cheney and her family now endure for crossing Trump.
Several rank-and-file Republicans are running full-force campaigns to win the chairman’s gavel of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, in the expectation of a GOP majority next year. Whoever wins will be forgotten quickly by history, remembered only as someone who mouthed the right pro-Trump platitudes to appease a House GOP that forbids divergence from the ex-president.
Cheney is now a figure for history, whose final two years in the House will certainly be more fondly recalled than the decades of tenure those other Republicans reach.
Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump a week after the Capitol riot, four decided to retire rather than face likely defeat in primaries. One lost his primary in South Carolina in a blowout, and two more narrowly lost in Michigan and Washington state in races where they tried to localize the issues and not focus on their Trump views.
Just two have advanced to the general election, Reps. David Valadao, R-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and both tried hard to avoid talking about Trump in their campaigns.
Wolfensberger’s closest approximation to the way Cheney sacrificed her congressional career for higher principle was John Anderson in 1980. The Illinois Republican had served as House Republican conference chairman for a decade but resigned his post so that he could run as a moderate independent for president.
That’s the same post Cheney claimed in January 2019, after just one term in the House. She surrendered that leadership post in the spring of 2021, when it became clear that she could not continue to embarrass Trump’s sycophant allies, particularly House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and not face blowback.
Even then, Cheney still might have had a chance to remain in Congress, until she took the unusual step of accepting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appointment to the Jan. 6 committee.
Cheney tossed out all of those playbooks of the other impeachment Republicans and decided to run her campaign her own way, the way she wanted.
She would nod to local issues, but she focused on Trump. By late March, she found herself at a civic-engagement event in this resort town, a crowd dominated by local liberals.
One of them, Charles Thompson, a retired newspaper reporter from Philadelphia who has been active in Democratic politics here for 20 years, recalled this week how he waited in line to ask her about the choice she made to break so sharply against Trump and other party leaders.
“Was it,” Thompson asked, “a difficult choice?”
“No,” Cheney replied. “It was the only choice. It was the right thing.”