IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Liz Cheney loses in Wyoming — but what she gains may end up more valuable

Cheney was the crown jewel of Trump’s revenge tour. And yet her defeat reflects both the party's vulnerabilities and her newfound power.
Image: Liz Cheney
Vice chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., listens as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol, on July 21, 2022.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Rep. Liz Cheney had no illusions about her fate.

“If the cost of standing up for the Constitution is losing the House seat,” Cheney told The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin this month, “then that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

With Cheney’s defeat in Tuesday’s Wyoming House primary, former President Donald Trump has helped end the congressional careers of eight of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Four of them retired, and now four have been defeated in their GOP primaries.

This is a hard concept to understand for much of official Washington, for whom clinging to power is the prime directive and electoral defeat is its worst fear.

Cheney was the crown jewel of Trump’s revenge tour, and, as much as any other election result, her ouster epitomizes the arc of the Trumpified GOP two years from the next presidential election.

And yet, it also reflects the party's vulnerabilities, because Cheney will leave office more influential and admired — and perhaps even powerful — than ever before.

This is a hard concept to understand for much of official Washington, for whom clinging to power is the prime directive and electoral defeat is its worst fear.

Like Trump, they misunderstood and underestimated the iron lady of Wyoming. But she is also a political rarity with few historical parallels: a mainstream politician willing not only to give up political power, but also to risk excommunication from the only political world she has ever known.

In an age when actual political courage is vanishingly rare, she personified John F. Kennedy’s definition of a profile in courage: “In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.”

Indeed, as NBC News’ Jonathan Allen notes, “Cheney has arguably given up the most of any elected Republican — one who had been on a path to potentially become speaker of the House someday — to draw a line against Trump and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election by all means available to him.”

Whatever your opinion of her political views, she never wavered in her commitment to hold Trump accountable. When she announced she would vote to impeach Trump in January 2021, every sentence in her statement delivered a hammer blow:

The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.

Everything that followed was his doing.

None of this would have happened without the President.

The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence.

He did not.

There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.

By any measure, this was an audacious and risky move, not only because she was the third-highest-ranking member of the GOP House leadership at the time, but also because she represented a district (the at-large seat from Wyoming) that Trump won by more than 46 points in 2020.

Over the next few months, Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who initially claimed to be appalled by the attack on the Capitol, scurried back to win Trump’s favor. Even some of the Republicans who voted with her to impeach tried to mute their criticism (and lost anyway).

Cheney remained rock solid.

When she was ousted from her leadership position in the GOP, she didn’t waver. When she was censured by her state party and it became clear she would face near-certain defeat in the 2022 primary, she continued to warn that Trump continued to pose a clear and present danger.

Because not only did she recognize Trump’s existential threat to democracy; she acted on that threat. And that meant putting the defense of the Constitution ahead of every other political and ideological priority. Cheney had consistently voted with Trump, and she remains a staunch conservative — on everything from foreign policy to government spending — but (unlike some of her critics) she recognized that those goals and principles now needed to be subordinated to the fight for democracy.

And so she continued to vote with Republicans on many issues, but she was willing to find common ground with the Democrats who wanted to investigate Trump’s role in the attempted coup. She accepted Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appointment to the special committee and took on a marquee role as Trump’s most relentless prosecutor.

She knew this would make her a pariah in her own tribe. She did it anyway, accepting that she would lose friends, colleagues, donors and many of the alliances she had built up over a lifetime in politics.

This earned Cheney a somewhat strange (and sometimes strained) new respect among Democrats but subjected her to the full fury of MAGA vitriol. She has spent tens of thousands of dollars on special security because of threats of violence.

Few Washington politicos can begin to understand the moral and physical courage this required. But this 56-year-old woman put all the strutting phonies of MAGA manliness and masculine “toughness” to shame.

She didn’t want or need a seat at this table. She didn’t think another two years sitting at the right hand of an invertebrate like Kevin McCarthy — in a caucus stacked with cranks, bigots, cowards and time-serving hypocrites — was worth the price of her silence.

And yet, she also didn’t back away from what appeared to be a losing fight.

Cheney could have retired and avoided Tuesday night’s shellacking. But, to quote Margaret Thatcher, the lady’s not for turning. In her closing ad this week, she looked directly into the camera and said:

“America cannot remain free if we abandon the truth. The lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is insidious. It preys on those who love their country. It is a door Donald Trump opened to manipulate Americans to abandon their principles, to sacrifice their freedom, to justify violence, to ignore the rulings of our courts and the rule of law.”

In a state like Wyoming, that argument was unlikely to win an election. But that wasn’t the point: Cheney wanted to have the last word.

And ultimately, she had a different kind of endgame in mind, anyway.

“Nobody would piss off the entire state of Wyoming without another plan,” a Wyoming GOP politico told Allen. But, as my colleague Sarah Longwell wrote, “What if … and try to stay with me here … the endgame is doing the right thing?”

For much of the new GOP, that is also incomprehensible. But Cheney has an eye on the verdict of history.

I imagine Liz Cheney has been thinking about Margaret Chase Smith lately. On June 1, 1950, Smith, the Republican freshman senator from Maine, took to the Senate floor to deliver what became known as her “Declaration of Conscience.”

Months earlier, her GOP colleague Sen. Joseph McCarthy had launched his conspiracy theories on the world, accusing unknown communist plotters in the deep state of trying to subvert the country. While many Republicans were privately appalled by McCarthy’s baseless charges, most of the men in the caucus kept silent.

In a state like Wyoming, that argument was unlikely to win an election. But that wasn’t the point.

The Senate’s official history recalls the moment Chase rose to speak:

“Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. ... The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body. ... But recently that deliberative character has ... been debased to ... a forum of hate and character assassination.”

She spoke for just 15 minutes. She was a loyal Republican, she said, but she didn’t “want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

McCarthy dismissed Smith and those who agreed with her as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.” But 4½ years later, in December 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.” As the Senate history recounts: “McCarthy’s career was over. Margaret Chase Smith’s career was just beginning.”

Keep that in mind before you write Liz Cheney’s final political obituary.