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If Liz Cheney runs for president, it will not go well

Cheney just got clobbered in the Wyoming primary. Now she's contemplating a quixotic White House run.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks to supporters Tuesday at a primary election night event at Mead Ranch in Jackson, Wyo.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks to supporters Tuesday at a primary election night event at Mead Ranch in Jackson, Wyo.Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

After getting trounced in the Wyoming GOP primary Tuesday night, Rep. Liz Cheney pledged to “do whatever it takes to ensure that Donald Trump is never again anywhere near the Oval Office” in her concession speech. And it appears that one way she’s considering advancing that goal is a presidential run of her own.

Pressed by NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie on Wednesday morning about whether she’d think about running for president, Cheney said, "That’s a decision that I’m going to make in the coming months, and I’m not going to make any announcements here this morning — but it is something that I am thinking about."

If she did make a run, I’d put quite a lot of money on her losing any contest she enters — badly.

It’s unclear how serious Cheney is, but if she did make a run, I’d put quite a lot of money on her losing any contest she enters — badly. The Republican Party has already made it clear not only that it doesn’t want her in a leadership position, but that it doesn’t want her in the party at all. Of course, this aversion doesn’t stem from dissatisfaction with her overall commitment to conservative values, but her refusal to go all in on the cult of Trump.

Cheney is an extremely conservative politician from an extremely conservative state who voted with Trump over 90% of the time when he was in office. She’s the daughter of one of the most powerful Republican politicians in modern American history, and she ascended to the No. 3 position in the House caucus leadership. But for the sin of speaking the truth about the 2020 election — that it was legitimate, that Trump lost, and that the Jan. 6 insurrection was the real threat to democracy — she has lost everything. She was ousted from her leadership position. She was censured by the Wyoming Republican Party — and then told she was no longer recognized as a Republican by it. And on Tuesday she lost by over 30 points to her challenger in the primary in a shellacking that many of her colleagues celebrated.

All polling about the potential shape of 2024 indicates that this Republican distaste for Cheney will remain. Most Republican voters believe the election was rigged, and that view informs their perception of Republican politicians. Trump is the 2024 front-runner by a large margin, and the only candidate close to him, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has a political style that is firmly in the Trumpian mold. (DeSantis refuses to say whether he thinks 2020 was rigged, but that’s more out of self-interest than principle — he campaigns for politicians who say it was.)

Cheney not only will be out of sync with the whole party on one of the most salient political questions of the day on the right; she will be associated with betraying the party through her participation in the House Jan. 6 panel.

This isn’t to say there is no value in a potential presidential bid. A campaign could at least help shape media narratives about splits in the Republican Party and help register intra-GOP objections to Trump that express some of the concerns of the small share of moderates remaining in the party. And if Cheney can at least poll well enough to make it onto the Republican presidential primary debate stage, it would be healthy for Republican voters to see someone challenge Trump face-to-face over his authoritarianism. She could also embolden other Republican presidential candidates who fear becoming lightning rods for taking on Trump directly but also have self-interest in downplaying Trump’s narrative that he’s a victim of the 2020 election.

Now, if Cheney were considering a third-party general election run if Trump won the nomination, in a bid to siphon off the votes of moderate Republicans and boost the Democrats, she would be a much sharper thorn in Trump’s side. But effective third parties always carry risks for both the major parties, since people from across the political spectrum often use third parties to lodge protests against the offerings of the two-party system. (It’s not commonly understood that leftie third party politicians like former Green Party candidate Ralph Nader have attracted a significant chunk of Republican-leaning voters in presidential races, for example.) Perhaps more to the point, this approach seems unlikely for Cheney given her traditional party roots and stated goal of wresting the Republican Party back from Trump.

All things considered, a presidential run would be a relatively minor form of activism. There are far more important tools that need to be used to defend against the possibility of Trump’s return — namely, a coalition on the left that can effectively mount a response to another potential brush with a white nationalist and authoritarian demagogue. And as my colleague Ja'han Jones points out, if Cheney is serious about defending democracy, then she must evolve ideologically and acknowledge the full array of strategies that Republicans use to undermine democracy — including those in which she has played a part.