As Wyoming’s Republican congressional primary neared, the question wasn’t whether incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney would lose, but rather, by what margin. As expected, the contest was not close. NBC News reported overnight:
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a onetime House GOP leader and a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was ousted in a Republican primary Tuesday night, NBC News projects.... With 80% of the vote counted before midnight, [attorney Harriet Hageman] was leading Cheney by more than 32 points.
As more votes are tallied, the margin may very well end up even larger.
There is a degree of irony to the circumstances. As Trump started rising to power in Republican politics, Hageman not only condemned the future president as “racist and xenophobic,” The New York Times reported last year that she was also “part of the final Republican resistance to his ascent in 2016, backing doomed procedural measures at the party’s national convention aimed at stripping him of the presidential nomination”
In fact, Hageman insisted at the time that Trump had only secured the nomination because Democratic voters had mischievously intervened in GOP primaries in order to saddle Republicans with a ridiculous and unelectable candidate.
Soon after, Trump won the presidency anyway, at which point Hageman reversed course, fell in line, and joined the cult of personality. Six years after trying to derail Trump’s career, the lawyer, with the enthusiastic backing of the former president she used to oppose, instead derailed Cheney’s career.
Given the degree to which Trump and Republican leaders hold Rep. Liz Cheney in contempt, it might be tempting for the public to see her as some kind of GOP moderate. After all, her own party hates her with the heat of a thousand suns; Republican congressional leaders won’t even speak to her; and thousands of Wyoming Democrats switched their party registrations ahead of yesterday’s primary just to vote for her.
But those who’ve come to see Cheney as a centrist have badly misunderstood recent events. The congresswoman is not reviled by her party because she’s too much of a Democrat; they hate her because she’s too much of a democrat.
By any sane measure, Cheney, a lifelong Republican from a prominent Republican family, is an unapologetic far-right lawmaker. During Trump’s presidency, she voted with the GOP White House roughly 94 percent of the time — a higher score than some members of the House Freedom Caucus.
In the current Congress, Cheney has also repeatedly voted against the Biden White House’s legislative priorities. There are a small handful of House Republicans who’ll occasionally break ranks and vote for some of the Democrats’ more popular proposals, but the overwhelming majority of the time, Cheney isn’t one of them.
There is, however, one critically important exception.
Cheney believes in democracy. She believes election results should be honored. She doesn’t believe her party should try to seize illegitimate power through insurrectionist lies and violence. She recognizes Trump and his authoritarian tactics as a serious threat to the American experiment.
From a Democratic perspective, Cheney’s policy record is indefensible and she’s wrong about practically everything. But from a democratic perspective, the Wyoming congresswoman is a rare voice trying to prevent one of the nation’s two major parties from abandoning our system of government.
“Two years ago, I won this primary with 73 percent of the vote. I could easily have done the same again,” Cheney said last night. “The path was clear. But it would have required that I go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election. It would have required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic. That is a path I could not and would not take.”
Her point was more than fair: Up until very recently, Cheney was one of Congress’ safest bets for re-election. If she’d just toed the line and repeated Trump’s lies, she’d be celebrating this morning and looking forward to another easy victory in the fall.
Instead, the congresswoman told the truth — about the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 attack, and Trump’s efforts to undermine our democracy. Her punishment was a landslide defeat in a party she struggles to recognize.
On his Twitter-like platform, the former president celebrated Cheney’s defeat, acting as if she’d soon exit the stage. That’s unlikely.
“This primary election is over,” she told her supporters last night. “But now the real work begins.”
The Atlantic’s Mark Leibovich added, “Even in defeat, Cheney could emerge from Wyoming tough and unencumbered enough to serve as a one-woman wrecking ball against Trump and as a reckoning for a party that’s been terrified to speak honestly about him for years now.”
Ordinarily, members who lose in primaries quietly slink away, dejected and directionless. Anyone expecting Cheney to follow such a route hasn’t been paying close enough attention.