Struggle for the House in Staunchly-Republican Wyoming Reflects Party-Wide Shift in Priorities
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
In Wyoming, a struggle between conservatism and Trumpism unfolds as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who disaffected her constituents with her anti-Trumpist stances, faces losing the state’s at-large House district to Trump-endorsed challenger Harriet Hageman in 2022.
The fight for the Wyoming GOP primary is effectively the fight for the state’s House seat. Wyoming voters, as of 2018, are 67% Republican and 17% Democratic. Republicans wholly represent Wyoming. Barring an unprecedented shift in voting patterns dating back to 1965, whoever wins the primary wins the seat.
With that in mind, polling from July shows that 77% of Republican primary voters would not vote to reelect Cheney. A stunning 53% labeled her a ‘liberal’- for a Republican, a killer title. Moreover, months before a Trump-backed candidate emerged in September, Cheney was predicted to lose the primary to her main challenger, Rep. Chuck Gray (WY-57), in every situation except a no-endorsement six-way race, where six hopefuls would run without Trump’s endorsement. In Wyoming, Trump is a popular name, with an approval rating of 79%, so his endorsement is worth its weight in gold. For Hageman, it included commands to other Republican contenders to withdraw and endorse her. Cheney’s best-case scenario of a six-way race without a Trump endorsement is long gone. And with Cheney selected (to the ire of her constituents) by Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) to Vice-chair the House ‘January 6th’ Committee, her chances are even slimmer.
Polling is currently unavailable for the Hageman-Cheney race. However, Hageman’s electoral experience is telling. In 2018, she ran in the GOP’s gubernatorial primary, raising 1.1 million dollars and finishing 3rd in a crowded race, impressive results for a newcomer. July polling found that 77% of Republican primary voters would not reelect Cheney, regardless of her opponent. But Hageman is not just any opponent. Unlike Cheney, who abandoned her first Wyoming attempt after committing faux pas that painted her as an outsider, Hageman is a born Wyomingite and RNC committeewoman from Cheyenne. Her family has been in Wyoming politics for generations. With Trump’s backing, a long history of serving Wyoming, and an opponent in dire straits, Hageman seems likely to win, if not by her own merit, then by Cheney’s demerits.
Hageman’s win is not guaranteed. Some commentators feel that Cheney’s choice of principle over party may appeal to a state that they claim has an ‘independent streak.’ However, polling indicates that 75% of primary voters disapprove of her choice to impeach, and 76.3% oppose her agreement to join the House January 6th Committee. Clearly, Cheney’s principles do not appeal to most Wyoming voters.
On September 27th, the New York Times published an exposé on Hageman. In 2016, she was one of a tiny cadre of mutinous GOP officials who vainly resisted Trump’s nomination at the eleventh hour, calling him the ‘weakest candidate’ and ‘racist and xenophobic.’ Whether Wyoming voters care about past disloyalty in the face of current obedience remains to be seen. However, Hageman’s 2016 stance is similar to Cheney’s. It could present issues as the race develops.
Another obstacle to a Hageman victory is a crowded race, in which Cheney could get a plurality of the vote and win the nomination, so Republican officials are desperate to clear the field. However, according to a party official, egos are running high. Despite that, two of Cheney’s main challengers withdrew. Of those remaining in the field, Rep. Anthony Bouchard (WY-06) raped a 14-year-old, and Trump conspicuously refused to meet him. The other candidates are not polling high enough to be included in surveys, so the field seems to be narrowing. As of now, it seems unlikely that Bouchard and the others can split the vote enough to give Cheney a plurality.
The traditional-versus-Trump division is repeated nationwide as the GOP attacks incumbent politicians who refuse to embrace Trumpism. Trump-backed challengers have not always won; Trump swore to oust Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who voted to convict him during his second impeachment hearing. However, his endorsed candidate is not polling well. Murkowski is expected to win in 2022. Similarly, in Texas’ special elections, Trump’s Susan Wright lost to a traditional Republican candidate. However, the same outcome is dubious in Wyoming, where GOP voters have shifted towards Trumpism over traditional Republicanism.
From a legislative perspective, this election might not make a difference; a Republican is replacing a Republican. Cheney voted with Trump more than 90% of the time, 12% more than Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who took Cheney’s place in House GOP leadership after Cheney fell from favor. This seems to indicate that the 53% of Wyoming voters who label Cheney a ‘liberal’ are ill-informed.
But what this actually indicates is that policy is becoming unimportant to the GOP. What matters now for a GOP candidate is obedience to the party personality: Trump. Cheney, who almost always ideologically aligned with Trump, should have remained a voter-favored party elder. But Cheney’s divergence with Trump and convergence with Democrats over January 6th showed party leadership that she maintained morals separate from Trump’s. She would not unquestioningly keep him in power, now unacceptable for a Republican politician. Worse, Cheney showed voters that on the issues that now matter (power), she is a ‘liberal.’ Increasingly, Cheney-like Republicans are attacked by Trumpists as Republicans In Name Only. They lose primaries and are stripped of committee assignments.
It would be misleading to pin the shifting of the Republican mainstream on party leadership alone. Instead, GOP leadership is responding to their electorate. Trump never dipped below 77% approval among Republican voters and finished with 82%. Despite Trump’s failure to achieve many of his campaign promises, the former president remains a hero in red states. He maintained a high approval rating among Republicans during his term. Not only that, but his rise to prominence and efforts to shift the GOP towards him caused Republicans to view Congress more favorably than they had. During Trump’s second impeachment, even stars like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Mike Pence, and others faced the wrath of their electorate and party officials for ‘betraying’ Trump. Republicans whose only sin was acknowledging Biden’s victory were also unsafe.
Countless studies show that our legislative bodies and electorate are more polarized than ever. Congress is increasingly gridlocked, and constituent dissatisfaction with their party in Congress is universally high. So, to counter voter disenchantment or distrust, Republicans are displaying their commitment to what their voters approve of and elect: Trumpism.
The strategy works: Cheney, longtime Republican favorite, will likely be routed by her Trumpist opponent. Policy differences do not matter; refusing to keep Trump in power is unforgivable.
The party leaders who enabled Trump’s rise to power did an excellent job, too excellent for their own good. Trump is now the party, and Republicans may diverge at their peril. In Wyoming’s 2016 Republican presidential primary, Trump received only 7% of the vote, coming in dead last while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) received ten times more votes. However, in 2016 and 2020, Wyoming was a Trump stronghold, giving him wider margins than anywhere else. Once uneasy with the brash billionaire, voters are now on board with his ideology. Case in point: onetime Trump resistor Harriet Hageman is now his champion.
In America, disenchanted voters automatically anticipate broken promises, lies, and apathy. Red voters, tired of inaction, have chosen reaction and shifted the entire GOP to Trumpism. Republicans like Cheney who rebel against this new GOP risk their seats and careers.