She isn’t really fighting to keep her seat in Congress. She’s fighting Donald Trump.
About the author: Mark Leibovich is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Thank You for Your Servitude and This Town.
LARAMIE, Wyo.—Liz Cheney will probably lose her job on Tuesday, in large part due to her crusade against Donald Trump. Trump will surely taunt her as a big RINO loser, but Cheney has no plans to end her fight against him. She is already looking past her anticipated defeat here and into a future that could include—I suspect—a primary challenge to the former president in 2024.
“It’s clear that our party is really sick right now,” Cheney told me when I spoke with her last week. “The Trump forces that are trying to pull us into the abyss are really strong and really fighting.” Punching back has not been a winning formula for Cheney’s reelection bid in America’s reddest state. Her Trump-certified challenger, the election-denying Harriet Hageman, is well ahead in the polls.
At the very least, though, Cheney won herself another big celebrity endorsement the other day: Kevin Costner! She tweeted a photo of the cowboy-hatted actor wearing an I’m For Liz Cheney T-shirt on what appears to be the set of the hit Paramount series Yellowstone. “Real men put country over party,” she captioned her photo of Costner, who is in many ways a typical Cheney supporter circa 2022: a liberal-leaning recent convert who does not live in Wyoming.
Cheney has raised more than $13 million in this election cycle, nearly all of it from out of state. Strangers keep running up to her, sometimes in tears, to thank her for her onslaught against Trump. They tell Cheney that she is the paragon of American courage at a time when the country so desperately needs it. “I haven’t always agreed with you,” they inevitably begin, and the reverence flows from there.
And then there are the death threats. They mostly come from people who have typically agreed with her. Cheney has, let’s just say, fallen out of favor in the state and party where she, until recently, was royalty. Most Republicans have zero use for her these days, which is just as well, because the feeling is mutual.
But Cheney is playing a longer game, she says. She has spent many hours working on her address for Tuesday night. It will almost certainly be a concession speech, but Cheney seems to view her primary more as a speed bump—and her address as a prime-time launching pad into a political future far more consequential than anything she could have achieved in Congress. Whatever Wyoming Republicans decide will be secondary to Cheney’s pursuit of her real opponent, Donald Trump. Will Harriet Whatshername even rate a mention?
I joined Cheney in the college town of Laramie, at a house party hosted by one of her supporters. As usual, people were coming up to her—very young people and very old people and liberals who probably used to deride her father, Dick Cheney, as Darth Vader and a war criminal. Now they were praising Darth Daughter, reminding her that she is playing for history and on a stage much bigger than Wyoming. They tell her not to be deterred—by the abuse or the Ditch Liz signs or whatever ugly results come in after the voting’s done.
“I consider you an absolute hero,” an 89-year-old local Democrat named Jim LaFleiche told Cheney. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” Cheney thanked LaFleiche and assured him that she would not give up. “This is about preserving the Constitution and the rule of law and the basic seriousness of politics,” she said. “And it is about”—wait for it, as it’s become Cheney’s mantra—“making sure that Donald Trump does not get near the Oval Office again.”
Cheney also called the former president the greatest threat to our republic in the country’s 246-year history—words that her father echoed almost precisely in an ad that her campaign released the next day. No office is worth having if it means signing on to a big lie, she told me.
At nearly that same moment, Hageman was in Casper, Wyoming, declaring the exact opposite. “Absolutely the election was rigged,” she said about Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump nearly two years ago—an assertion she had not made explicitly until that point. Hageman probably does not believe this, but uttering the line has become the price of admission into Trump’s party. It is, in many cases, the cost of viability for Republicans running in states like Wyoming, where Trump won 70 percent of the vote—his largest share—in 2020.
A day later: Hungary’s ultra-right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was in Dallas kicking off the Conservative Political Action Conference. The annual CPAC gathering has become a kind of MAGA jamboree celebrating all the flavors of Republican denial (the election, January 6, COVID, etc.). Trump hosted Orbán, the European Union’s only autocrat, at his New Jersey resort last week, and both men enjoyed wildly enthusiastic receptions at CPAC. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Sarah Palin, the My Pillow guy, and Papa John also spoke. Cheney was nowhere to be found, though her name was hurled about as a slur.
I reminisced with Cheney a few months ago about a CPAC I had covered in 2010. She had been greeted at the event, held that year in Washington, as a bright light of the Republican Party’s future. Her remarks culminated in her introduction of a special guest, Dick Cheney, whom she called the man who “taught me what it means to have the courage of your convictions.” The former vice president walked out to Beatles-worthy shrieks from the young crowd and a few scattered “Run, Dick, run!”s When he said, “I think Barack Obama is a one-term president,” the audience jumped to its feet and whooped. The line was considered red meat by the base back then, though Cheney wasn’t even calling for Obama to be locked up or, for that matter, hanged. Those were innocent times.
Being a lonely exemplar of courage in a party otherwise bloated with cranks and cowards has made Liz Cheney one of the most admired political leaders in America—at least among Democrats. “The world is upside down,” Cheney has been saying. Indeed, the marvel of Dick Cheney’s daughter now having a 59 percent approval rating among Democrats, and only 14 percent among Republicans, has not been lost on anyone.
Cheney voted in line with Trump’s positions 93 percent of the time when he was president. But after he lost the election and lied about it, Cheney turned hard against him and almost immediately became a pariah in her party. Now 66 percent of Republicans view her unfavorably. The vitriol that Republicans direct toward her is typically reserved for their go-to Democratic villains—often female ones: Hillary, Pelosi, AOC. Because of threats to her safety, Cheney’s campaign events are never publicized, and reporters are only selectively alerted. Security is heavy and paranoia runs deep in Cheney World, probably for good reason.
Back at the Laramie house party, a young woman—a recent University of Wyoming graduate, voice hushed and earnest—was urging Cheney to keep fighting. She implored her not to be deterred by what keeps happening to her fellow Republican Trump-resisters in other states. The night before, Representative Peter Meijer, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the defeated president, had lost his primary in Michigan, as had Rusty Bowers, the Republican House speaker in Arizona, who gave some of the most damning testimony against Trump before the January 6 committee. I asked Cheney how dispiriting it was for her to see them go down in defeat. “It just makes me more determined,” Cheney said. “We have a lot of work to do. It’s not just this election cycle.”
Alan Simpson, the 92-year-old former Republican senator from Wyoming and a longtime friend of the Cheneys, placed her congressional race in the context of American heroes doing unpopular things—routed, perhaps, in the short term, but vindicated by history. “Look, she’s going to go on into eternity, or as long as is necessary” to stop Trump, Simpson told me. “She’s going to keep doing everything she can to bring down this oafish man, who’s filled with revenge and hatred and total disregard for the laws of the United States.”
As a preamble to brief remarks Cheney made, another local supporter, Laura Lewis, shared a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that she said applied to the trailing candidate. “A statesman is he who thinks in the future generations,” read Lewis. “And a politician is he who thinks in the upcoming elections.”
These are the kinds of rationalizations that are often trotted out about candidates who are about to lose. But in the context of Cheney’s campaign—and the bravery she has exhibited—it feels wholly appropriate. Of all the elements of cowardice that have afflicted the Republican Party, a particularly pathetic one is the terror so many of Cheney’s colleagues appear to have about losing their jobs. Maybe they can’t bear the thought of forfeiting their congressional parking spaces or fancy pins, or maybe they simply lack the stomach to get called bad names by Donald Trump. So they do whatever it takes to pass their tribal loyalty tests and survive their next election. They’re so afraid of being called a “former member of Congress” that they’ll never know what it feels like to be called “courageous.”
If Cheney takes any consolation from her likely ouster from Congress, it is that she will no longer be part of a caucus that she’s lost all regard for. “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible,” Cheney said in what may be remembered as her signature line in the January 6 hearings. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
A mere mention of colleagues such as Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, Republican leaders with whom Cheney once worked closely, elicits from her a kind of visceral contempt. “It makes me really sad and it makes me really angry,” Cheney told me in Laramie in a slow, measured tone. She said she has watched in disgust as so many people she once admired have stood by and not only ignored the obvious threat of Trump, but embraced him. “It makes me realize: We have too many people in our party who don’t understand our history, who don’t understand why we take the oath, who don’t understand what our obligation is,” Cheney told me.
The colleagues she speaks of most favorably these days tend to be Democrats, many of them female. In Laramie, she singled out Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania as “serious people who do their homework and love their country.”
Cheney identifies her work on the January 6 committee—made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans—as the most important thing she’s done in her professional life. The hearings, she said, have served as an antidote to the many derelictions that so many of her party’s putative “leaders” have been guilty of. “People don’t realize how fragile our system is,” Cheney told me. “We just get accustomed to thinking, you know, we’ll survive anything.”
Whatever happens Tuesday, whatever remains of the January 6 committee, Liz Cheney’s work will continue. She says it’s too early for her to discuss the prospect of a presidential run. But not for me. I’m guessing Cheney will run, and I believe that she absolutely should, especially if Trump does. It would almost certainly be another losing primary for her. Yet it would nonetheless be a fascinating matchup, much more compelling than any challenge a Trump-derivative character such as Ron DeSantis or Mike Pence could ever pose. It’s hard to imagine DeSantis or Pence seriously mocking Trump for losing to Brandon in 2020, or challenging his election lies, or slamming him for his complicity and desertion on January 6, or mentioning the FBI’s search of his residence or his need to plead the Fifth.
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. I imagine Trump and the RNC will do whatever is necessary to avoid such a reckoning and to keep Trump as far away as possible from a debate stage with Liz Cheney: Republican from reality.