CHEYENNE, Wyo. – When Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, decided to vote to impeach a president from her own party, she knew she'd cause some waves. She might not have expected the seismic impact at home.
But Cheney's vote against Donald Trump has put her home state of Wyoming — by some measures the most Republican state in the country — on the front lines of the GOP civil war. The rising GOP leader and daughter of a former vice president is now facing the prospect of censure from the state party, a primary challenge and the wrath of Trump and his loyalists vowing to make her pay.
House Republicans are expected to decide next week whether to strip Cheney of her job as House conference chair. Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, an ardent Trump ally from Florida, urged about 1,000 people Thursday at an anti-Cheney rally in Cheyenne to vote her out.
“Wyoming will bring Washington to its knees,” Gaetz said to cheers. “Washington, D.C., mythologizes the establishment powerbrokers like Liz Cheney for climbing in a deeply corrupt game. But there are more of us than there are of them.”
Many rallygoers' signs called for Cheney's impeachment. Some signs toward the back read “Thank You Liz” and “Florida Man Is An Idiot.”
Cheney's fate at home and in Washington will be one indicator of whether GOP traditionalists or Trump-aligned activists determine the direction of the party. Her troubles have already served as a warning for Republicans in the Senate, most of whom signaled Tuesday they would vote to acquit Trump on the charge of inciting an insurrection. Meanwhile, Trump’s political action committee, Save America, is using a poll it commissioned on Cheney’s popularity with Wyoming voters to taunt her — and show other Republicans what may lie ahead when they don’t support Trump.
Cheney's defenders cast the blowback from her vote as ginned up by attention-seekers. “Wyoming doesn’t like it when outsiders come into our state and try to tell us what to do,” said Amy Edmonds, a former Cheney staffer and past state legislator.
But there’s little doubt the lawmaker in her third term is facing homegrown opposition in a state where the establishment’s once-firm grip has been slipping.
Republican state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, a gun rights activist, announced his primary challenge against Cheney one week after her impeachment vote, making a clear effort to rally Trump fans.
“The swamp was after me,” Bouchard said of his recent reelection to the statehouse despite being badly outspent. “I just don’t think that works any more in Wyoming. I think the people have figured it out.”
Whether pro-Trump Republicans can unite behind a single Cheney opponent remains a big question. Calling in to the Gaetz rally, Donald Trump Jr., the former president's son, made clear that Bouchard wasn't on his shortlist.
“Let's be careful who it is. Let's not just back the first person who comes along,” said Trump Jr. as Bouchard stood on the Wyoming Capitol steps in full view but without taking part.
Another possible candidate is Cheyenne attorney and investor Darin Smith, who lost to Cheney in the 2016 Republican primary. Saying he's weighing his options, Smith accused Cheney after the rally of chasing a “family vendetta” against former President Trump.
"She gave the state of Wyoming the middle finger. And we're going to hold her accountable for that. End of story," Smith said.
It's a far cry from November, when Cheney won the state's only congressional seat with a majority close to Trump’s — 70%, more than any other state.
She'd spent the last four years dancing around Trump, largely dodging questions about his racist comments and hard-line immigration moves, while occasionally criticizing his foreign policy. When Trump began urging lawmakers to reject the Electoral College vote, she wrote a memo warning of a "tyranny of Congress.”
But Cheney — whose father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, held her seat for 10 years and who was raised in part in the Washington suburbs — described Trump's actions on Jan. 6 as a breaking point. Trump called on supporters to “fight” to overturn his election loss, in a speech shortly before rioters stormed the Capitol in an insurrection. Notably, Trump called Cheney out by name in his speech, telling his backers they should work to get rid of the lawmakers who “aren't any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world.”
Cheney says she voted her conscience without regard for political consequences.
“My oath to the Constitution is one I can’t walk away from, is one I can't violate,” she said.
She has since sought to marshal the state's sizable Republican establishment in her defense. Aides have circulated approving editorials and letters to the editor, and long lists of supporters. Those backers include Gov. Mark Gordon, Sen. John Barrasso and Sen. Cynthia Lummis, who was one of just eight senators to vote against certifying Electoral College results in battleground states in the riot’s aftermath.
Cheney also has the support of two influential state interest groups: the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and Wyoming Mining Association.
But in Wyoming, as in many states, the divide between traditional GOP interests and Trump-aligned, far-right activists is wide.
Local Republican Party officials in three of Wyoming’s 23 counties have voted to censure Cheney for her impeachment vote. In a fourth, Republicans at an informal meet-and-greet Monday held an unofficial straw poll ahead of plans for a formal censure vote.
“Based on what I saw last night, whew, it’s going to be overwhelmingly anti-Liz Cheney,” said Bob Rule, a radio station owner and GOP precinct committee member in western Wyoming's sparsely populated Sublette County, a gas-drilling hotspot. “They felt she used her own personal feelings about the situation and not the feelings of the people of Wyoming.”
Several of the three dozen or so people at the meet-and-greet in the town of Marbleton, population 1,400, were newcomers there out of opposition to Cheney’s vote, Rule added.
The Republican State Central Committee could take up censuring Cheney when it meets in early February.
Plenty of voters are suddenly receptive to the idea of not just politically dinging Cheney but also giving her the boot.
“I made a mistake voting for her,” said Misty Shassetz, 43, a grocery store employee in Casper.
“This is Trump country, you know, that’s who we voted for. What she did was wrong. I just feel like the voters need somebody who actually speaks for the voters,” Shassetz said. “And she is not it.”
Cheney has some time to try to win back voters like Shassetz, notes Don Warfield, a retired public relations consultant.
“If people are still as angry in the summer of 2022 as they are now, Liz Cheney faces some real problems,” Warfield said.