In the Coal Creek Coffee shop in Laramie, Wyo., a few weeks ago, a woman recognized me and struck up a conversation about what has become the most closely watched congressional race in the United States. She explained that she was a Democrat but that she would be crossing over to vote in Wyoming’s Republican primary to cast a ballot for embattled Representative Liz Cheney.
“It’s a way to push back against Trump,” she said. “He wants to get rid of Liz, well, I’m going to vote for her.”
That’s not an uncommon sentiment among Wyoming Democrats. As I wrote in my Nation piece on the primary in which Cheney’s reelection prospects have been dimmed by the former president’s enthusiastic campaigning on behalf of challenger Harriet Hageman, Wyoming allows so-called crossover voting. A lot of people who don’t regularly vote in Republican primaries are planning to cast a GOP ballot today for the incumbent representative who has become the Republican Party’s most high-profile critic of Trump’s incitement of insurrection on January 6, 2021, and the general lawlessness of the former reality TV star who has replaced Ronald Reagan as the Grand Old Party’s icon.
Cheney, a lifelong Republican with a record of fierce partisanship, has been reaching out to Democrats and encouraging them to briefly register as Republicans and cast a ballot for her. This isn’t an embrace of bipartisanship on Cheney’s part. It’s practical politics. Cheney’s far behind in the polls and no one thinks she can win the Republican primary with the votes of the apparently very small number of “constitutionalist-conservative” Republicans who approve of her work on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. She needs voters like John Robinson, a prominent Wyoming civil rights lawyer, who told me that after watching the January 6 Committee hearings, he decided to go public with a message that, though a lifelong Democracy, he would be casting a GOP ballot for Cheney.
“Our republic hangs in the balance.” Robinson explained. “The stakes could not be greater.”
The stakes are high. Trump is consolidating his hold on the GOP—as recent primary results from Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states confirm. Wyoming is what Politico refers to as the latest stop on “Trump’s scorched-earth revenge tour” against Republicans who voted to impeach him after the January 6 insurrection. Four of the 10 anti-Trump Republicans in the House have decided not to seek reelection in GOP primaries they were likely to lose; three were defeated by Trump-backed challengers; and now Cheney—the most prominent member of the group—is fighting to hold on to the seat once occupied by her father, former vice president Dick Cheney. If Cheney loses, Trump will be that much stronger as a force within the GOP and as a likely bidder for the presidency in 2024.
I’m in the camp that would like to see Trump’s ambitions get tripped up in Wyoming. And I have no problem with Wyoming Democrats—a distinct minority of the electorate in a state that hasn’t backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson won in 1964—choosing to send a crossover message. I’ve always embraced the historic progressive commitment to open primaries, in which voters are free to take the ballot of the party with the most interesting races.
But I would have a hard time voting for Cheney. While I very much respect her vote to impeach Trump, and while her work on the January 6 Committee has been exemplary, I’m not comfortable taking her side in the fight for the soul of the Republican Party. I’ve covered this fight for many years, both as a reporter and a historian. I’ve celebrated the radical Republicans who formed the party more than 168 years ago in Ripon, Wis. I’ve written favorably about 20th-century Republicans who stood on the right side of history. And I’ve praised Republicans like former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld who have challenged not just Trump but the broader drift toward authoritarianism within the GOP.
That’s where my problem with Cheney comes in. She’s not a maverick Republican who is breaking with her party’s cruel policies on economic, social, and foreign-policy issues. Along with Dick Cheney, with whom she worked closely on political projects before she decided to move to Wyoming and run for Congress, Liz Cheney for decades has been in the forefront of the fight to make the GOP an extreme right-wing party. As a political operative and more recently as a leading Republican in Congress, Cheney established herself as a neoconservative warmonger whose crude attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and progressives carried the same venom as those of the most extreme members of her caucus—and of the 45th president, whose election in 2016 and reelection bid in 2020 she enthusiastically supported.
Before their recent falling out, Cheney voted with Trump 93 percent of time. And when she broke with the former president, it was often to take more extreme positions. Cheney’s an outspoken critic of abortion rights, a vigorous foe of efforts to control gun violence, and an ardent advocate for cutting social programs, reducing taxes on the rich, and balancing the budget in favor of the Pentagon. Before the 2020 election, Cheney used a March 2019 Meet the Press appearance to decry Democrats as “the party of anti-Semitism, the party of infanticide, the party of socialism.” Cheney claimed that Kamala Harris “sounds just like Karl Marx.” And her attacks on Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) were so vicious that Jim Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, told Cheney that her rhetoric “smacks either of a deep-seated anti-Arab/Muslim bigotry or crass politics designed to prey on the bigotry of your ‘base.’ In either case it’s disgraceful. Your party’s been playing this game for a decade. Shame.”
Zogby’s reference to “playing this game for a decade” is spot-on. The Republican Party has certainly degenerated under Trump’s dangerous leadership. But that degeneration began long before Trump announced his presidential bid in 2015. It’s often said these days that Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower would be unwelcome in the contemporary Republican Party. But the same thing was said when the Cheneys were employing big lies to promote an illegal and immoral war with Iraq, a bloated military-industrial complex, tax cuts for the rich, and the Tea Party approach to domestic policy.
Trump was able to take charge of the Republican Party because it had already embraced so much of what he stood for. The line should have been drawn long before Trump came along. Instead, Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney, and others like them created a Republican Party that was ripe for Trumpism.
It’s good that Liz Cheney and a handful of conservative Republicans have finally objected to the worst excesses of Donald Trump and his minions. I respect the motivations of Wyoming Democrats who will vote for Cheney today in order to push back against Trump. And I sincerely hope that the Republican Party can throw off the extremism that has claimed its soul. But that extremism has deep roots. I’m just not satisfied that replacing Trumpism with Cheneyism is a sufficient exorcism.