She knew the price of defying Donald Trump but did it anyway. Liz Cheney, crushed in a primary election in Wyoming, was anointed by supporters and commentators as leader of the Republican resistance to the former US president.
But that invited a question: what resistance? Admirers of the three-term congresswoman who lost her House seat to a Trump-backed challenger warn that she could now find herself a general without an army.
In her concession speech in Jackson, Wyoming, on Tuesday, Cheney pointed out that if she had been willing to parrot Trump’s election lies, she would have remained in Congress. Instead she voted to impeach him and, as vice-chair of the January 6 committee, eviscerated him on primetime TV.
Now, having transferred leftover campaign funds into a new entity, The Great Task, and hinted at a presidential run, she seems determined to embrace her status as the face of the Never Trump movement.
“She set herself up to be that, to be the force that is going to stand up and fight because very few people have come forward and taken such a powerful stance,” said Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York.
“It helps that she lost so she’s able to do that. That’s what she’s hoping to be.”
The Great Task, however, may be an understatement of the challenge ahead. Trump’s Republican critics did appear to have the wind at their backs just couple of months ago as his poll ratings sank, he was pummeled by the January 6 committee and candidates he endorsed lost primaries in Georgia and elsewhere.
But the 76-year-old managed to turn an FBI search for government secrets at his home in Florida into a public relations triumph with his base. Donations poured in and Republicans rallied. Even potential 2024 rivals such as Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, felt obliged to question the justice department’s motives.
Meanwhile, Trump-favoured candidates surged in states such as Arizona, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Of the 10 House Republicans, including Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection, only two remain up for re-election.
McDermott said: “It seemed like he was fading from the public eye and a lot of people, especially Republicans, were glad about that. But his base is being riled up again. The FBI search was one source of that. The primary wins have been another.
“He has bounced back. He’s rebounded quite a bit from where he was post-presidency. At this point he is the titular head of the Republican party, whether people want him to be or not.”
Frank Luntz, a pollster who has advised many Republican campaigns, agreed that the primary wins are significant. He said: “Trump’s probably stronger with the GOP right now because of the Mar-a-Lago raid than in any time in the last six months.
“He’s turned himself into a victim and that unites Republicans around him. So they [the US justice department] better have something, because he has a new life within the GOP.”
‘Whatever it takes’
Anti-Trump forces remain scattered. Some Republican senators, such as Mitt Romney of Utah, and governors, such as Larry Hogan of Maryland, remain willing to speak out. Disaffected conservatives have set up ventures such as the Lincoln Project, Principles First, the Republican Accountability Project and the Bulwark website.
Adam Kinzinger, Cheney’s sole Republican colleague on the January 6 committee, created a group called Country First to recruit and back anti-Trump candidates. But Kinzinger himself is retiring.
With her storied name – her father, Dick Cheney, was vice-president under George W Bush – Cheney could emerge as the de facto resistance leader, touring the country and TV studios, prosecuting the case against Trump as an existential threat to democracy. Her work on the January 6 committee will continue until she relinquishes her seat in January. More televised hearings are promised.
On Wednesday she told NBC: “I will be doing whatever it takes to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office.”
She added that running for president “is something I’m thinking about and I’ll make a decision in the coming months”.
It would be tough. Cheney would have almost no chance of winning a primary and could expect the Republican National Committee to look for reasons to keep her off the debate stage. Few know the pitfalls better than Joe Walsh, a former congressman from Illinois who took on Trump in 2020.
Walsh said: “There is no anti-Trump movement in the Republican party. I love Liz and she’s a hero for what she did and God bless her but, as I realised two years ago, there’s no room in that party for me. There’s no room in this party for her. She knows that. She’s got a bigger name so she’ll leverage it but she’s got no army to lead.”
So where do anti-Trump Republicans go from here?
“What Liz Cheney is going to find is this is a difficult road because, if you play this road out all the way, you have to do what I do, which is temporarily be on Team Democrat, which is weird for a Tea Party guy like me.
“I know Liz believes the Republican party right now is a threat to our democracy. If you believe that then you have to support people who will defeat Republicans and right now the only people who will defeat Republicans are Democrats. I think Liz is getting close to that point.”
Walsh admitted that being on “Team Democrat” is still a strange sensation.
“It’s fucking bizarre. Once a week, I pinch myself and think, ‘How the hell did I get here?’ I mean, I’m out there trying to help Tim Ryan win in Ohio but this is where we are because my former party has become what they’ve become.
“I don’t know what Liz will do. Again, she’s a different animal because she’s a Cheney and she can stay in that party and raise hell, but to what end? It can’t be changed.”
‘A big mistake’
If Trump is the Republican nominee, Cheney could stand as an independent in a general election. But that would run the “spoiler” risk of peeling off anti-Trump Republicans from the Democrat, presumably Joe Biden, and inadvertently giving Trump a path to the White House.
Luntz predicted: “She actually would take away more Biden votes than Trump votes.”
Cheney has won the admiration of Democrats and independents but some observers detect hubris. In her concession speech, she raised eyebrows by drawing parallels with Abraham Lincoln, the president who steered the union through the civil war.
Cheney said: “The great and original champion of our party, Abraham Lincoln, was defeated in elections for the Senate and the House before he won the most important election of all. Lincoln ultimately prevailed, he saved our union, and he defined our obligation as Americans for all of history.”
Luntz said: “Some Republicans who admire her tenacity and her convictions became annoyed that she compared herself to Abraham Lincoln. That was a big mistake. Whoever wrote that line really should be fired because instead of it being about Trump it became about her. And that did her irreparable damage.”
The Cheneys have been players in Washington for half a century, from the time Dick Cheney first ran for Congress to the arrival of Liz Cheney in 2017. She rose to the same position as her father, No 3 Republican in the House, only to be ousted as punishment for her dissent.
Then, on Tuesday, after the highest turnout of any Republican primary in Wyoming’s 132-year history, Cheney lost to the conservative lawyer Harriet Hageman by 36 points. Trump acolytes gloated that it signified the final purge of the Bush-Cheney era, surpassed by his populist brand of “America first” and baseless conspiracy theories. The Never Trumpers were in retreat once more.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “Liz Cheney certainly won the hearts of many Democrats and independents but her power in the Republican party doesn’t hold a candle to Donald Trump.
“We have to just be honest about that. She’s not a real threat to Donald Trump. She sees herself as kind of saviour but it’s in a party that’s not really looking for a saviour.”