LANDER, Wyo. – Over eggs and coffee, a spirited discussion on the future of the country’s politics takes place in this picturesque hamlet nestled at the base of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming.
A klatch of long-time chums – all Republican men – gather around a long table at the Inn at Lander. Amid the clinking of silverware and cups, they weigh in on the feud between former President Donald Trump and their lone GOP congresswoman, Liz Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president who carries the mantle of the state’s famous political family.
They banter back and forth. About her vote to impeach Trump on a charge he instigated the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. About Cheney’s future representing a state the former president carried by 70% in the 2020 election. About whether they think “Trumpism” can survive without Trump who continues to hint at a 2024 White House run.
“Betrayal,” is how Del McComie, 85, a retired Lander mayor and former state lawmaker, described Cheney’s impeachment vote. “Piling on,” chimed in Tony McRae, 73, a retired pharmacist. John Brown, 55, told the group he hasn’t completely soured on Cheney, defending her as “very effective” even if he doesn’t like all her policy positions.
All of these voters have cast ballots for both Trump and Cheney. Now they're faced with choosing sides – reluctantly in some cases – in a congressional race next year carrying national implications: reelect the anti-Trump incumbent to a fourth term or accede to the former president's wishes and send his chief antagonist packing.
"A hell of a collision," is how McRae describes the upcoming election.
Like Republicans across the nation, the group is debating the future of the GOP in a post-Trump universe. Nearly a year after he was voted out of office, the former president still casts a long shadow over the party – nowhere perhaps as long as in Wyoming, where Cheney is fighting to keep her seat even as her anti-Trump message turns off some voters.
Wyoming voters, a tiny fraction of the country's electorate, will decide a 2022 midterm race that has drawn the national spotlight. Trump has vowed to unseat Cheney and the nine other House Republicans who voted to impeach him – one of which, Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, has already dropped out.
It's a race with big consequences in the country's least-populous state, where it can feel like a vote carries more weight.
“Everybody here feels like they're an individual. They feel like their life matters," said Bill Sniffin, who publishes the online newspaper Cowboy State Daily. "And the power of the individual looms a lot bigger than it does if you were living in a city of 3 million people. There's something about the power of space and power of place. It makes you probably feel a lot more important than you would in another place."
Trump’s status as an anti-establishment outsider vowing to “drain the swamp” appealed to many here who are tired of edicts from Washington about eliminating fossil fuels crucial to the state’s economy, restricting recreation on public lands that comprise nearly half the state, and, lately, the push to mask up and vaccinate Americans from COVID-19.
Trump still holds enormous sway amid the majestic buttes and prairies of the state even as Cheney now has become the feisty outsider of the GOP. Her position has been loud and clear: Trump put himself above the nation's interests when he "incited" a mob of his supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 and should be rejected by those in and outside the Republican party.
“I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” she said in May after congressional Republicans stripped her of her leadership post as conference chair, the third most powerful GOP slot in the House.
The spotlight appears to have helped fuel Cheney's fundraising over the past six months, which has already eclipsed what she raised in all of the 2020 cycle, overwhelmingly drawing money from outside the state including from some Democratic donors.
Talking to dozens of voters and residents across the state, something clear emerges: The feud has left Wyoming Republicans asking uncomfortable questions: Why would our Republican congresswoman go against a Republican president in this conservative state? And why keep doing so publicly after he’s left office? At times, it seems their gripes could better be posed this way: What happened to the Liz Cheney we elected – and do we want her back?
'America First ... resonates here'
COME NEXT SUMMER, Wyoming voters will go to the polls in the GOP primary. That's the moment they will either affirm the GOP’s allegiance to Trump by voting out Cheney or rebuke the former president by siding with her.
"Wyoming is ground zero in the battle for the soul of the nation,” said Darin Smith, a Cheyenne lawyer and Trump supporter who ended his run against Cheney earlier this month after the former president endorsed another challenger, Harriet Hageman.
Hageman’s ability to clear most of the field means the GOP primary next August likely will be a true referendum on Trump – and provide Wyoming a bullhorn to exercise its outsized national influence.
Wyoming only has about 280,000 registered voters, more than two-thirds of whom are Republicans. The state is nearly 84% white and 1% Black. Less than half of its residents are signed up to vote, among the lowest rates in the nation.
A year out from the election, many voters said they were still deciding whom to support. Trump’s endorsement matters to some.
Trump still holds sway
Laurie Kilpatrick, 56, of Sheridan, supported Cheney in the past. Now, she's furious at the congresswoman, particularly over her vote to impeach Trump days before he was set to leave office.
"I like Trump because he made promises saying what he was gonna do. And then he kept those promises," said Kilpatrick, standing in the midway of the Wyoming State Fair in Douglas last month, while rodeo queens and entertainers on stilts floated by in the unseasonably hot air. "I thought she was going to be protecting those values."
Among the wafts of funnel cakes and vendors hawking neon-colored slushies in plastic cups, Millie Beck and her husband Gerry sewed handmade bags and clothing, surrounded by pelts in all colors from foxes to bears in their vending booth.
Millie had a message for those who say it's time to move on from Trump.
"Are they happy with the gas prices? Are they happy with our world right now or what's going on in our country?" she asked.
Sniffin sees how Trump could appeal to Wyomingites.
"Out here in the frontier, I think people really do appreciate that whole agenda that Donald Trump put forth. Call it Trumpism, call it America First," Sniffin said. "It resonates here."
The state’s economy is largely powered by energy, agriculture, and tourism. No state produces more coal: the 276.9 million short tons made up nearly 40% of the nation's entire output in 2019 and helps explain the appeal of Trump who ran on a platform of bringing back coal.
While Washington and climate activists around the country try to wean the country off fossil fuels, Wyoming stands defiant against the effort. In the ornate Senate chamber of the renaissance revival state Capitol building, chunks of glossy bituminous coal are proudly displayed on some lawmakers' desks.
"Wyoming is essentially a libertarian state more so than anything else. So there is really a distrust of government," said Joe McGinley, a Cheney supporter and sports medicine doctor in Casper who once chaired the Natrona County Republican Party. "Individuals here don't want to be told what to do in general. That's how you come to Wyoming."
Guy Don Carlos, 63, a steel fabricator from Cheyenne who attended an anti-mask rally outside the Capitol building. However, Cheney was not free, he said, to follow her conscience when she voted to impeach Trump.
“Liz Cheney applied for the job to represent the people of Wyoming. She got the job. She's cashing the checks. (But) she's not representing the will of the people of Wyoming," said Don Carlos. “She doesn't get paid to vote her conscience. She gets paid to represent the people of Wyoming."
The race is national – even if Wyomingites don't want it to be
TRUMP'S DECISION to endorse in the race and his push to clear the field so the 2022 primary is mainly a race between Cheney and Hageman will test a cardinal rule of Wyoming politics: outsiders should not get involved in local affairs.
“We're not overly interested in somebody coming into our state all the time and telling us how we ought to be," said McRae, the retired pharmacist from Lander.
Out-of-state donors have already poured millions into Cheney's campaign coffers. Trump acolytes, notably Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, have been coming to the state pitching anti-Cheney messages. And Trump campaign veterans are flocking to help Hageman's effort, according to Politico.
Months after she lost her leadership post after refusing to back down on her rebuke of Trump, Cheney has remained unflappable amid the searing attacks from members of her own party. The prospect of waging her toughest election campaign only has served to steel her determination.
"What we are seeing is this sort of arrogance of outside political operatives thinking that they can come into Wyoming and try to fool Wyoming voters, try to ultimately convince Wyoming voters to do what the folks in Bedminster or Mar-a-Lago think makes sense for us," Cheney told Wyoming reporters on a Sept. 10 call, referring to Trump's political operations. "And in election after election after election, going back decades, that kind of approach has never worked here. It never will work here."
Hanging over the campaign is the speculation among Cheney's critics and supporters that she has bigger aspirations than mere reelection: namely, a presidential bid in 2024.
Cheney, 55, has said on several occasions her priority is reelection. But asked recently if she would pursue the Oval Office, the mother of five who lives in the northwest Wyoming enclave of Wilson, was evasive.
"Right now, I'm very focused on making sure that our party becomes again a party that stands for truth and stands for fundamental principles that are conservative and mostly stands for the Constitution," she told Savannah Guthrie on NBC's "TODAY" in May.
Cheney's office did not respond to numerous requests from USA TODAY for an interview. Her office instead referred USA TODAY to statements she has made in the past.
In his sleek office at the meringue-shaped "M Building" in downtown Casper, McGinley acknowledges the stakes of next year's election.
"President Trump has hung his hat on attacking Representative Cheney. So you know, that is going to be a bellwether marker for the rest of the country," the doctor said, sitting in a black leather chair beneath photos featuring him with Liz and her father Dick Cheney, as he waited for his next patient.
McGinley thinks there is a path for Cheney to win reelection and, perhaps, move on to a bigger stage. He said Trump’s persistent attacks are “wearing thin” in a state where people liked the former president’s results but not his rhetoric.
“If you ask most people in Wyoming – very quiet, very humble, you know, very faith-based – they're not about calling names. They're not about even being on social media for that matter … The back and forth rhetoric, that's not really what our state is about," the doctor said.
Cheney stunned the state and a GOP field emerged in Trump's image
SNIFFIN, WHO ran as a GOP candidate for governor nearly 20 years ago,said it remains astonishing the state that gave Trump his biggest margin finds itself represented by the face of the anti-Trump faction within the GOP.
"It's kind of a perfect storm," he said. "The assumption would be that every politician in our state would be very pro-Trump. And that is true with the exception of one. And that's our lone Congressperson, Liz Cheney."
There had long been signs that Cheney and Trump viewed each other warily.
She slammed his plan two years ago to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David for peace talks, among other foreign policy criticisms. He ridiculed her stance on defense, which clashed with his "America-First" agenda. As the daughter of Dick Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman and vice president, she represents the GOP establishment while he vowed to "drain the swamp."
Those simmering tensions boiled over on Jan. 6 when Trump exhorted a mob of supporters to march to the Capitol as Congress presided over the tabulation of the Electoral College tally that helped certify Joe Biden as the incoming president. The result was a deadly riot that left four rioters dead, dozens of officers injured, including one who died the next day.
In his speech near the White House that morning, Trump had singled out the Wyoming congresswoman.
"And we've got to remember, in a year from now, you're going to start working on Congress and we got to get rid of the weak Congresspeople, the ones that aren't any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world," he told the crowd. "We've got to get rid of them."
Later that night, Cheney – who came to regret her vote for Trump in the election – opposed the majority of GOP colleagues and voted to certify Biden's victory in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Days later, she would become one of only 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump's impeachment. A few weeks ago, she accepted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's invitation to sit on a House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot where she now sits as its vice-chair.
"Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar," she said on the House floor May 11, referring to the president's repeated claims the election was stolen from him. "I will not participate in that."
The next day, the GOP caucus booted her out as the conference chair.
"It shocked the people of Wyoming, to the core," Sniffin said.
The Wyoming state GOP censured her for the impeachment vote, and a number of county committees followed suit. Last month, Republican parties in two counties voted to no longer recognize Cheney as a member of the GOP.
After the 2020 election, a number of Trump-friendly Republicans jumped in the race against Cheney. But Smith and state Rep. Chuck Gray, who had traveled to Trump's Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey for his backing, dropped out shortly after the former president endorsed Hageman.
Hageman, who lost a bid for governor in 2018, is a former friend turned foe.
She was an adviser to Cheney's ill-fated Senate run in 2014 and donated to Cheney's previous congressional race. She also introduced Cheney to the state Republican convention in 2016 when Cheney was running for an open House seat.
"When she launched her crusade against President Trump, she revealed herself to be completely different from the person we sent to Washington, D.C. as our elected representative," Hageman wrote in a column last week for the conservative Web site, Townhall. "When she embraced Nancy Pelosi’s partisan impeachment of Trump, she betrayed our nation, she betrayed Wyoming, and she betrayed me."
To Cheney's rescue: Wyoming Democrats?
AS CONSERVATIVE as her record is and as much as the Cheney name still conjures enmity in liberal circles, Democrats may ultimately be the ones that rescue the incumbent congresswoman in next year's election.
Democrats in the Cowboy State could matter most thanks to state election law that allows voters to change their affiliation on the day of a primary and vote for a candidate in the opposing party's contest. Analysts, including Sniffin, expect thousands of Democrats and independents to thank Cheney – and punish Trump – for standing up to the former president by "crossing over" in next year's primary and casting their ballots for her.
Former Wyoming GOP Sen. Al Simpson, a legendary political figure and a close family friend thinks it'll be a reason why Cheney will win next year.
“There are people who were closed mouth and open-minded and they're not going to ... tell you where you are with Liz Cheney," he said. "But I'll tell you what they are going to do: they're going to go in and register to vote on the day of the primary and change their votes from Democrat to Republican ... It's called crossover voting, and it’ll haunt the big guy (Trump) and all of his minions.”
Weighing in on Cheney
Even in the state that gave him his most lopsided victory in 2020, Trump is not as popular as the agenda he pushed during his four years in the Oval Office.
Interviews with several avid Trump supporters found most would back him if he ran again, but think another Republican could carry the "Trumpism" banner.
"This is not a person. This is a policy," said Reid Lance Rosenthal, an author, conservative radio talk show host and rancher in Douglas, as he stood in front of a booth at the state fair hawking his latest books on the American West.
Sporting a cowboy hat, a large silver belt buckle and an open shirt collar, Rosenthal said he stopped supporting Cheney as soon as she voted to certify Biden's victory and didn't give Trump adequate recourse to contest the results. But that doesn't mean he thinks the movement sinks if the former president isn't at the helm.
"The Left successfully made it about a person. And unfortunately, a lot of people kind of gobbled that up," Rosenthal said. "And, unfortunately, people get sidetracked on personalities. Because in a lot of ways, this society that we live in is a kind of cult-driven society."
After the shock, anger at Cheney may be subsiding
CHENEY SUPPORTERS like McGinley say the initial displeasure over her vote has begun to subside and that Republican voters will ultimately decide based on "ideas and principles and not people."
He acknowledges there was "very much an emotional response" across Wyoming when Cheney voted to impeach Trump.
Eyes on Wyoming
"But I think that's changing," said McGinley. "I think people are coming around to saying, 'Hey, we have one of the most conservative representatives in the country, representing our state, a very influential individual, someone that can really bring a lot to Wyoming,'" he said. "And I think they're starting to see the facts versus the emotion."
Cheney supporters such as McGinley point out that she is not only one of the most conservative members of Congress but she backed Trump nearly 93% of the time based on an analysis of votes she cast.
Her critics say it's not how often she voted with him but the key times she didn't. Not only did she vote for impeachment but, they contend, she crossed him on other key issues: Defense spending, sanctions on Russia, immigration reform, pulling out U.S. troops from Syria, and the certification of Electoral College votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
And they point out the impeachment vote also came with a price: the loss of her leadership position as chair of the GOP House that some contend is a major blow to Wyoming's political interests in Washington.
Republican Mike Jones, a Fremont County commissioner from Lander, said that loss of clout is one reason he's looking at other candidates while citing "growing concern that she has become less effective."
Even her allies don't seem pleased.
Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso said he continues to work with her on issues impacting Wyoming, such as energy policy, agriculture and public land use.
But "on the issue of Jan. 6 and the impeachment, I have a completely different opinion than she does ... She’s chosen a position that is absolutely counter to the position of the people in Wyoming," he told USA TODAY. "My focus is on the next election – 2022 – not the last election – 2020. And that's the fundamental difference.”
Cheney has given no indication she is retreating. When Trump issued his endorsement of Hageman and slammed the incumbent as "the Democrats (sic) number one provider of sound bites," the congresswoman retweeted him: "Here’s a sound bite for you: Bring it."
For now, she remains the loudest and most prominent voice in the party to stand up against Trump. What happens over the next few months in Wyoming will have a lot to say about the size and loyalty of his base.
"I think we're still in that acute period where a President Trump again, for better or for worse, really mobilizes the Republican Party," McGinley said. "He'll have an influence in this upcoming election. How much? We don't know."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump candidate or Liz Cheney: Wyoming voters face big vote in 2022