CHEYENNE, Wyo. — It was just over a month before her primary, but Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was nowhere near the voters weighing her future.
Instead, Ms. Cheney huddled with fellow lawmakers and aides on the Capitol complex, winning over allies to a cause she believes is more important than her seat in the House: Getting rid of former President Donald J. Trump and his influence.
“The nine of us have done more to prevent Trump from ever regaining power than any other group to date,” he told members of the committee investigating Mr. Trump’s involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. “We can’t give up.”
The most closely watched 2022 primary has been a no-contest. Polls show Ms. Cheney losing badly to her rival, Harriet Hageman, Mr. Trump’s revenge vehicle, and the congresswoman has been driven out of the Trump-loving state in part by death threats, her office says.
But for Ms. Cheney, the race stopped being about political survival months ago. Instead, she used the August 16 pageant as a kind of high-profile stage for her martyrdom — and a proving ground for her new crusade. He used the only debate to tell voters to “vote for someone else” if they wanted a politician who would break their oath. Last week, she enlisted her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, to quit an advertisement calling Mr. Trump a “coward” who represents the greatest threat to America in the history of democracy.
In a state where Mr. Trump won 70 percent of the vote two years ago, Ms. Cheney might as well be asking ranchers to go vegan.
“If the cost of defending the Constitution is losing a House seat, then that’s a price I’m willing to pay,” she said in an interview this week in the conference room of a Cheyenne bank.
The 56-year-old daughter of a politician who once had visions of rising to the top of the House leadership — but instead became vice speaker — has become arguably the most important member of Congress in modern times. Few others have so aggressively used the levers of office to try to reroute the course of American politics — but, in doing so, she effectively sacrificed her future to the institution she grew to respect.
Ms Cheney’s relentless focus on Mr Trump has fueled speculation – even among longtime family friends – that she is preparing to run for the presidency. He has done little to prevent such talk.
At a house party Thursday night in Cheyenne, with former Vice President Dick Cheney looking on happily from under a pair of leather curtains, the host introduced Mrs. Cheney by recalling how another Republican woman, Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, faced Senator Joseph McCarthy when This was unpopular – and she became the first woman nominated for president by a major party.
The audience applauded the parallel, as Ms. Cheney smiled.
In the interview, she said she was focused on her elementary school — and her work on the committee. But it’s far from clear that she could be a viable candidate in today’s GOP, or whether she’s interested in donors’ plans for a third-party bid, in part because she knows she might just siphon votes from a Democrat who opposes Mr. Trump.
Mrs. Cheney said she was not interested in switching parties: “I’m a Republican.” But when asked if the GOP she grew up with was even salvageable in the short term, she said, “It might not be,” and called her party “very sick.”
Understand the August 2 primary
While the Trump wing of the GOP flexed its strength, voters in deep red Kansas gave the GOP a loud warning on abortion rights.
The party, he said, “continues to drive itself into a ditch and I think it will take several cycles if it can be healed.”
Ms. Cheney suggested that she was as inspired by Trumpism as Mr. Trump himself. She could support a Republican for president in 2024, she said, but her red line is a refusal to state clearly that Mr. Trump lost the legitimate election in 2020.
Asked whether the ranks of off-limits candidates included Florida Governor Ron DeSandis, whom many Republicans have latched onto as an alternative to Trump, she said it would be “very difficult” to support Mr. DeSandis in a general election.
“I think Ron DeSantis has lined up almost entirely with Donald Trump, and I think that’s very dangerous,” Ms. Cheney said.
It’s easy to hear other echoes of a White House offering in Mrs. Cheney’s rhetoric.
In Cheyenne, he channeled the concerns of “moms” and what he described as their hunger for “someone who’s capable.” Once largely scornful of identity politics — Ms. Cheney was the only female lawmaker who would not pose for a photo of congresswomen after 2018 — she now freely discusses her gender and perspective as a mother.
“These days, for the most part, men rule the world, and it’s really not going so well,” she said in June when she spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
In a sign that Ms. Cheney’s political awakening goes beyond her disdain for Mr. Trump, she said she favors the ranks of Democratic women with national security backgrounds on the right wing of her party.
“I would rather serve with Mikie Sherrill and Chrissy Houlahan and Elissa Slotkin than Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, even though I certainly have major disagreements with the Democratic women I just mentioned,” Ms. Cheney said. in the interview. “But they love this country, they do their homework and they’re people who are trying to do the right thing for the country.”
Ms. Cheney is more confident in her diagnosis of what ails the GOP than in her prescription for reform.
He has no political organization after Congress in waiting and has benefited from Democratic donors, whose love can be fleeting. To the dismay of some allies, she has not expanded her inner circle beyond family and a handful of close advisers. Never much of a giggler, she said she longed for what she remembered as her father’s time at the center of politics.
“What the country needs are serious people who are willing to engage in policy discussions,” Ms. Cheney said.
It’s all a far cry from the Liz Cheney of a decade ago, who was contracted to appear regularly on Fox News and used her perch as a guest host for Sean Hannity to present her staunch conservative views and fierce former President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
Today, Ms. Cheney admits no specific regrets about helping to create the atmosphere that led to Mr. Trump’s takeover of her party. But he acknowledged a “reflexive partisanship that I was guilty of” and noted that January 6 “showed how dangerous that is.”
Few lawmakers today face those risks as regularly as Ms. Cheney, who has had a full-time security detail from the Capitol Police for nearly a year because of threats against her — protection few high-ranking lawmakers are afforded. She no longer provides advance notice of her trip to Wyoming and, unwelcome at most county and state Republican events, has turned her campaign into a series of invite-only House parties.
What’s more puzzling than her schedule is why Ms. Cheney, who has raised more than $13 million, hasn’t thrown more money into the race, especially early on when she had a chance to nominate Ms. Hageman. Ms. Cheney had spent about half her war chest since early July, fueling speculation that she was saving money for future efforts against Mr. Trump.
Ms. Cheney long ago stopped attending meetings of House Republicans. When she’s on Capitol Hill, she spends much of her time with Democrats at the Jan. 6 panel and often heads to the Lindy Boggs Room, the reception room for women lawmakers, instead of the House floor with the male-dominated House GOP conference. Some of the Jan. 6 panelists are struck by how often her Zoom background is her suburban Virginia home.
In Washington, even some Republicans who are also willing to distance themselves from Mr. Trump question Ms. Cheney’s decision to wage open war against her party. It limits her future influence, they argue.
“It depends on whether you want to go out in a blaze of glory and be ineffective or whether you want to try to be effective,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who has his own future leadership aspirations. “I respect her, but I wouldn’t make the same choice.”
Ms. Cheney is aware that the Jan. 6 investigation, with its prime-time hearings, is seen by critics as an attention-seeking opportunity. She has turned down some opportunities that could help her ambitions, mainly offers from documentary filmmakers.
But to her skeptics at home, Ms. Cheney’s attacks on Mr. Trump have reignited dormant questions about her ties to the state and raised fears that she has left Washington and taken on the opposition, rejecting the political views of voters who gave her and her father start in electoral politics.
At a rally in Casper last month, held while Ms. Cheney was in Washington preparing for a hearing, Ms. Hageman received frequent applause from voters who said the incumbent had lost her way.
“Her voting record is not bad,” said Casper resident Julie Heath. “But so much of her focus is on Jan. 6.”
“She’s so in bed with the Democrats, with Pelosi and all these people,” interjected Bruce Heath, Ms. Heath’s husband.
Notably, no voters interviewed at the rally mentioned Mrs. Cheney’s support for the gun control bill the House passed a few weeks earlier — the kind of defection that would have enraged Wyoming Republicans at a time when more the politics than the personality of a man.
“Her vote on the gun bill received almost no publicity,” said a puzzled Mike Sullivan, the former Democratic governor of Wyoming who plans to vote for Ms. Cheney in the primary. (Ms. Cheney is pushing independents and Democrats to re-register as Republicans, if only to vote for her in the primary.)
For Ms. Cheney, any sense of confusion about this moment — a Republican Cheney, effectively read by the party — has faded in the year and a half since the attack on Capitol Hill.
When she attended the funeral last year for Mike Enzi, the former Wyoming senator, Mrs. Cheney welcomed a visiting delegation of GOP senators. As she greeted them one by one, several praised her bravery and told her to continue the fight against Mr. Trump, she recalled.
She did not miss the opportunity to formally remind them: They could follow her.
“There have been so many moments like this,” she told the bank, a touch of weariness in her voice.