- Liz Cheney faces continuing backlash from Republicans for her vote to impeach Donald Trump.
- She’s tangled with her party many times throughout her career, going back to her pre-Congress days.
- Her biggest fight awaits as Republican critics, including those in her state, call for her ouster.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Rep. Liz Cheney is in a familiar place: A whole bunch of her fellow Republicans are mad at her.
But this time, the fight will be more brutal than ever before.
She’s become a pariah to the faction of the party still loyal to Donald Trump for her vote to impeach him in January, with members of her own caucus pushing for her ouster. She also questioned Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and criticized QAnon’s creep into the Republican Party.
But years before, she launched primary challenges, feuded with her family over gay marriage, and ruffled conservative feathers for some of her positions on how the US should handle terrorists.
Her profile rose this year when she stepped out in front of the moving Trump train and went as far as calling on fellow Republicans to stop embracing the former president. The House Democratic impeachment managers repeatedly quoted Cheney during last week’s Senate trial, throwing her words criticizing the ex-president right back at Senate Republicans who would go on to acquit him.
A person close to the congresswoman told Insider that when Cheney stepped into the breach, she prioritized her constitutional oath over partisanship.
But the heat from her colleagues came quickly. The Wyoming GOP censured the 54-year-old after she was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. And 61 of her colleagues recently voted — unsuccessfully — to remove her from leadership.
“There was a vacuum that needed to be filled, but there weren’t a lot of people that were willing to stand up and fill it,” said Doug Heye, a Republican communications strategist and veteran of the George W. Bush administration.
He added that he believed she was “strategically laying out a map, politically, for the future.”
Although the 2022 primary that will decide her electoral fate is a year and a half away, Cheney has already attracted a primary challenger, and Trump is plotting a revenge tour of the districts of the Republican members who voted to impeach him.
At the same time, Cheney’s public break with Republicans over the former president has made her the de facto face of the conservatives who think their future lies beyond Trump.
Former Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, said Cheney and the nine GOP lawmakers who voted to impeach Trump were “very courageous … you don’t take a vote like that without knowing there’s going to be a price to be paid.
“Now they’re being singled out as traitors. And shame on my friends and my former colleagues who are doing that,” added Shimkus, who opted not to run for reelection in 2020 and was one of the first House Republicans to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory.
‘I thought we were friends’
Liz Cheney established herself as a Middle East and foreign-policy hawk during the George W. Bush administration, serving at the State Department at a time when the president and her father, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, oversaw the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
She has held firmly conservative views on everything from national security to fossil fuels to gay marriage — views that most liberals would vehemently disagree with.
She drew outrage from Republican Senators in 2009 with the work of her group Keep America Safe, a right-wing national-security outfit critical of the Obama administration’s pursuit of terrorists.
Her organization criticized Justice Department lawyers who had defended detainees at Guantanamo, a group it deemed the “Al Qaeda 7.” The group received backlash from her own party for implying that the detainees were not entitled to legal representation.
A decade before she publicly dismissed QAnon and its adherents, Liz Cheney failed to condemn the racist and false “birther” conspiracy theory. Fueled by Trump, the movement falsely claimed that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to occupy the White House. In a TV appearance, she blamed Obama for the ascent of birtherism because, she said, he made people uncomfortable.
She later sought to clarify her remarks to Politico in an email saying: “I don’t have any question about Barack Obama’s right to be President of the United States. My concern is with his policies.”
Her career in electoral politics got underway when she dropped a bomb on the Wyoming Republican establishment in 2013 by announcing a primary challenge to Sen. Mike Enzi. According to Enzi, she didn’t give him a heads-up. “I thought we were friends,” he told The New York Times that July.
Cynthia Lummis, then the at-large House member from Wyoming and now a Senator, told The Times that Cheney’s behavior was “bad form.”
It didn’t help that Liz Cheney had moved from Virginia — where she had spent most of her life — to Wyoming, just before jumping into the election, a move that prompted accusations of carpetbagging.
Primary challenges are common, but that one got messy.
Her entry into the race caused “tension,” former Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican and longtime supporter of the Cheneys, told Insider.
Going against ‘the family’
Liz Cheney and her sister, Mary Cheney, served as top advisors and gatekeepers on their father’s 2004 vice-presidential reelection campaign. The Cheneys’ inner circle was said to be so tight that aides referred to it as “the family.”
But about a decade later, during the 2013 Senate primary, Liz Cheney showed she was willing to go against not only her party but also her family. Under scrutiny from the right for her stance on gay marriage, she said “it’s an issue that’s got to be left up to the states. I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage.”
But there was a problem. Her sister, Mary Cheney, is gay, and she’d married her longtime partner, Heather Poe, the year before. And their father, Dick Cheney, had effectively endorsed same-sex marriage in 2009.
Liz Cheney’s stance on gay marriage read as a betrayal of her sister, and the story line quickly consumed the national media narrative of the primary. Poe publicly slammed her sister-in-law on Facebook, writing, “Liz — this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree — you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of history.”
Liz Cheney eventually dropped out of the race, in 2014, citing a family health emergency. But she came back two years later to run for Wyoming’s recently vacated at-large House seat. She won.
She has not said explicitly that her view of gay marriage has changed since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision. But in 2019 she acknowledged it as the “law of the land.”
After the January 6 riot, Mary Cheney wrote on Facebook, “Liz and I have definitely had our differences over the years, but I am incredibly proud of how she handled herself during the fight over the Electoral College.”
Cheney’s Trump-era balancing act
During the Trump years, Liz Cheney maintained a voting record that hewed closely to the president. Impeachment vote aside, she voted in line with Trump 93% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s congressional tracker.
Republican voters in Wyoming “are looking for someone that is going to defend the fossil-fuel industry and are going to resist regulations coming out of Washington,” said Jim King, a politics professor at the University of Wyoming. “Cheney’s voting record is very much in line with Republicans in the state.”
But she has notably broken from Trump on occasion, with rifts occurring more frequently as the 2020 election got underway and the deadly pandemic raged. They also gained more national attention as the president’s behavior grew more erratic.
She shaded Trump on Twitter for his refusal to wear a mask, and defended the nation’s top infectious-diseases doctor, Anthony Fauci, from the president’s attacks.
Last summer, Liz Cheney explicitly condemned the QAnon conspiracy when the president and her fellow members of House Republican leadership would not do so, calling it a “dangerous lunacy that should have no place in American politics.”
At a closed-door July meeting of House Republicans, Trump loyalists, including Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida, took her to task for not sufficiently defending the president, Politico reported.
Shimkus watched the action play out from the balcony of the large meeting room where it took place.
“It surprised the conference, it surprised the leaders,” he told Insider last week. “I think it was kind of a sneak attack. They were very upset over what they viewed as disloyalty to the president. They didn’t have the full debate, nothing really got aired. They let a couple people take the mic and hurl accusations. Some came to her defense.”
Shimkus added: “It was a harbinger — if that’s the right word — of challenge.”
Former Rep. Denver Riggleman told Insider he also saw his share of tangles between Cheney and the ardently pro-Trump members during his single term in the House as a Virginia Republican from 2019 to 2021.
“I’ve seen her and Matt Gaetz go at it,” he said, “and I think Liz gets the best of him.”
All these threads came together in January after Cheney joined nine Republicans in voting to impeach Trump over his role in inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol on January 6.
She had explicitly placed the blame for the attack on Trump.
“There is no question that the President formed the mob, the President incited the mob, the President addressed the mob,” she tweeted on the day of the riot. “He lit the flame.”
The backlash from her vote to impeach was immediate, sparking condemnation from Trump’s supporters in the caucus and GOP leaders in her state, and leading to the infamous failed vote to remove her from leadership.
Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso came to her defense, telling reporters, “I support Liz.” His counterpart Sen. Cynthia Lummis, also a Republican, demurred, saying instead that “the House should decide to do whatever it wants to do.”
Gaetz flew to Wyoming on January 29 and held an unorthodox rally to whip up voters against Cheney. The Wyoming GOP officially censored her on February 6, and state Sen. Anthony Bouchard announced he’d challenge her in the 2022 primary.
Asked if he would’ve joined Cheney in voting to impeach Trump if he still held his rural southeast-Illinois seat, Shimkus told Insider, “I want to say yes, but I don’t know.”
“I don’t think the public understands the pressure when you have a large block of your base that are rabid, and the stress and strain they place on the member, and on the staff,” he said.
‘Affirmed as our leader’
King, the University of Wyoming professor, said that the fragmented media market would make it difficult for a primary challenger to flood airwaves with attacks on Liz Cheney over her impeachment vote. Gaetz’s unorthodox visit could have “provided a focal point for the people who were angry about the impeachment vote” but might not have made a difference.
Simpson was bullish on Cheney’s re-election chances, saying he believed she has a large base of supporters in the state lying lower than the more vocal, pro-Trump state party officials, who he referred to as “zealots.”
“She has many months to come home and talk and visit with people,” Simpson said. “She’ll be headed out here and she’ll go to all these places where they censured her.”
So far, Liz Cheney appears to have emerged from the tangle with her own caucus intact and stronger. She is said to have refused to apologize for her impeachment vote, and she demanded an up-or-down vote on her position in leadership at the February 3 closed-door Republican meeting. When the secret ballot was tallied, 145 House Republicans supported her and 61 voted against her. Her standing within the caucus had been made clear in that vote.
After that meeting, House Republicans appeared — at least publicly — on the same page, reciting vague lines about the constructiveness of their “family meeting.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska told Insider that she was “affirmed as our leader.”
But Riggleman cautioned that unity might not last long, saying that going “against the dogma and the ideologues” in her party, both in Washington and in Wyoming, meant there would be many people motivated to vote her out.
“She’s still fairly strong, but I think she’s got an issue back home,” Riggleman added. “Whoever goes against her better be ready for a fight.”
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