Former President Donald Trump’s top political advisers have been holding quiet talks over the last several months with the primary challengers looking to take down his most prominent Republican nemesis: Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
During phone calls and Zoom chats, the Trump advisers have pressed the candidates on their fundraising capabilities, their policy positions and the overall strength of their campaign organizations. The goal: to determine whether they have what it takes to unseat Cheney, the influential daughter of a former vice president, who served as the No. 3 House Republican until colleagues ousted her in the spring.
The talks will escalate next week, when Trump meets with two challengers at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club: state Rep. Chuck Gray and attorney Darin Smith. Trump’s son, Don, Jr., who earlier this year visited Wyoming to speak out against Cheney for supporting his father’s impeachment, is expected to be present at the meetings.
Trump is expected to sit down with other candidates before deciding whom to endorse, though advisers say that Gray and Smith have emerged as the two clear frontrunners. To prevent Cheney from winning renomination with just a plurality of the vote, they also say, Trump needs to back the strongest candidate and then elbow out others in the crowded field.
The behind-the-scenes talks underscore the high stakes confronting Trump, who has made unseating Cheney a priority since she blamed him for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and voted to impeach him. The outcome of the contest — and Trump’s ability to shape it — will be a key measure of Trump’s post-presidential dominance over the Republican Party.
“The Wyoming race is the highest priority of the cycle. It’s a must-win for President Trump. I hope he fully understands that because it’s an undeniable fact,” said Christopher Ekstrom, a major GOP donor overseeing a super PAC that’s expected to get involved in the effort to unseat Cheney.
Shortly after the January impeachment vote, the former president’s advisers began reaching out to the state Republican Party chair, Frank Eathorne, and state legislators to take their temperature on Wyoming’s political landscape. They were also in touch with the anti-tax Club for Growth, a pro-Trump group that is opposing Cheney.
Trump allies, including Donald Trump, Jr. and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, traveled to the state to campaign against Cheney. Former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also went to Wyoming to get on-the-ground intel and meet with potential primary challengers.
The Trump team sounded out a potential early challenger in state Treasurer Curt Meier. But Meier said he wasn’t interested and instead recommended Gray, a state legislator and former radio show host who is staunchly supportive of the former president. In late January, Trump pollster John McLaughlin commissioned a 500-person survey through the former president’s political action committee, which asked respondents their opinion of Gray and whether they would support him or Cheney in a primary matchup. The poll also tested the strength of another candidate, state Sen. Anthony Bouchard.
Other Trump advisers also weighed in on how to design the 53-question survey. The race has been a topic of conversation on regularly scheduled Monday conference calls where Trump lieutenants discuss different campaigns and the overall political landscape.
Trump has been in touch with Club for Growth President David McIntosh, who has briefed Trump on his organization’s interviews with the candidates and urged him to hold off on making an endorsement until he’s certain he’s found the right person. The Club — which polled the race earlier this in May and this week began working on another survey — is expected to spend millions of dollars in the contest.
“Trump’s analysis is correct that we need to get it down to a two-person race, and at that point, the challenger is likely to win, based on the polling we’ve done,” McIntosh said in an interview.
McIntosh’s organization, which has dispatched staffers to Wyoming and this week began airing TV ads hammering Cheney, has yet to make an endorsement in the race. McIntosh said “the ideal is that the Trump and the Club are aligned” in supporting a challenger.
Donald Trump, Jr. has taken a particular interest in the primary. The younger Trump, an avid outdoorsman, has spent time in the state and was friends with Foster Friess, a Wyoming-based GOP megadonor who died in May.
In the end, though, Trump advisers say it will be the former president who makes the final call on who gets the endorsement.
Cheney — who infuriated Trump backers anew this week by opposing the House GOP’s effort to install a pair of Trump loyalists on the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — has shrugged off the former president’s involvement.
“If they think that they are going to come into Wyoming and make the argument that the people of Wyoming should vote for someone who is loyal to Donald Trump over somebody who is loyal to the Constitution, I welcome that debate,” Cheney said during a May appearance on NBC’s “Today Show.”
Trump supporters say they are confident Cheney can be beaten, pointing to polling showing her deeply vulnerable in a state Trump won by more than 40 percentage points. The January survey by Trump’s political committee showed only 28 percent expressing a favorable view of Cheney; the figure was barely any better — 29 percent — in an April Club for Growth poll. Cheney’s campaign has yet to release its own survey findings.
But defeating Cheney won’t necessarily be easy. The congresswoman has stockpiled more than $2.8 million, more than eight times as much as Gray, the candidate with the second-biggest campaign account. Cheney is also expected to have the support of a super PAC run by allies of Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a fellow Republican impeachment backer.
Republicans also note that Cheney’s father, former vice president and ex-Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney, remains well-liked in the state.
But if Cheney does survive the August 2022 primary, those involved in the race say, it would most likely be because she took advantage of a split vote. The congresswoman has already drawn more than a half-dozen challengers, and Wyoming Republicans report that it’s possible that others could yet join them.
Trump allies acknowledge that in addition to endorsing a candidate, he may need to urge others to leave the race. It is a role Trump has played before: In 2018, he persuaded Nevada Republican Danny Tarkanian, who was waging a primary challenge to then-GOP Sen. Dean Heller, to instead run for a House seat.
“The key will be for the America First constituency to galvanize behind one candidate. If she is opposed by multiple Trump candidates they will simply divide the vote,” letting Cheney “win against a divided field,” said Roger Stone, a former Trump political adviser.
Underscoring the urgency, Donald Trump, Jr. earlier this year threw his support behind legislation that would change Wyoming election law to make it harder for Cheney to win against a splintered field. The proposal would have implemented a runoff if no primary candidate received a majority of support in the first round of voting, thereby forcing Cheney into a one-on-one matchup against a Trump ally.
The legislature, however, voted down the bill in March. Since then, some state lawmakers have pursued other election law changes that would hinder Cheney’s prospects.
One of Trump supporters’ biggest worries is that they lack a challenger formidable enough for the job. One of the earliest entrants, Bouchard, has seen his stock tumble after admitting to impregnating a 14-year-old girl when he was 18. Bouchard revealed to Fox News Tuesday that he was not among the candidates Trump would be meeting with at Bedminster next week. And no statewide officeholders have jumped in, despite hopes that Meier or Secretary of State Ed Buchanan would run.
Smith is touting his Wyoming roots, among other assets, while Gray is casting himself as the most conservative choice. But their personal loyalty to Trump, rather than more traditional campaign pitches, may prove more pivotal in the race for his endorsement.
Smith has been airing ads lavishing praise on the ex-president and has even promoted his attendance at Trump’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally. (Smith has noted, however, that he did not go inside the Capitol or take part in the assault.) Gray is also airing a spot that features Trump and touts a recent trip he took to Arizona to show support for a review of the 2020 elections there.
“I visited Maricopa County to defend the very important audit,” Gray said in an interview, noting he was “the only candidate who has done that.”
While neither would acknowledge any upcoming meeting with Trump, they hinted they would each be willing to exit the race if he wasn’t the former president’s choice.
“We’ve got to be willing to put the country over ourselves,” Smith said. “There’s no way ever that I’ll be the reason that Cheney goes back to Congress.”