Trump chooses Cheney challenger in major test of political clout

Donald Trump is set to back Wyoming attorney Harriet Hageman as she prepares a primary challenge against GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, according to three people with knowledge of his plans, marking the most important political endorsement yet in Trump’s post-presidency.

Trump’s looming involvement in the primary will test his political power in the GOP like never before, as he seeks to punish the most high-profile House Republican to vote for his impeachment in January. His allies and team not only encouraged Hageman to run against Cheney — they now are under pressure to clear the crowded primary field of other candidates who could split anti-Cheney sentiment, which would give the incumbent the chance to win her primary with only a plurality.

Cheney became Trump’s top Republican target after she spoke out against his role inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. House Republicans soon stripped her of her leadership post, and one of Trump’s sons and a top Trump ally have already campaigned against her in Wyoming.

At the same time, Trump threw himself into the process of vetting and interviewing multiple candidates running or exploring campaigns against Cheney with the goal of anointing a single challenger. Ultimately, he chose Hageman because she impressed him the most, according to the people with knowledge of his plans.

In a final step before officially announcing her campaign later this week, Hageman resigned Tuesday as one of Wyoming’s members of the Republican National Committee.

“By censuring Rep. Liz Cheney we sent the strong message that we expect our elected officials to respect the views and values of the people who elected them. Accountability is key and I am proud of our party for demanding it,” Hageman wrote in her resignation letter.

Hageman isn’t just banking on Trump’s endorsement in the coming primary against Cheney: Top Trump staffers and allies are in her corner, including some who are in talks to occupy key roles on her campaign or with a super PAC prepared to back her. Some former Trump campaign hands and advisers met with Hageman in March at the urging of local conservatives.

Trump’s endorsement announcement could come any day, but he has already told Hageman that she has his support, sources said.

“He interviewed a lot of people, and when it was done, it was clear she’s in a class of her own,” said one Republican familiar with Trump’s selection process who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about his decision.

Aside from her Trump connection, Hageman’s campaign credentials include her status as a fourth-generation Wyomingite who grew up on a ranch, later becoming a conservative activist and top land-use attorney in a state where land is a political issue. In 2018, her tough-talking campaign for governor made her a conservative favorite, though she finished in third place in a crowded primary. Still, that campaign made Hageman one of Cheney’s only likely challengers who had previously run statewide in Wyoming.

At that time and in the years before, Hageman was an ally of Cheney’s. She financially supported Cheney’s previous campaigns, was on the congresswoman’s leadership team and — as of Tuesday night — still had a photo of the two of them together on Hageman’s website. The issue of her friendship with Cheney came up when Trump interviewed Hageman during his endorsement screening process.

Trump insiders and advisers say they received verbal commitments from many of the candidates to drop out if he endorsed someone else, but whether they’ll actually leave the race remains an open question.

“There is a lot of interest and there are a lot of egos,” said one top Republican in Wyoming, echoing 10 other Republican insiders in the state who did not want to weigh in publicly on what’s sure to be the state’s most divisive 2022 campaign.

In recent months, Trump has met with state Rep. Chuck Gray, state Sen. Bo Biteman, attorney Darin Smith and Catharine O’Neill, a former Trump administration official. Neither Biteman nor O’Neill were announced candidates. Trump declined to meet with state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, who recently disclosed that he impregnated a 14-year-old girl when he was 18. He blamed “dirty politics” for the story coming to light.

The more crowded the primary, the better Cheney’s chances are that she’ll win, according to Wyoming Republicans. They point to Cheney’s first House primary campaign in 2016, when she won the all-important Republican nomination with less than 40 percent of the vote.

“Trump needs to clear that field because each candidate has pockets of voters, and they’ll all draw votes from each other but not Cheney,” said Tex McBride, a conservative activist in Wyoming.

“Trump is popular, but Cheney has the support of moderates, liberal Republicans and Democrats who are registered as Republicans,” he said. “They don’t like Cheney, but they despise Trump. So they’re with her.”

Cheney’s first introduction to Wyoming’s politics was rough. The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney launched a star-crossed 2014 campaign against then-Sen. Mike Enzi and was labeled a carpetbagger. She eventually quit the race six months before the primary.

Two years later, she won her primary in the state, a sign she was accepted as a local. Trump, meanwhile, had just been handed one of his biggest defeats in the 2016 primary season when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the Cowboy State’s GOP caucus with 70 percent of the vote; Trump finished third, with 7 percent, behind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

But in the two general elections to follow, Wyoming was the reddest of Trump states. He carried it by 43 percentage points, a bigger margin than any other state he won.

Some Cheney backers point to Trump’s 2016 caucus defeat in the state as evidence that he might not have as iron a grip in Wyoming. Two years later, his 11th-hour support for billionaire Foster Friess wasn’t enough to put him across the finish line in the primary against now-Gov. Mark Gordon, the race in which Hageman came in third.

But unlike this congressional race, Trump paid relatively little attention to the 2018 gubernatorial race. His support for Friess was largely limited to an Election Day tweet endorsing him.

Cheney supporters like Boyd Wiggam, an attorney who ran for Cheyenne City Council, still hope that the congresswoman can overcome Trump’s endorsement of Hageman, noting that “Wyoming is the kind of place, historically, where people don’t like outsiders telling us what to do.”

And her decision to denounce Trump for his role inciting the Capitol riots — and her refusal to back down from calling out Trump for lying about the election results — could play well in a state with an independent streak, said Wiggam.

Still, Wiggam said, a matchup with Hageman would be tough for Cheney because the challenger is “very intelligent, unquestionably a Wyoming person. If you want to see a rough-and-tumble political battle, you would certainly see a sharp debate between Rep. Cheney and Hageman. They’re not going to pull punches.”

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