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Trump Endorses Former Cheney Supporter to Oust Cheney
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Trump Endorses Former Cheney Supporter to Oust Cheney

‘They truly are good friends,’ a former Wyoming Republican official said.

In the months since he left office, former President Donald Trump has spent his free time backing primary challenges to the elected Republicans who criticized him for his role in the events leading up to January 6. Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him this year, most would agree that former GOP House Conference Chair Liz Cheney—who recently became one of two Republicans on a special committee investigating the events of January 6—has ruffled Trump’s feathers the most. 

In an attempt to consolidate support behind one Cheney challenger and increase the odds of booting her from the House GOP conference, Trump officially announced his endorsement of Harriet Hageman, a trial lawyer and former national committeewoman for the Wyoming GOP. “Unlike RINO Liz Cheney, Harriet is all in for America First,” Trump said in a statement Thursday endorsing Hageman, who reportedly met with Trump in August to seek his endorsement. “Harriet has my Complete and Total Endorsement in replacing the Democrats [sic] number one provider of sound bites, Liz Cheney.” 

“Here’s a sound bite for you: Bring it,” Cheney tweeted shortly after Trump’s announcement.

Hageman is an unconventional pick for Trump. She advised Cheney’s short-lived 2014 Senate bid against Mike Enzi, praised Cheney in a since-deleted Facebook post, and has donated $2,000 to Cheney’s congressional campaigns, including $500 in 2014 and $1,500 in 2016. Hageman’s only other bid for statewide office was in 2018, when she ran unsuccessfully for governor of Wyoming and came in third place, securing about a fifth of the vote. 

Sources with knowledge of Wyoming politics tell The Dispatch that Trump’s decision to endorse Hageman likely stems from a general dissatisfaction with the other GOP candidates who have thrown their hat in the ring. “It’s been clear that they’ve been sort of fishing around for a candidate and weren’t satisfied with the current crop that were out there,” said Tim Stubson, a former Republican member of the Wyoming House of Representatives who unsuccessfully challenged Cheney in her 2016 congressional primary.

“It’s sort of an unremarkable group,” Stubson said of the other declared candidates, which include state Rep. Chuck Gray, state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, and retired U.S. Army Col. Denton Knapp. “And the thing to do over the next week is see how many of those folks decide to get out of the race.” Cheyenne attorney and businessman Darin Smith dropped out Thursday after Trump’s endorsement and announced his support for Hageman.

After building their entire campaigns around Trump, Cheney’s other primary challengers lost what most political analysts see as the golden ticket to winning any statewide Republican nomination in today’s political climate. 

In lieu of a coveted Trump endorsement, at least one of Cheney’s declared primary challengers has adopted a different strategy to stay in the race: Painting Hageman as a Cheney acolyte and enemy of Donald Trump. “Liz Cheney succeeded getting Trump to pick Cheney’s BFF for her replacement,”  Bouchard tweeted Wednesday. “Hageman was in Cheney’s Campaign both initial and re-elections. (Liz Cheney’s Campaign Photos ‘scrubbed’ from the Internet by Hageman).” 

This strategy may not be a hard sell among Trump-aligned Wyoming Republicans. Beyond her ties to Cheney, Hageman was a delegate for GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 when he was one of Trump’s most vocal opponents. She also met with Ken Cuccinelli that year amid his effort to strip powers from the RNC chair and kick Trump off the ballot.

Still, Bouchard faces long odds. He came under fire from the media in May when he acknowledged publicly that he impregnated a 14-year-old girl at age 18. “She was a little younger than me, so it’s like the Romeo and Juliet story,” Bouchard said of his relationship with the girl, who later died by suicide. “Anthony Bouchard isn’t fit to be a dog catcher,” a former Wyoming Republican official told The Dispatch. “He makes Matt Gaetz look like a choir boy.”

Catharine O’Neill, a Newsmax contributor who was considered another potential candidate in the race but hasn’t officially declared, also criticized Trump’s endorsement on Thursday. “The Republican Establishment creeps around Trump are really bad,” she wrote on Twitter. “They are pushing him to make bad decisions, because they still don’t understand why Trump won in 2016. Sad.” An LLC called “Catharine O’Neill for Congress” was filed in January but has since been dissolved.

Will Trump’s endorsement of Hageman’s campaign be a death knell for other GOP candidates in the race? Trump has previously told his supporters that “the only way [Cheney] can win is numerous candidates running against her and splitting the vote.” Some non-Trump endorsed GOP candidates are likely to drop out soon, but others may take their chances and stay in the race.

While Trump is and has been the party’s single biggest kingmaker over the last five years, his supporters haven’t always lined up behind his handpicked candidate. The 2017 GOP special election primary for Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat in Alabama is a prime example. At the urging of then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump endorsed short-term incumbent Sen. Luther Strange over two “Trumpier” candidates—Rep. Mo Brooks and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Trump’s ploy didn’t work, as Moore ended up beating Strange in a primary and subsequent runoff—en route to a general-election implosion after allegations of sexual misconduct toward teen girls came to light. (Trump eventually threw his support behind Moore, who narrowly lost to Democrat Doug Jones in the general.)

Looking ahead, GOP candidates who stay in the Wyoming race will likely try to to split the vote by leaning into Hageman’s previous ties to Cheney. “They truly are good friends,” said a former Wyoming Republican official, who did not speak on the record in fear of retribution from Hageman. The former official also insisted that Hageman regularly bad-mouthed Trump before he became president.  “She hated Trump. Hated Trump,” the former Wyoming Republican told The Dispatch, adding that over time, Hageman sought to rebrand herself as a “true believer” in his cult of personality.

But Trump’s endorsement may not be enough to clear the field. “There are plenty of folks who are die-hard Trump supporters that clearly don’t like the fact that Hageman and Cheney were close,” said another Republican operative familiar with the race. “They don’t like the fact that Hageman was a Ted Cruz delegate and was part of an effort to deny Trump the nomination at the convention in 2016.”

To date, Hageman has not publicly said whether she believes the 2020 election was stolen and whether Joe Biden was duly elected in November. She has also not commented publicly on the events of January 6.

That honeymoon period is unlikely to last for much longer. “She’s now going to have to own everything Trump says about the election, the things that Sidney Powell and Lin Wood have said about the election,” the Republican operative said. “[Hageman] wants Trump supporters to unify behind her. If she comes out and sort of denounces those lies, that’s obviously going to send a very different signal.”

Another potential hiccup for Hageman is that unlike Cheney, she doesn’t have a voting record to accompany her conservative credentials. “Cheney’s policies have been ultra-conservative so I don’t think Harriet will be able to say that she’s going to be any different on policy,” said Dr. Joseph C. McGinley, state committeeman for Wyoming’s Natrona County Republican Party who called Cheney’s voting record “impeccable.”

Per McGinley: “Is it enough to say, ‘Well, I backed President Trump and President Trump backs me?’ And that’s it?”

It’s too soon to tell. Trump secured roughly 70 percent of the vote in the 2020 election and Cheney defeated her challenger by a similar margin in 2020, but that was long before the events of January 6 that prompted Cheney to speak out against Trump. 

“I feel like she was at her strongest point the moment she came in and she won her seat back and she was still in leadership,” the former Wyoming Republican official said. “I’ve told [Cheney] this, and I told her campaign people that I wish from that point forward that she just would have completely ignored Donald Trump 100 percent … not say his name ever again.”

Cheney, who said Thursday that she is “proud” of her “strong conservative record,” has made it clear that she will continue to criticize Trump’s lasting influence on the GOP on the campaign trail. “I look forward to an extended public debate about the importance of the rule of law and the solemn duty of elected officials to uphold their oath to the Constitution,” Cheney said in a statement to The Dispatch. 

“It is tragic that some in this race have sacrificed those principles, and their duty to the people of Wyoming, out of fear and in favor of loyalty to a former president who deliberately misled the American people about the 2020 election, provoked an attack on the U.S. Capitol, and failed to perform his duties as president as the violence ensued,” Cheney added. 

Ahead of next year’s race, Wyoming voters will find out whether Hageman can meet the litmus test for all Trump-endorsed candidates—complete and unwavering dedication to the former president. “When I ran against Liz in the primary in 2016, Harriet was all on board for team Cheney,” Stubson told The Dispatch. “So I think what it makes clear, though, is the election is about really one thing,” he said. “Is the representative going to have fealty and an obligation of loyalty to Donald Trump?”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.