Liz Cheney has a political future — we just don’t know what it will be
Last May, I wrote a piece outlining why Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) was “different” from nearly every other Republican who had dared to cross former President Trump. While some members of the GOP learned how to sidle up to the former commander in chief, and while others opted to resign with their political tails between their legs, “Cheney’s fearless ambition sets her apart. Because she so firmly believes in herself, she won’t be diminished without a fight.”
At that time, Republicans were confronted with a decision that seemed easy but was actually existential: reelect lifelong conservative Cheney as the party’s House conference chairwoman — the No. 3 Republican in the chamber — or choose moderate-turned-MAGA Elise Stefanik (N.Y.).
I had thought — wrongly — that in a secret-ballot vote, enough Republicans still upset about the Jan. 6, 2021, terrorist attack only four months earlier would — without risk of retribution — stick with Cheney. This was their opportunity to take a consequential stand with no dire consequences. Maintaining the status quo while trying to move on from a tumultuous election cycle seemed fitting, if not entirely beneficial.
But the GOP instead handed Stefanik 74 percent of the vote. Soon after, Trump endorsed Cheney’s leading 2022 primary challenger, Harriet Hageman. Earlier this year, Stefanik and GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) made the unusual move of endorsing Hageman as well.
For most politicians, it would be game over. Cheney already had a narrow path to tread in the Age of Trump. As a largely powerless congresswoman with few public backers — and based on polls, a long shot to win reelection — she appeared to be approaching a dead end.
Her best chance at retaining political clout — and as a result, a political future — would be to align with her longtime opponents on the other side of the aisle. And of course, House Democrats were all too happy to align with her, as well as retiring GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), as members of the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack. Democrats gave Cheney a political lifeline, and, as co-chair of the committee, she gave them a public semblance of bipartisanship.
Ironically, earlier this year, the Republican National Committee (RNC) censured Cheney (and Kinzinger) for their roles on the committee. But, of course, that’s like an ex-fling calling you a “big ol’ meanie” a decade after they broke up with you while they’re being investigated for criminal activity and while you’re happily married with three kids.
In fact, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel’s desperation to sully Cheney’s reputation mirrors efforts by Trump, McCarthy, Stefanik and many other Republican leaders who are awaking to the realization that Cheney is now more powerful than ever before, while the GOP brand continues to weaken with each successive round of damning testimony.
The lone congresswoman from Wyoming has a new lease on political life that realistically could go in one of three directions.
On one path, she’ll overcome the odds and win the August GOP primary and then lock down reelection in November. The latter step might prove difficult, especially if Hageman decides to run as an independent. But if Cheney makes it through this gauntlet, she would return to Congress with an eye toward rebuilding her reputation from the inside, hoping to outlast MAGA and help rebuild a more traditionally conservative party — one that she can lead.
A second path would send her packing in August (or November if she loses to a third-party conservative), after which she might lay low for a couple of years, focus on strengthening ties with Wyoming Republicans, hit the speaking circuit, build up her coffers, and wait and see if one of her state’s soon-to-be septuagenarian senators announces their decision not to run for reelection. If Trump’s not on the ballot in 2024, then Cheney’s gradual rebirth as a mainstream Republican would be more achievable.
A third path puts her on a trajectory for a presidential run in 2028 or 2032 — or 2024? If you think that’s outlandish, consider that 85 percent of Americans believe the country’s headed in the wrong direction. Trump might very well announce another run, setting up perhaps the bloodiest GOP primary since, well, ever. And Democrats are agonizing over the possibility of unpopular President Biden running for reelection.
This doesn’t mean Cheney would win. But multiple times Cheney has run for positions that she had little chance of securing. That hasn’t stopped her.
As I wrote last year, Cheney is built differently. Her fearlessness makes her heroic to some, dangerous to others and, at times, reckless to the electorate. But it is who she is. And whichever path she chooses, and whether she fails or succeeds, her unflappability continues to separate her from the pack.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.