Could we soon see a President Cheney?
I’ve written several op-eds about U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) this past year — because she’s one of the most fascinating public figures of this young decade, at the nexus of a fracturing nation.
She’s a blue-blood conservative with impeccable pre-Donald-Trump GOP credentials. She’s also a rising political hero of an amorphous center, comprised of true ideological independents, as well as disaffected Republicans and Democrats. And she’s a frenemy of the Left: an urgently needed weapon to wield against the unyielding and increasingly nihilistic MAGA — albeit, with a belief system wholly opposed to progressivism.
Cheney is unflappable, ambitious, and savvy on levels most politicians cannot envision or even understand. And yet, there is no assurance of permanence to her present political standing. In the aftermath of her long-anticipated defeat to Harriet Hageman in Tuesday’s Wyoming primary, whatever timetable Cheney once set for herself to run for president has now sped up by at least a decade. Either she strikes in 2024, or the sheen on her Jan. 6 Committee heroism will surely fade.
Because politics is only a waiting game for those with no better options.
Cheney has acknowledged “thinking about” running for president, which is what future presidential candidates often say as they’re preparing to run for president. She’s creating a leadership PAC, which is something politicians often do when seeking to build bridges ahead of a future campaign. The PAC’s name, “The Great Task,” aptly reflects Cheney’s new identity as the leader of the opposition wing of a party that no longer wants her.
If she does run for president in 2024, she must assess whether to do it as a Republican or as an independent. It’s a weighty decision. Each path brings opportunities and obstacles. Capitalizing on the right opportunities could lead her to the Oval Office — but a misstep could cast her into a deeper political oblivion, making a future successful run all but impossible.
On the one hand, if she runs as an independent, she could immediately carve out some portion of the political center — perhaps 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote. If Trump somehow declines to run or is legally prevented from running, the GOP primary would be wide open. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and perhaps a dozen or more Republicans would battle for the party mantle.
If someone with impeccable MAGA credentials wins the nomination, and if President Joe Biden remains relatively unpopular by mid-2024, then Cheney would appeal to a wider swath of the electorate. It would mark the best shot for a third-party candidate to exceed Ross Perot’s late 20th century high of 18.9 percent of the popular vote. And it’s possible she could push into the 20s, nearly rivaling former President Theodore Roosevelt’s 27.4 percent share in 1912 atop the Bull Moose Party ticket.
However, unless Cheney could somehow win 270 electoral votes, her White House bid assuredly would die in the U.S. House, as the 12th Amendment stipulates that each state delegation would earn one vote, and 26 votes would be needed to elect the president. It would be farfetched to think Democratic and Republican House members would choose Cheney over one of their own. It’s similarly implausible to think Cheney could win 270 electoral votes across perhaps 20 states or more when she couldn’t even win 30 percent in her home state.
On the other hand, suppose Cheney runs as a Republican. At first glance it might appear to be a political suicide mission. And under numerous scenarios, it probably would be. But one realistic scenario could very narrowly earn her the nomination.
If Trump runs but is unable to clear the field of MAGA compatriots, then we could conceive of someone like DeSantis or Haley running in the “New MAGA” lane — the fresh face Trump acolyte Laura Ingraham recently pined for. Fully credentialed, yet without the baggage of federal investigations and rape lawsuits.
Cheney could then pursue a 35 percent strategy, aided by a higher-than-usual number of Democrats and left-leaning independents re-registering as Republicans to vote for Cheney in their state’s primary. This strategy works if Biden runs again and has no strong primary challengers. Because primary mischief making is most effective when one party has the luxury of expending resources to influence the other.
Then Cheney would need to hope that Trump and at least one ‘New MAGA’ candidate (ideally for her, at least two) remain in the race until the end. It would represent the political inverse of 2016, when former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz largely canceled each other out, essentially ensuring Trump’s nomination. Except in 2024, it would mean Cheney racking up delegates in her own lane, while Trump and one or two other never-quit Republicans cancel each other out.
The last big hurdle in this scenario would take place at the GOP National Convention. Cheney would need to convince one/either ‘New MAGA’ candidate to throw their support behind her in exchange for . . . perhaps the vice presidency, or at the very least secretary of state or attorney general. Surely Trump would have no incentive to play ball, and presumably a ‘New MAGA’ candidate at that stage would see Cheney as a better bet to win in the general election than Trump.
We’re playing with hypotheticals, of course — but these are the types of scenarios Cheney and her team assuredly are analyzing before making a life-changing, political-landscape-altering decision.
Because Cheney is no longer trying to make a point. She’s trying to capitalize on her almost unparalleled and potentially ephemeral relevance. Few have been in her shoes. Just as she’s done many times before, she’ll have to chart her own course and hope it’s the right one.
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.