Column: Cheney's Wyoming defeat is a win for Trump and a decisive blow to fading GOP establishment

·5 min read
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, at a primary Election Day gathering at Mead Ranch in Jackson, Wyo. Cheney lost to challenger Harriet Hageman in the primary. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney addresses supporters in Jackson, Wyo. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The resounding defeat of Liz Cheney was more than the rejection of a brave and principled individual. It was the repudiation of values and a worldview that have shaped the Republican Party for well over a generation.

It was also a thickheaded denial of reality and the stone-cold fact that President Trump lost the 2020 election and schemed and lied to deny it, sacrificing the safety of lawmakers and the stability of the country on the altar of his infinite ego

Winning reelection "would have required that I go along with President Trump's lie about the 2020 election," Cheney said in a scathing concession speech delivered at a ranch near her Jackson, Wyo., home not long after polls closed Tuesday night. "It would have required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic.

"That," she said as daylight faded over the Tetons, "was a path I could not and would not take."

For years, the Cheneys of Wyoming stood alongside the Bush family of New England and Texas as dynastic pillars of the GOP. Liz Cheney's congressional primary loss, along with George P. Bush’s failed bid this year for Texas attorney general, emphatically sealed the coffin on the old party establishment, and erased for now any lineal claims to its future.

“This is not the Republican Party of the ’80s, the ’90s or even the early 2000s,” said Christine Matthews, a GOP pollster and strategist who has been a harsh Trump critic. "What it means to be a Republican these days … is being loyal to your tribe. It's not about issues. It’s basically whatever Trump says it is.”

Which means very little focus on governing and a great deal of energy expended on grudges and settling old scores. It also means ignoring policy initiatives and political philosophy, the drivers of conservative achievement since the Reagan era, in favor of pugnacity and purging those deemed insufficiently obedient to the GOP's ruler-in-exile.

A recent CBS News/YouGov poll was telling.

By almost 4 to 1, Republicans surveyed said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who parroted Trump's lies about winning the last presidential election. Fifty-three percent of Republicans also said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who makes liberals angry, which rose to nearly 7 in 10 among those identified as MAGA Republicans. (Most Democrats, in contrast, said it was more important that a candidate back President Biden's policies than rile up conservatives.)

It's vendetta politics, and if responsible Republicans like Cheney continue to fall, the prospects going forward after November's midterm election are not good.

"It's very hard when one of two major political parties doesn't recognize basic truths and is unwilling to put country first" save for a handful of foreign policy issues, said conservative strategist Bill Kristol, a Cheney supporter who served in the White House under President George H.W. Bush.

That's not just rosy-eyed retrospection.

President Reagan never shrank from political combat, nor did the elder Bush or other Republicans of their era. But after blistering Democrats in campaign season, they worked constructively across party lines to achieve major legislative accomplishments. Republicans also fought vigorously among themselves, then set aside differences for the sake of party unity; Reagan even made Bush his vice presidential running mate after the two had battled for the White House.

However, those days of pragmatism, political accommodation and, it should be said, behaving like grown-ups have been replaced by the personal peeves and vengefulness that animate Trump and much of the Republican Party base. (Trump responded to Cheney's defeat with a characteristic lack of grace, saying she was "headed for the depths of political oblivion," and repeating his familiar lie about the 2020 election being rigged.)

"There's a new MAGA establishment," Kristol said, "and if you cross it, you're in trouble."

Cheney's heresy was not just telling the truth about the former president and his incessant prevarication, but helping lead congressional hearings that revealed in garish and horrifying detail the depths of Trump's immorality and reckless self-regard. She displayed the kind of courage that brings prestigious awards and fancy speaking invitations, but didn't earn her even 30% support in a state where the Cheney name was once political platinum.

(Her father, Dick, represented Wyoming for 10 years in Congress and served two terms as vice president under President George W. Bush.)

In Texas, George P. Bush — grandson of the 41st president, nephew of the 43rd — took a less heroic approach in his bid for attorney general. He turned his back on his famous family and pandered to Trump, even after Trump had gleefully belittled Bush's father, Jeb, and insulted his mother, Columba, during the 2016 presidential campaign. Still, the junior Bush's blandishments proved unavailing; he lost badly in May's Republican primary to incumbent Ken Paxton, a Trump toady who has spent the last seven years under federal indictment.

Bush "couldn't get away from the brand associated with his name" and the whiff of privilege and old establishment ties it gave off, said Jim Henson, a pollster and University of Texas political science professor.

With her defeat, Cheney has completed the passage from candidate to political martyr.

The Jan. 6 congressional hearings resume next month, promising further incriminating evidence and more stains on Trump's soiled reputation. Beyond that, Cheney has vowed to continue leading the anti-Trump opposition once she leaves office early next year, possibly as a kamikaze candidate for president in 2024.

"This primary election is over," she said Tuesday night to cheers from her supporters, "but now the real work begins."

Cheney elaborated Wednesday on NBC's "Today" show, saying she would make a decision on a presidential bid in the coming months.

"I will be doing whatever it takes to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office," she pledged.

It's a battle that Cheney and her allies urgently need to win.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.