© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A primary election in Wyoming opens a rift between Republicans over the future of the country

Voters in Wyoming will decide the fate of Rep. Liz Cheney in Tuesday’s primary election.

Cheney’s family name is revered in Wyoming, but her vote to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection has threatened to end her career in Congress.

While serving on the House committee investigating the riot, she has angered members of her own party. And her primary is seen as a referendum on American democracy.

In Cheyenne, Wyo., Chris Roosen is on a mission. With the clock ticking, he’s knocking on as many doors as he can for Cheney.

Roosen just arrived from Michigan. He’s with a group of Republicans and Democrats who’ve traveled across the country to be here.

“Honestly, I think it’s the least I can do for someone who is standing up [for] integrity and justice and the rule of law,” says Roosen.

The polls don’t look good for his candidate: Cheney’s fallen nearly 30 points behind her challenger, a prominent lawyer named Harriet Hageman who’s backed by Trump.

A sign supporting Liz Cheney outside the home where Vice President Dick Cheney once lived in Casper, Wyo. (Peter O’Dowd/ Here & Now)

No state supported Trump more in the 2020 election than Wyoming. When the former president came here in May, Hageman was happy to help him kick Cheney out of office.

“I know Wyoming. I love Wyoming. I am Wyoming,” Hageman roared to the crowd of supporters.

‘Conservative and concerned’

What it means to “be Wyoming” has been an important part of this campaign, as Hageman tries to paint Cheney as an outsider whose values no longer align with the state.

Hageman grew up near a town called Fort Laramie, not far from the Nebraska border. Mayor Joyce Evans says the town has one paved road and a highway “so there’s a little bit of pavement,” he says.

There’s one police officer and no grocery store.

At the park, a few kids run through the sprinklers of the town’s new splash pad. Evans says the 200 or so people here treasure the open space but worry about the roads and the economy.

“Inflation is a concern here. We have a food box here, a food pantry that is stocked by donations. And I have never seen the amount of usage we’ve had in this past summer,” Evans says.

Joyce Evans is the mayor of Ft. Laramie, Wyo. Harriet Hageman grew up on a ranch nearby. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

She describes the politics of Fort Laramie as much like the rest of Wyoming: independent and not beholden to anyone.

“Conservative and concerned,” she says. “We are rugged individualists, that’s the cowboy myth we have built around us.”

Evans wouldn’t elaborate when asked what she meant by “the cowboy myth,” because talking politics can be tricky business in a small town. “I might be getting into dangerous territory,” she says with a smile on her face.

Evans doubted anyone in town would speak with a reporter about the race. But inside the Ft. Laramie bar, a propane truck driver named John Rose was happy to share his thoughts.

“Well, I’m 100% for Hageman, but I’m 200% against Cheney. Does that sound proper?” says Rose, who is at the empty bar on his coffee break. Like Hageman, he believes in Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

He says he’s voted for Cheney before, but her role on the Jan. 6 committee has ruined her reputation in his eyes. “She’s proven she’s not working for the state of Wyoming no more,” he says

John Rose from Lingle, Wyo. supports Harriet Hageman and is “200% against Liz Cheney” after her service on the Jan. 6 committee. (Peter O’Dowd/ Here & Now)

Many fellow residents in Goshen County, where 81% of voters identify as Republican, agree. Last year, local party officials censured Cheney for voting to impeach Trump. Months later, the state GOP stopped recognizing her altogether.

Corey Steinmetz is a national committeeman for the Wyoming Republican Party, and says Cheney’s problems go beyond her break with Trump.

“She just supported a bill allowing red flag gun seizures. She just supported a bill on marriage that is not consistent with the Republican Party platform,” Steinmetz says.

An ‘honest and ethical’ woman

But people like Jackie Van Mark say they believe Cheney’s stand against Trump is courageous. Van Mark is a realtor and a farmer, but she’s also a Republican who served in the George W. Bush administration.

“I grew up in Wyoming. It runs deep,” she says of her conservative politics. Van Mark voted for Trump twice, but wouldn’t do so again. Her support for Cheney has opened a rift with some longtime family friends.

“It’s sad,” she says from her sister’s sewing shop in Torrington. “I truly believe it’s not going to be the Democrat Party that tears apart the Constitution and the country. It’s going to be the Republican Party. And that’s not just in Wyoming. We are a microcosm. I think it’s going to happen all over. People are going to be willing to say, ‘You’re not Republican enough. Get out.’ And that’s wrong.”

Jackie Van Mark worked in the George W. Bush administration and says Liz Cheney was courageous to stand up to former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Peter O’Dowd/ Here & Now)

A group of women come to the sewing shop every week to knit sweaters, shawls and cowls. Balls of yarn are spread out in front of them as they talk politics — all of them support Cheney.

“I think she’s an honest, ethical woman,” says Marla Baker, a Democrat who changed parties to vote for Cheney in the Republican primary. “As a Democrat, you are a non-entity in Wyoming. To get what we need we’re going to have to play the system. At least I voted with my conscience and I feel good about what I did.”

Cheney’s campaign has been actively recruiting Democrats like Baker. University of Wyoming pollsters say up to 20,000 Wyoming Democrats might change parties in this election, but it likely won’t be enough to tip the race in Cheney’s favor.

A ‘heavy heart’ in Casper

Across the state in Casper, Cheney’s political turn is difficult to watch for

Dallas Laid. He’s a lawyer who grew up in the city.

“There’s a sadness to it for me,” says Laid, a former city council member and now a candidate for county commissioner. “Liz Cheney could have been the Speaker of the House, and that’s not going to happen.”

Former Casper City Councilman Dallas Laird outside the home where former Vice President Dick Cheney once lived. With a heavy heart, he voted against Liz Cheney because she didn’t follow the will of the Wyoming people. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

It was with a heavy heart that he voted for Hageman, because he says Cheney “rendered herself useless to the people of Wyoming,” by going against their will.

“I knew her grandmother and her father closely,” he says, with tears streaming down his face. “The whole thing saddens me. It really does.”

Peter O’Dowd produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Ciku Theuri. Catherine Welch adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A campaign sign for Harriet Hageman near Douglas, Wyo. (Peter O'Dowd/ Here & Now)
A campaign sign for Harriet Hageman near Douglas, Wyo. (Peter O'Dowd/ Here & Now)