The defiant speech from Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming after her defeat in yesterday’s Republican primary could be reduced to a single message: This is round one.
Cheney didn’t specify how, or where, she intends to continue her struggle against former President Donald Trump, after Harriet Hageman, the candidate Trump endorsed, routed her by more than two to one in the primary for Wyoming’s lone congressional seat.
But Cheney dropped a big hint when she noted that the GOP’s Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln, lost elections for the House and Senate “before he won the most important election of all” by capturing the presidency. This morning, she went a step further, telling the Today show that she was “thinking about” joining the 2024 Republican presidential race.
The magnitude of Cheney’s defeat yesterday underscores how strong Trump remains within the party, and how little chance a presidential candidacy based explicitly on repudiating him would have of capturing the nomination.
Yet many of Trump’s remaining Republican critics believe that a Cheney candidacy in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries could help prevent him from capturing the next nomination—or stop him from winning the general election if he does. “Of course she doesn’t win,” Bill Kristol, the longtime strategist who has become one of Trump’s fiercest conservative critics, told me. But, he added, if Cheney “makes the point over and over again” that Trump represents a unique threat to American democracy and “forces the other candidates to come to grips” with that argument, she “could have a pretty significant effect” on Trump’s chances.
In some ways, a Cheney 2024 presidential campaign would be unprecedented: There aren’t any clear examples of a candidate running a true kamikaze campaign.
Cheney would have no trouble assembling the building blocks of a traditional presidential campaign. Her name identification is extremely high, for both her familial ties and her prominence as a Trump critic. Her potential fundraising base is strong: Through late July, she had already raised more than $15 million in her House race, and in a presidential run, she could tap into a huge pool of small-dollar donors (many of them Democrats) determined to block Trump. And with her unflinching attacks on the former president, she would be ensured bottomless media coverage.
Cheney could face other logistical hurdles. She reduced her in-person campaign appearances in Wyoming because of security threats, and that problem would undoubtedly persist in any presidential campaign. Dave Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant with extensive experience in Iowa, told me that Cheney could likely find ways to deliver her message even amid such threats. “You would need a lot of security, no doubt about that,” he said. “But remember, these days you can do a lot of this stuff from the green room. You don’t have to be going to the diner or the Hy-Vee or the state fair. It’s essentially a media strategy.”
More difficult to overcome would be obstacles erected by the national and state Republican parties. The laws governing which candidates can appear on a presidential primary ballot vary enormously across the states. For instance, in New Hampshire, anyone who meets the legal requirements for the presidency, fills out a one-page form, and pays $1,000 can appear on the venerable first-in-the-nation ballot. But in other states—including Iowa and South Carolina—the state party controls whose name can be included on the primary ballot. And in at least some of those places, either the state party or the Republican National Committee, which has subordinated itself to Trump under Chair Ronna McDaniel, would likely move to keep Cheney off the ballot as a means of protecting him.
Debates could be another challenge for Cheney. The general feeling among Republicans I spoke with this week is that the RNC would go to almost absurd lengths to avoid allowing Cheney to appear on the same debate stage as Trump. Kristol predicted that the party might try to exclude her by requiring any candidate participating in a RNC-sanctioned debate to commit to supporting the party’s eventual nominee in the general election—something Cheney’s determination to stop Trump would not allow her to do. (In 2016, the RNC imposed such a loyalty oath primarily out of fear that Trump wouldn’t endorse the nominee if he lost. Trump signed it but characteristically renounced it in the race’s latter stage.)
Even so, it would be difficult for any media organization that sponsors an RNC debate to agree to keep her off the stage. And if Cheney is registering reasonable support in the polls—say 5 percent or more—even state parties might think twice about barring her. “Every other candidate not named Trump is going to want Liz Cheney on the debate stage,” the GOP consultant Alex Conant, the communications director for Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me.
No one I talked with thinks Cheney could come anywhere close to winning the GOP nomination behind an anti-Trump message. The widespread success of Trump-endorsed candidates, almost all of whom overtly echo his lies about the 2020 election, in this year’s GOP primaries has made clear that the former president remains the party’s dominant figure (despite occasional losses for his picks). With Cheney’s defeat yesterday, four of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 attack on the Capitol have now been ousted in primaries, and four others have retired; only two have survived to face voters in November. “Trump continues to own a majority share of the Republican Party and the GOP has remade itself in his image,” Sarah Longwell, founder of the Republican Accountability Project, a group critical of Trump, told me in an email.
But many Republicans resistant to Trump believe that Cheney could rally the minority of party voters who continue to express reservations about the former president. In public polls, as many as one-fourth of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents reject Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen, or criticize his efforts to overturn the result and his role in the January 6 insurrection. The share of Trump critics is usually slightly higher among Republicans holding at least a four-year college degree—a group that was notably cooler toward him during his first run to the nomination in 2016 and that sharply moved away from the GOP in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Some of those voters have since soured on President Joe Biden and the Democrats, but Cheney could spend months reminding them why they rejected Trump in the first place. “Especially among college-educated and donor-class Republicans, I think she continues to just chip away at Trump,” Kristol said.
Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, believes that the core of Republican-leaning voters hostile to Trump is smaller—only about one in 10, rather than the roughly one in five suggested by some poll questions. But he believes a Cheney candidacy could reach beyond that circle to raise doubts among a much bigger group: Republicans who are neither hard-core Trump supporters or opponents, but are focused mostly on winning in 2024. Although Cheney might appeal solely to the thin sliver of die-hard Trump opponents “with a prophetic-moral case … about the importance of devotion to our democratic institutions and the U.S. Constitution,” Ayres said, that larger group might respond to “a very practical utilitarian case” that Trump has too much baggage to win a general election.
The best-case scenario for the Trump critics if Cheney runs is that her battering-ram attacks weaken him to the point that someone else can capture the nomination. As Longwell told me, even if “Liz likely cannot win a Republican primary (though anything can happen!) … she can play a significant role in helping someone else beat Trump in a Republican primary.”
The worst-case scenario raised by some Trump critics is that a sustained attack on him will encourage GOP voters, and even other candidates, to rally to his defense more than they would otherwise.
But even those sympathetic to Cheney recognize that the 2024 primaries may offer only so much opportunity to change the party’s direction. Many of them view Trump’s strongest competitor in early polls, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, as little improvement over Trump in his commitment to a pluralistic democracy; Cheney recently told The New York Times that DeSantis has aligned himself so closely with Trump that she would find it “very difficult” to support him in 2024 either.
These dynamics explain why many Cheney supporters believe that the real leverage for her—and other Trump critics—would come from working to defeat the former president, or a like-minded alternative, in the 2024 general election. The only plausible way to break Trump’s hold on the GOP, these critics believe, is to show that Trump, or Trumpism, cannot win national elections. Even if Cheney cannot deny Trump the nomination, she could still ultimately loosen his hold on the party, this thinking goes, if she persuades enough centrist and white-collar voters to reject him and ensure his defeat in a general election. To save the party, in other words, Cheney might first have to be willing to destroy it.
Cheney signaled her willingness to accept such a mission yesterday, when her remarks condemned not only Trump but Republicans who have enabled him, especially those echoing his noxious discredited claims of fraud in 2020. But how she may pursue her goals remains unclear. Though most Republicans sympathetic to Cheney think she should run in the 2024 GOP primaries, others believe she might have more influence leading an outside movement against Trump. Cheney’s GOP supporters are even more divided over a possible general-election strategy; some sympathizers believe she would hurt Trump most by running as an independent third-party presidential candidate in the general election, and others worry that such a bid would help Trump by splitting voters resistant to him.
Cheney has many months to resolve those choices. What she indicated yesterday is that when she talks about a long battle, she is looking not only past the Wyoming House GOP primary but even past the struggle for the next GOP presidential nomination. The real prize she’s keeping her eyes on is preventing Trump from ever occupying the White House again, whatever that takes.