Soon after Liz Cheney cast her vote for the impeachment of Donald Trump, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives received a harsh rebuke from the party leadership in her home state of Wyoming.
“The wind in Wyoming has been horrendous today with gusts up to 65 miles per hour [but] that is nothing compared to the whirlwind created by Representative Cheney,” the Wyoming Republican party said.
Ten Republicans joined Democrats on January 13 in voting to impeach Mr Trump for inciting the storming of the Capitol on January 6. But as a staunch conservative who had been propelled into the Republican leadership ranks in a record two years, Ms Cheney, 56, immediately became the prime target for the president’s most vocal defenders in Congress.
Jim Jordan, the Ohio congressman who helped dethrone John Boehner as the Republican House Speaker in 2015, urged the party to oust Ms Cheney from her role as House Republican Conference Chair.
Ahead of her vote, Ms Cheney said Mr Trump had summoned the mob and “lit the flame” of the attack. She added that there had “never been a greater betrayal” by a president of his oath to the constitution.
But to her critics, it is she who has betrayed her president. The Wyoming Gun Owners Association described the fiercely conservative daughter of former Republican vice-president Dick Cheney, as “Liberal Liz”.
Ms Cheney defended her decision as a “vote of conscience” in the midst of the gravest crisis since the Civil War, and rebuffed calls for her resignation, saying: “I’m not going anywhere.”
Her attack on Mr Trump and subsequent impeachment vote have boosted Ms Cheney’s national profile, potentially positioning her as a future Republican standard-bearer should the party decide to break with the outgoing president and his nationalist agenda.
However, William Kristol, a conservative critic of Mr Trump who has known her for years, said he thought Ms Cheney had voted with her conscience and was not making a calculated gamble ahead of a possible presidential run in 2024.
“She felt it had gone so far that she stopped calculating and decided to do what was the right thing,” said Mr Kristol.
On most issues over the past four years, Ms Cheney backed Mr Trump. But last year, the former state department official criticised some of his foreign policy decisions, including a plan to withdraw troops from Germany and Afghanistan. And in June, as Mr Trump continued to refuse to wear a mask, she tweeted a photo of her father wearing a face covering with the caption, “Dick Cheney says wear a mask. #realmenwearmasks.”
On January 6, as Congress met to confirm the election result, Ms Cheney was in the middle of urging fellow Republicans not to try to overturn the result when Mr Trump took aim at her.
“The Liz Cheneys of the world . . . we have to get rid of them,” he said in a fiery speech, which has been blamed for inciting the pro-Trump mob that attacked the US Capitol.
On the day of the impeachment vote, Ms Cheney did not speak during the debate in the House of Representatives. But her withering criticism of the president was repeatedly cited by Democrats as they made their case for charging the outgoing president with “incitement to insurrection”.
“It was truly a courageous vote on her part and clearly out of conviction,” said Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat.
One person who knows Ms Cheney said she was always deliberate and never shoots from the hip. But for Ms Cheney, who has been discussed as a possible future Speaker and presidential candidate, the question is whether she will face a primary challenge from a pro-Trump Republican in 2022.
Anthony Bouchard, a Wyoming Republican state senator who founded the Wyoming Gun Owners Association, has said he may challenge her next year.
Ms Cheney has a strong election record in Wyoming. She won her first race — for the congressional seat that her father once held — in 2016 by 32 points, and expanded her winning margin to 44 points in her second re-election bid in November. But the state also delivered Mr Trump his biggest margin of any state in both the 2016 and 2020 elections.
While critics have called for a primary challenge, she has received support from other members of her party. Writing in the Casper Star-Tribune, 30 lawyers and judges, including three former Wyoming governors and two former state supreme court judges, praised her for her vote of “courage”.
One GOP official familiar with Wyoming politics argued that she would be very difficult to oust. He said that if multiple candidates ran against her in the primary, they would split the vote. And if only one challenger emerged, they would still face a big hurdle because of her strong support from donors.
Mr Kristol said that in normal circumstances voters would forgive her vote against Mr Trump over time, but he cautioned there was no guarantee given how politics had shifted in the Trump era.
“She better work hard to make sure to fight it. We’re raising a lot of money to help people like her,” said Mr Kristol, whose Republican Accountability Project plans to help the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment.
Amy Edmonds, a former Wyoming state legislature member who served as communications director for Ms Cheney, was critical when her former boss questioned whether Mr Trump had any evidence of mass voter fraud. But she changed her mind after realising there was no evidence and after the violent siege.
“When January 6 happened . . . a lot of people in Wyoming were utterly horrified,” said Ms Edmonds. “She then came out in favour of impeachment. It was an incredibly courageous thing for her to do.”
She said some hardline Trump fans would remain angry but that the fervour would fade, particularly because most Wyoming Republicans would not want to jeopardise the clout that their state has, thanks to Ms Cheney’s leadership position.
“The legacy of her vote is going to be seen over the next two years in light of everything she will continue to do for Wyoming,” she said. “They will continue to see her as a very strong conservative representative.”
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