On a prairie hill on the rolling highway into Wyoming’s capital city looms a billboard with the beaming face of the state’s lone congressional representative, Liz Cheney. In huge letters it declares: “Thank you Rep. Cheney for defending the Constitution.”
Some local Republicans see Cheney’s lonesome stand against former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election, and her refusal to back down, as an example of true Wyoming grit and independence.
But many others are quick to point out that the billboard was put up by an out-of-state dark money group, a sign of outsiders meddling. And among locals in this state that voted in a landslide for Trump, few are thankful for much of anything Cheney has done lately, and have vowed to vote her out of office.
“She broke our trust, I won’t vote for her again,” said James Crestwell as he sat on the front steps of his small Craftsman house in the central part of town on Wednesday. He wore a frayed Army hat marking the time he served on a tank crew in Iraq. An American flag flapped in the spring sunshine.
Wyoming is rich in coal and other fossil fuels, and mining and drilling are a major source of jobs and tax revenue. Trump championed those industries and loosened mineral leasing regulations. Under President Joe Biden, who temporarily paused oil and mineral leases on federal land and has vowed to move the nation away from fossil fuels, the industry faces a more uncertain future. It’s hard for many locals to stomach criticism of a president who they say stood up for their values.
Crestwell, 50, who works at the local veterans’ hospital, voted for both Trump and Cheney, and said it was a mistake for her to criticize the former president. “Trump’s been good for us in Wyoming. Supported coal and oil,” he said. “She seems like she’s more for Washington than Wyoming — like she’s trying to impress her powerful friends there.”
When asked about the president’s false claims that the election had been rigged, Crestwell said, “Show me the proof. We don’t have the black and white of what really happened yet.”
On the high plains of Wyoming, a state with fewer than 600,000 residents, conservative politics are as reliable as the stiff western winds. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats four to one and control every part of state government.
But Trump’s polarizing actions after the election, which have caused a rift in the national Republican Party, are felt even more deeply here. Cheney’s strident stand against Trump has forced local Republicans to choose between the popular hometown girl and the president who won nearly 70% of the vote in the state. So far, the most visible party members are roaring for Trump.
The state Republican Party overwhelmingly voted to censure Cheney in February after she voted to impeach the former president. Six local residents have announced they will run against her in 2022. Statements of support from Republican officeholders in Wyoming have been notably scant.
Cheney was once considered something close to political royalty in Wyoming, and a tough candidate to beat. Her family has been in the state for three generations on her mother’s side. Her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who graduated from high school and college here, represented the state in Congress for 10 years.
But in Cheyenne, during the same week that Cheney was stripped of her leadership position in Congress, local politicians privately predicted her days in office were numbered. Several leveled one of the more serious insults in these parts — that Cheney, who owns a house in the ski town of Jackson but has spent much of her life in Washington, wasn’t really from Wyoming.
Other longtime residents said they were proud to see their congresswoman take a stand.
“Trump lied, and she had the guts to call it out. I respect her for sticking to her guns,” said Gene Wolden, who was leaning against a corner of the bar at a saloon in downtown Cheyenne, sipping a Bud Light, in a bushy gray mustache and a snap-button shirt.
Next to him at the bar, Brian Brockman, who had done construction around coal mines in the state for decades, interrupted. “I don’t get it,” he said. “She’s telling the truth, and she gets castigated for it. I mean, if you can’t be honest, what kind of politicians are we going to end up with?”
Johnny Gipson, who works at an oil refinery on the edge of town that is converting to biofuel and shrinking its workforce, jumped in. “She messed up. She went against the whole team. Of course everyone’s mad at her.”
“Yeah, but she told the truth!” Wolden said.
“Hey, I’m in oil,” Gipson said, putting up his hands. “I’m always going to be for Trump. I’ll just say this, the only people happy with what she did are Democrats.”
The local split over Cheney is an offshoot of the larger philosophical split in the Republican Party over the legacy of Trump, and whether political success lies with breaking with him or boosting him, said James King, who teaches political science at the University of Wyoming.
“This is the struggle we are seeing all over the country between Republicans who are more supportive of the party’s traditional values,” he said, “and Republicans who are more supportive of Trump.”
He noted that before Trump’s second impeachment, Cheney voted with the president on nearly every issue and was one of the most conservative members of Congress. That may insulate her from political damage.
“I think this will all shake out, because she has supported mining and agriculture, and the values of her voting are still very much the values of the state,” he said.
Cheney’s current political troubles in Washington may not translate to an election loss next year, King said, because in Wyoming, where the Republican primary almost always decides the election, residents of any political affiliation can register as Republicans on primary day, which means Cheney could draw significant numbers of independents and Democrats.
The large number of challengers may also work in her favor, he said, because Wyoming has no runoff elections, so the challengers could split the vote, and Cheney could win with even a slim plurality.
“She might just survive,” he said. “Right now, everyone is keeping their heads down because they don’t want to end up in the same position. But I think she has more support out there than people think.”