In the summer of 2016, when Donald Trump had vanquished his GOP rivals but had yet to be formally named the party’s presidential nominee, a group of his opponents launched a Hail Mary effort to keep him off the ballot. Supporters of Ted Cruz, who had earned the second-most delegates and was one of the last of that year’s large large primary field to fall, began desperately pushing behind the scenes for the Republican National Convention’s Rules Committee to free the delegates that had been pledged to Trump — a procedural move that could have, in theory, blocked his nomination. Among those who participated in that failed effort? Harriet Hageman, a former Wyoming Cruz delegate and politician, who once openly described Trump as “racist and xenophobic,” and and the “weakest” contender the Republicans could put forth.
Flash forward six years: Hageman now appears to be on the cusp of defeating Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, who she advised in 2014 and campaigned for in 2016, as a full-on MAGA candidate with the endorsement of Trump, the man she now claims is the “greatest president” of her lifetime. “I heard and believed the lies the Democrats and Liz Cheney’s friends in the media were telling at the time, but that is ancient history as I quickly realized that their allegations against President Trump were untrue,” Hageman told the New York Times last year, after the outlet reported on her participation in efforts to undermine his 2016 nomination.
“I am proud to have been able to renominate him in 2020,” she said. “And I’m proud to strongly support him today.”
That degeneration — from warning about the dangers of Trump to vowing loyalty to him — is the story of the GOP over the course of the last half decade. It’s played out on the individual level, in officials like Lindsey Graham, who once cautioned that Republicans would be “destroyed” and “deserve it” if they backed Trump, only to become one of his most subservient allies on Capitol Hill. And it’s played out on an institutional level, with the establishment building the Trumpism it once claimed to abhor into the party infrastructure, bracketing the GOP platform with the Big Lie and fully embracing his brand of culture war grievance. In fact, it’s played out so many times that the GOP’s descent into the party of Trump is no longer really news; when Republicans are scrambling to defend the former president against possible espionage charges, it feels redundant to measure his dominance of the party.
But there is obviously something particularly symbolic about Cheney’s looming loss to Hageman in this week’s Wyoming primary race. The incumbent, political royalty in the state and about as conservative a Republican as there is, has found herself exiled from her party and trailing Hageman by 30 points in the polls ahead of the Tuesday vote — all because of her stand against the former president, first in last year’s impeachment for inciting insurrection and then for helping to lead the congressional investigation into that deadly riot. Her expected fall underscores the fall of the Republican party, from one organized around a set of policy goals to one organized around one man. “This is Donald Trump’s legacy,” Cheney said in a recent video, which, as my colleague Kelly Rissman pointed out over the weekend, sounded “more like a concession speech” than a campaign ad. “But it cannot be the future of our nation.”
Hageman, who has endeared herself to Trump and his supporters by fully endorsing his “rigged election” lies, is an embodiment of that dark future Cheney warned of: If Hageman wins, as expected, she will be one of many Trump-backed election deniers to win GOP primaries, which could put more anti-democracy extremists in governors’ mansions, the United States Congress, and positions of power over the election process. “It is,” Cheney said in her final campaign ad, “a cancer that threatens our republic.”
It’s hard to imagine Hageman, who has also run on the premise that she better represents Wyoming’s interests than the “Virginian” who currently holds the seat, doesn’t know that. Hageman’s adviser, Bill Stepien — who managed Trump’s 2020 campaign — testified to Cheney’s January 6 committee that he stopped working for the former president because his efforts to overturn his loss to Joe Biden was not “necessarily honest or professional.” But, as my colleague Bess Levin wrote earlier this summer, Stepien has continued to profit off those lies. It seems like Hageman will, too, on Tuesday. As for Cheney? She and her fellow travelers seem to know the score; the only other Republican on the January 6 committee, Adam Kinzinger, who is not running for reelection, acknowledged in an interview last week with WGN’s Ben Bradley that Trump had “won” in the short term. “There’s no use in pretending somehow I scored some major victory and saved the party,” Kinzinger told the Chicago outlet. The best they can hope for, at this point, is to win out in the long term, something Cheney, who has openly toyed with a White House run in 2024, spoke to in her final appeal to Wyoming voters last week. “No matter how long we must fight,” Cheney said, “this is a battle we will win.”