Cheney’s ouster mirrors battles within Wyoming’s GOP

Rep. Liz Cheney during a House Republican Leadership press conference in April 2021. (Screenshot)

By Nick Reynolds, WyoFile

Within minutes of Wednesday’s vote to oust Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney from her House Republican Conference leadership position, a handful of her Republican colleagues, including Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Ken Buck of Colorado — released statements supportive of Cheney.

Others, like disgraced New York Republican Congressman Tom Reed, expressed dismay over the vote and what it stood for. Namely, the party’s unwavering loyalty to Trump, and general concern of the direction of the Republican Party, which demoted Cheney for her criticisms of former President Donald Trump regarding the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and Trump’s false allegations the election was stolen.

Many of those in Wyoming loyal to Trump, including her opponents in the 2022 election, reveled in her removal and touted their ongoing support of the former president, who is now considered by many to be the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

Others here saw Cheney’s ouster as a reflection of similar party dynamics  in her home state, where many long-time members of the Wyoming Republican Party no longer feel they have a place in the populist movement Trump had inspired.

“Add me to the people who believe the GOP has become the party of TRUMP only,” State Rep. Landon Brown, a Cheyenne Republican, wrote on social media. “This is dangerous, and makes me and many other[s] disenfranchised with the party itself.”

Brown, a leading voice in conservative education reform efforts in Wyoming, has found himself at odds with the populist right in Wyoming for years. Some have labeled him a Republican in Name Only, or “RINO,” for his support of Medicaid expansion and unwillingness to vote for legislation prohibiting sanctuary cities. The Wyoming GOP has also denied him financial support, he said, because he didn’t fully agree with the state party’s platform.

Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) (Photo: Wyoming Legislature)

Brown sees similarities in the events surrounding Cheney.

“I was denied funding because I did not learn to equivocally support the party platform,” Brown said. “And from that point forward, I made a commitment that I was going to stand up for what I believe in and what my constituents believe in. Not just what the party believes in. And that’s exactly what Liz Cheney is doing, and has been doing.”

Like Brown, Cheney — who voted with the former president more than 90% of the time during his time in office — represents a minority within the modern GOP. A YouGov/Economist poll released this week showed Cheney’s favorable among conservative voters at about 18% nationally. Another poll from several weeks ago showed about 44% of Republicans to be more loyal to Trump than the GOP. Numerous polls over the last several months have also suggested most Republican voters, if not believing the election was stolen, believe there were rampant irregularities, despite a lack of evidence.

That fissure in the party, some feel, could hurt Republicans’ chances to win again.

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“…the way of Donald J. Trump is ignorance, fear, greed, tribalism and hate, and supporting him is a recipe for disaster for the Republican Party and, ultimately, the United States,” said Peter Nicolaysen, former state committeeman for the Natrona County Republican Party. “We need to immediately shift to a real Republican with the qualifications as well as the quality to lead the Party, and Liz Cheney fits the bill.”

Marginalized moderates

With a sizable coalition loyal to Trump, some wonder if there is still an opportunity for politicians like Cheney in the modern GOP.

If Republicans want to win back their majority, Cheney said in a press call with Wyoming reporters Thursday, that opportunity will be essential. That effort begins, she said, with Republican leadership standing up for the truth of what happened in 2020 and in the lead up to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

“We’ve seen conspiracy theories, we’ve seen people be misled, we’ve seen the current president push things that are not true,” Cheney said. “And I think it’s really incumbent on those of us who are elected officials, those of us who are in leadership positions, not just to sort of put our finger up and see which way the wind is blowing, but to take upon ourselves the responsibility to convey the truth and to explain to people what really happened. I think that’s leadership and I think that’s representation.”

Kyle Gamroth, a city councilman from Casper, considers himself as one of those seeking a return to civility in politics. At 32, Gamroth is currently one of the youngest members of council as well as the Natrona County Republican Party. While he supports many conservative policies, he dislikes Trump and, on the campaign trail last year, sought to avoid partisanship in favor of issues affecting Casper. In a four-way race, he was elected with 34% of the vote.

Kyle Gamroth. (City of Casper)

Gamroth said the policies of the state Republican Party — in particular an opposition to same-sex marriage — are incompatible with the views of many young people. Things like that have prevented the party from effectively engaging people in his demographic, he said. Nationally, the Trump vision of the party has also failed to resound with his generation, he noted: According to polling data, Trump’s weakest demographic was with voters aged 18-29.

“I’ve been reluctant [to engage with the party] the entire time, but the past year especially,” Gamroth said. “The Republican Party that I would support, that I would proudly stand behind, that I believe would be a catalyst for change, is not a party based on the values, behavior and language of people like Trump. That’s the absolute opposite direction I feel the party should go.”

But with Trump’s grip on the party, some believe the rift in the GOP resembles  a “purge” of those whose ideology puts them at odds with those in leadership.

Mark Christensen, a Gillette native and a former Campbell County Commissioner, is one of those individuals. The longest-serving commissioner on the board before his resignation last year, Christensen — who calls himself a “Reagan Republican” — was part of a group that helped build tens of millions of dollars in reserves, launch investment in carbon capture initiatives, and helped set the county on a sustainable fiscal path amid a downturn in coal revenues.

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In the lead up to the 2020 election season, however, Christensen said Campbell County took a sharp right turn. In the county commissioner’s race that year, two of his opponents ran on platforms heavy on abortion restrictions and gun rights. After floating a half-penny sales-tax increase he received death threats, he said. After his opponents dug up a restraining order his former wife filed against him, he said, he resigned with one year left in his term.

Christensen is concerned the Republican Party as a whole is facing a similar shift, he said. He worries that many of his former constituents remained fiercely loyal to Trump — a man who never visited Wyoming during his presidency or campaign —- over Cheney, who he said he had worked closely with as a commissioner and who had helped deliver significant results for Campbell County.

“I think there will be a reckoning in the party,” Christensen said. “I don’t know when it’s gonna be. But I would like to see it happen before [the next election], because I think Representative Cheney is exceptional. But I don’t know.”

Efforts to reclaim the party

There have been efforts by some, both at the state level and nationally, to reclaim the party, or at least reclaim a seat at the table.

In Wyoming, activists have established political action committees to counter thousands of dollars in funding that have poured into the coffers of populist Republican candidates. Activists in some communities have sought to reclaim civility in the state’s political landscape through fundraising and candidate recruitment efforts. At the national level, a coalition of 150 Republican officials — including several former governors and members of Congress — have signed their own pledge to do the same.

“I think that what we’re seeing at home is not dissimilar from some of the battles that we’re seeing nationally,” Cheney said Thursday. “I think for us in Wyoming, we’ve always been very committed to the Constitution, and very committed to everything that’s necessary to defend our rights and defend our freedom. And I think you do have somewhat of a battle underway. There’s no question about that.”

Facing re-election in 2022, Cheney believes a majority of Wyoming voters will ultimately vote for the individual they feel best represents their values, she said.

“It’s the beginning of a process,” she told reporters Thursday, one she plans to spend the next 15 months putting into motion.

Gamroth thinks the party’s future depends on that happening, he said

“Rebranding and redefining the party is what I believe is absolutely necessary,” Gamroth said. “In local Republican politics, I am the token millennial. I’m usually, by-far, the youngest person in the room and because of that, I’ve been asked to help recruit young Republicans. And the first question I have is whether Republicans are willing to change. There’s nothing attractive to young people about the party right now, so if the party is unwilling to change, then I don’t believe there is hope that you can recruit the next generation of Republicans.”

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