Pressure builds for candidates to drop out after Trump endorsement

A screenshot of an image from Harriet Hageman's 2018 gubernatorial campaign website (WyoFile)

By Nick Reynolds, WyoFile

Pressure is building for challengers of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) to drop out of the race following former President Donald Trump’s Thursday endorsement of new entrant and former Republican National Committee member Harriet Hageman.

Members of Trump’s team and the Wyoming Republican Party have been working behind the scenes to consolidate the field around a sole challenger, according to interviews, emails and text messages reviewed by WyoFile. Strategists and Trump have stated that Cheney is more likely to win in a crowded primary where numerous candidates split the vote.

During a June candidate forum in Casper, several challengers said they would drop out of the race by May 1, 2022 if they were not leading. They were also asked if they would drop out if Trump endorsed another candidate.

Party officials are now asking if those who answered “yes” to the second question — Darin Smith, Bryan Miller, Robyn Belinskey, Chuck Gray and Denton Knapp — will step aside ahead of a planned candidate forum Sept. 17 in Rawlins.

“Based on your answer to that question, and the newly formed situation where President Trump has now officially endorsed Harriet Hageman for the position you are running for, are you prepared to honor your word to the people and endorse Harriet Hageman for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and step aside in this race?” Joey Correnti, Carbon County Chairman, asked in an email to candidates Thursday morning.

“Time for those who haven’t committed to dropping out to think real hard about it, as the only way Harriett loses is if the conservative ticket is split,” Doug Gerrard, former chairman of the Campbell County Republican Party and founder of conservative blog Evidence Based Wyoming, wrote in an anti-Cheney Facebook group.

Some did so immediately. Miller dropped out early Thursday, according to the Star-Tribune, and Smith followed suit later in the day to support Hageman.

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However, there is little to indicate others will soon follow suit.

Bouchard has continued his campaign as normal after failing to get a meeting with Trump during a recent summit at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course.

“Wyoming’s voters aren’t for sale,” Bouchard said. “They may run this game in larger states. But Wyoming voters won’t be so easily played.”

Gray did not respond to a request for comment.

Knapp won’t drop out to support Trump’s endorsee at this time, despite committing to do so in the May candidate forum, he said.

In a July text message exchange between Republican strategist and Knapp supporter Rob Jennings and Trump campaign official David Bossie, Bossie said the former president would not meet with Knapp unless he would commit to dropping out of the race. After Jennings lobbied for Knapp to get a meeting regardless, Bossie said he would “discuss with Frank and the Wyoming guys next week” — an apparent reference to Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne — to surmise if he was a serious candidate.

Eathorne wrote in a text message that he did not discuss any of the candidates with Bossie, nor was he asked about Knapp in any conversations.

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Any candidate who didn’t step aside following Trump’s endorsement, Bossie wrote, “will pay a heavy price.”

Bossie declined to comment on the record about the exchange.

Hageman, a former Republican candidate for governor and former National Committee member for the Wyoming Republican Party, brings some awkward personal history to the race, despite the Trump endorsement. In 2014, Hageman served as an adviser on Cheney’s failed campaign for U.S. Senate and, two years later, was fingered as a member of a “Never Trump” coalition of Republicans while serving as a delegate for Sen. Ted Cruz at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Hageman also endorsed Cheney and campaigned for her statewide during Cheney’s 2016 House race.

Her upside, insiders believe, lies with her name recognition and fundraising ability. While running for governor in 2018, she raised more than $276,000 from a largely Wyoming-centric donor base while spending roughly $76,000 of her own money, according to campaign finance records, far less than candidates like Mark Gordon and Foster Friess spent on themselves. Hageman also amassed another $655,000 through an affiliated political action committee called “Right for Wyoming” during her gubernatorial race.

Hageman’s reversals on Cheney and Trump are considered boons in the race, Bossie wrote in text messages obtained by WyoFile. Her campaign’s communications have underscored that as well.

“Like many Wyomingites, I used to support Liz Cheney,” a fundraising email from Hageman’s campaign read. “However, when she got to DC, she put DC elites over her constituents and put her hatred of President Trump above all else.”

Knapp said he believes it should be Wyoming voters — not Trump — who determine the race’s outcome.

“People are telling me ‘hey, do the right thing and drop out, go find something else to do,’” Knapp said. “But we’ve got 11 months and at that time, if [Hageman] is the leader, I’ll support her. But I think Wyoming gets a vote. The last time I checked it was not an appointed or anointed position, it’s selected by the people of Wyoming.”

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This story has been updated to include Darrin Smith’s decision to step aside and to clarify Denton Knapp’s position — Ed.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.