After loss, Cheney begins difficult mission of thwarting Trump
By Jonathan Martin
Hours after her landslide loss, Rep. Liz Cheney wasted no time earlier this week taking her first steps toward what she says is now her singular goal: blocking Donald Trump from returning to power.
Cheney announced that her newly rebranded political organization, the Great Task, would be dedicated to mobilizing opposition to Trump. And in an early morning television interview, she for the first time acknowledged what many have suspected: She is “thinking” about running for president in 2024, she said on NBC’s “Today Show,” and would decide in the “coming months.”
Despite the effort to shift quickly from her defeat to her future, Cheney and her advisers remained vague about precisely how the congresswoman, who lost to a Trump-backed primary challenger by 37 points in Wyoming on Tuesday, planned to build a movement that could thwart a figure with a strong hold on many of his party’s voters and a set of imposing advantages.
Allies, advisers and Cheney herself insist there are no detailed plans prepared for her mission. Her focus remains on the panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, they said. (As if to underscore the point, Cheney on Wednesday jetted from Wyoming back to Washington, where Congress is in recess for the summer.)
But Cheney’s every move will be watched closely by a pocket of the political class that has been increasingly agitating for a third party that they argue could not only block Trump, but ease the rising political polarization.
“The amount of money that is available for Liz Cheney to continue her work to keep Trump from terrorizing us depends on how good her plans are,” said Dmitri Mehlhorn, an adviser to several major Democratic donors, including Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn. “If she has really good plans, then the amount of money available to her is definitely in the double-digit millions.”
A policy wonk with no great enthusiasm for retail politics, Cheney could build a political operation dedicated to defeating Republicans who endorse Trump’s false claims of winning the 2020 election. That would inevitably mean openly supporting Democrats, something she has yet to commit to. On Wednesday, when asked if she believes the country would be better off under Democratic control in Washington, she dodged.
“I think we have to make sure that we are fighting against every single election denier,” she said. “The election deniers, right now, are Republicans. And I think that it shouldn’t matter what party you are. Nobody should be voting for those people, supporting them or backing them.”
Cheney also could focus on laying the groundwork for her own candidacy for president — either as a Republican or as an independent. The latter effort risks peeling away votes from Democrats and ultimately helping Trump win if he runs, as is widely expected.
If she runs as an expressly anti-Trump candidate in the 2024 Republican primary, harnessing the media attention that would come with even a long-shot bid, it may only serve to fracture the share of the GOP electorate eager for a Trump alternative. Cheney needs no reminding that the former president claimed the 2016 nomination with pluralities in many early nominating states, as he had no single, formidable opponent.
Cheney could instead decide to mount a third-party candidacy. There’s a well-heeled constituency of donors who would prefer a third option to Trump or President Joe Biden. No Labels, a centrist group, has said it has $50 million in commitments for an independent candidacy and has sought to woo Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat as a potential candidate. The group’s organizers, whose efforts were first reported by Politico, is also open to seeding an independent Cheney campaign, according to a person familiar with their thinking and who asked not to be named discussing private conversations.
Yet should she run as a sort of modern-day Bull Moose and attempt to forge an alliance with the Democrats, independents and lapsed Republicans she urged to “stand together” in her remarks Tuesday, she may strengthen Trump’s hand further. While she may pick up votes that would otherwise go to the Republican nominee, she also could siphon the critically important support of some moderate voters from the Democratic nominee in 2024, whether that’s Biden or someone else.
While hardly expecting Cheney to defeat Harriet Hageman, a Cheyenne lawyer, many Trump-skeptical Republicans across the country were watching Wyoming closely, hoping Cheney could at least run competitively. That she lost so resoundingly has only confirmed their fears that they are confronting a demand-side challenge: Most Republican primary voters want Trump or one of his acolytes as their standard-bearer in 2024.
Even in New Hampshire, where maverick candidates in both parties have found success over the decades, longtime Republicans wondered whether there was a market for a Cheney candidacy within the GOP.
“I’d love to see a path forward for her because I’m one of those frustrated Republicans, but I’m left pondering the appeal of a traditional-style candidacy given the disappointing results last night,” said Maura Weston, the former finance chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Even more depressing to Cheney’s admirers is that the party itself, at both the state and national level, is so in thrall to Trump that even a protest campaign may not prove fruitful. Trump’s lieutenants installed his supporters at state parties throughout the country to ward off any potential 2020 primary challenge. Because of that, the state chairs and committeemen and women who oversee the Republican National Committee remain in Trump’s corner.
William Kristol, the longtime neoconservative writer turned Trump critic, said the best-case scenario for a Cheney candidacy in the primary would be akin to Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent challenge of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. McCarthy, an anti-war Democratic senator from Minnesota, elevated opposition to the Vietnam War and eventually helped drive the president out of the race. (Ultimately, the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, won the White House).
“The path forward is more complicated right now than people want to acknowledge,” said Kristol, adding that she won’t have to make any decisions soon because “the Jan. 6 committee gives her a focus for the next four months.”
What’s not complicated is Cheney’s view of this moment and her role. She not only believes that the country is at risk, but also that it can be pulled from its downward spiral only by those who answer history’s call.
She says she is a firm believer in the “great man theory” of history — the notion that America has been sustained by leaders who emerged at critical times to lead.
“It’s absolutely clear that the only thing that makes a difference is individuals,” Cheney said in an interview this month. “It’s the only thing that makes a difference.”