Once a Republican stalwart, Liz Cheney hits the trail for Democrats
By Jonathan Weisman
As political speeches go, Rep. Liz Cheney’s address to a packed gym in East Lansing, Michigan on Tuesday evening was hardly a barn burner. But her message was deeply serious, and the aim of her visit was extraordinary, for a Wyoming Republican: to reelect a Michigan Democrat, Rep. Elissa Slotkin.
“The chips are down for us. This is our time of testing,” Cheney told a crowd of Democrats who were quick with their applause. “We all must stand and defend the republic.”
For the first time in her political career — in her life, she said — Cheney was campaigning for a Democrat. Her appearance is part of a broader last-ditch push by Republican opponents of former President Donald Trump to try to thwart a comeback of his political movement in the midterm elections next week, even if that means endorsing and campaigning for Democrats and independents in crucial states and House districts.
But the question remains, if Democrats have struggled for months to elevate the meaning of the 2022 midterms, to impress upon voters that sometimes pocketbook issues like inflation must take a back seat to existential issues like the future of the republic, why would a ragtag group of Never Trump Republicans like Cheney succeed?
“I believe that protecting our democracy is the ultimate kitchen table issue,” Slotkin implored after conceding that it is not the first subject that comes up with her constituents. “In fact, it’s not the kitchen table. Our democracy is the foundation of the home in which the kitchen table sits.”
With time running out, elements of both parties are trying to hammer home that message. In Utah, anti-Trump Republicans are lending a hand to an independent former intelligence officer, Evan McMullin, in his campaign to unseat Sen. Mike Lee. On the airwaves of Arizona, Cheney is urging voters to oppose the Republicans running for governor and secretary of state. On the internet and on television screens, a constellation of anti-Trump groups nominally still Republican have pressed the case that this year, for the sake of representative democracy, voters need to side with Democrats.
“If we want to ensure the survival of the republic, we have to walk away from politics as usual,” Cheney said.
Republicans, some of whom Slotkin will need to win her tossup race next Tuesday, were hard to find in the gym of East Lansing High School, but there were a few, like Jennifer Schlosser, of Mason, Michigan.
“I hate Trump, hands down,” Schlosser, 48, said. “I fully support Liz Cheney and all she’s done to bring what he did to light.”
But even Slotkin had to admit that in the current political environment, with inflation and economic uncertainty looming large, a message to save the republic might not be enough.
It was, however, enough to bring Cheney to town.
Once one of the most stalwart partisans in the House, Cheney, the daughter of a famously conservative vice president, has gone from heading the House Republican Conference to endorsing front-line Democrats in little less than a year and a half, one of the most remarkable metamorphoses of the Trump era.
A television commercial financed with more than $500,000 from Cheney’s political action committee and running in Arizona features Cheney imploring Republicans to vote against the party’s candidate for governor, Kari Lake, and for secretary of state, Mark Finchem, because they are a threat to the country’s democracy.
“I don’t know that I have ever voted for a Democrat, but if I lived in Arizona, I absolutely would,” she says in the ad.
On Tuesday, on a swing through Ohio before Michigan, she said she would vote for Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, over J.D. Vance, in that state’s Senate race, citing the Republican candidate’s assertion that the 2020 election was stolen.
Her only Republican colleague on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, is on a similar journey.
On Oct. 22, Kinzinger was at the Salt Lake City Public Library to endorse former CIA officer Evan McMullin in his independent bid to oust Lee, who cheered on Trump’s efforts to remain in office after the 2020 election. Lee privately offered in a text to the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, “a group of ready and loyal advocates who will go to bat for him.”
Declaring that “democracy is on the line,” Kinzinger told Utah voters last month, “This is the best opportunity I see in the country, and I mean that, to send a message, to build something new, to send somebody that can change the status quo.”
A number of other groups still nominally connected to the Republican Party, like the Lincoln Project, are trolling the party they have become estranged from on social media and in television commercials intended to peel away disenchanted Republicans and independents. The Republican Accountability Project has been collecting testimonials from disaffected Republican voters, which are turned into billboards and advertisements.
“Whether we as a country will be able to defend our system of self-government in the coming years, even in the next two cycles, will depend on whether we can bring together Republicans, Democrats and independents who are still committed to American democracy, to the Constitution and to the reality of objective truth,” McMullin said in an interview Monday. “Are the votes there? Yes, they are there. Can we bring them together? That is the challenge.”
To that end, the power that Cheney and Kinzinger bring is their personal stories of defiance and excommunication. Cheney has been stingy with her endorsements, choosing the races she sees as the biggest threats to democracy and Democratic candidates she can personally vouch for. But for candidates like Slotkin, that makes events like Tuesday’s that much more valuable.
“For vulnerable Democrats in really tight races, a lot of those voters are college-educated swing voters who value the independence of candidates, and there’s extra validation from a Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger saying, ‘Hey, this Republican opponent is beyond the pale,’” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster who helped found the Republican Accountability Project.
Republicans are not so sure about that. Cheney in particular has become such a lightning rod with the Republicans’ base voters that party campaign aides here said her presence in Michigan would do more to energize Trump voters to come out for the Republican in the race, state Sen. Tom Barrett, than persuade undecided voters to side with Slotkin.