It’s hard to find anyone these days outside National Review’s deluded pages sorry to see Rep. Liz Cheney dragged across the political concrete. Besides rubbing raw the hide of a realigning right with her grating adoration for George W. Bush, Cheney embodies a conservative establishment that has conserved little more than its sinecures and pretensions.
The prospect of Donald Trump railroading her out of the Republican Party was, therefore, well-received. Unfortunately, his handpicked challenger turned out to be someone who stands for everything Trump ran against in his landmark 2016 presidential campaign.
Meet Harriet Hageman, Trump’s endorsed anti-Cheney gladiator, yet another product of rotten and fractious “America First” political machine that rose up to try to exploit Trump’s base after his presidency. Not only was she part of an effort to prevent Trump from becoming the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, denouncing him then as “racist and xenophobic,” but she also is—or was until recently—Cheney’s good friend.
The disastrous choice of Hageman by a faction of Trump’s team will likely incite Democrats in Wyoming’s open primary to vote with disaffected Republicans—not for Cheney but against the former president. Behind this showdown in Wyoming is an ongoing struggle within Trump’s post-presidential advisory team for control over access to Trump, whose endorsements of candidates are seen as a valuable commodity.
Before setting her sights on Cheney’s seat, Hageman made a bid for governor of Wyoming. She leaned on Cheney’s clout then, as she does with Trump’s celebrity now. The New York Times briefly mentioned that the two were once so close that Hageman was an adviser to Cheney’s short-lived 2014 Senate campaign. That’s true—but those friendly feelings seem to have lasted until very recently. Hageman’s official website and social media prominently displayed pictures of the two together right up to the announcement of her current candidacy. But all pro-Cheney content has since been scrubbed, and the redesigned landing page of Hageman’s website instead screams: “ENDORSED BY PRESIDENT TRUMP!”
Hageman’s reversal has rubbed pretty much everyone the wrong way and reflects not so much a change of heart as it does remarkable political opportunism and the competing interests of different factions that vie for influence over the man in Mar-a-Lago.
“I sometimes wonder what the heck Trump is thinking because his advisors, regarding Wyoming politics, are dumb as a post,” Wyoming conservative activist Tex McBride told Chronicles. McBride said Democrats are poised to rally behind Cheney alongside Republicans. “Not because they agree with Cheney,” he said. “Cheney supported President Trump’s policies 97 percent of the time; they are casting their ballot for her not as a vote of confidence in her but it’s a vote against Trump.”
Many Wyoming Republicans feel burned by outsider meddling. Even Trump’s endorsement betrayed a misreading of the state’s political scene when he claimed that Hageman was supported by Wyoming’s Sen. Cynthia Lummis. When asked for a comment by the Washington Examiner, Sen. Lummis declined to confirm that she would back Hageman against Cheney.
Hageman’s challenge personalized the race for both Liz and the Democrats, who are the better-organized party in the state. They don’t have a problem voting as “Republicans” in the open primary to influence the general election. If they want to sink Hageman in protest, there’s a good chance they will.
When Hageman stepped into the ring with Trump’s endorsement, the secretive Protect Wyoming Values PAC, which is connected to the former president, put its weight behind another Republican Cheney challenger, Rep. Chuck Gray. The address associated with the PAC is “commonly used as a mail-forwarding address by various shell companies and political organizations,” the Casper Star-Tribune noted.
“The PAC’s website also shares an IP address with other websites for conservative organizations and candidates around the country,” the Casper Star-Tribune reported. These include “South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and the Republican National Committee’s election integrity working group, which Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne is a member of.”
The same IP address is used by Christian Ziegler, a conservative political operative and owner of the Microtargeted Media consulting firm, according to the Casper Star-Tribune’s reporting. Ziegler is a friend of longtime Trump confidant Corey Lewandowski, who endorsed Ziegler in his quest to become the next Vice Chair of the Florida Republican Party. Lewandowski reportedly also expressed an interest in helping defeat Cheney. Federal Election Commission filings show Microtargeted Media received a fee from the Protect Wyoming Values PAC for “digital consulting” in June.
Hageman is backed by former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and Donald Trump Jr., who will assist the effort to oust Cheney as honorary chair of the Wyoming Values PAC. Stepien’s consulting firm, National Public Affairs, is running Hageman’s official campaign.
It’s well-known within conservative political circles that Stepien and Lewandowski hate each other and have been at odds on who gets access to Trump. The Business Insider reported in March that insiders such as Trump Jr. and Stepien “have established themselves as gatekeepers for who gets endorsed and how fast those endorsements roll out.” Lewandowski is a noted competitor to the Trump Jr.-Stepien camp. In a victory for the latter, Lewandowski was cast out of Trump’s world after sexually assaulting a donor at a charity event.
Emails requesting comment to Stepien, Trump, Jr., and Ziegler's firm Microtargeted Media received no immediate response. An attempt to reach Lewandowski for comment was not immediately successful.
The wrangling between Trump’s advisors in D.C. and Mar-a-Lago have effectively kicked the political hornets’ nest in Wyoming, elevating an otherwise sleepy race to a high-stakes national event. McBride says people too often get caught up with the scandal and intrigue of national politics, when political change needs to happen at the local level. “You can’t fix D.C. until you fix Wyoming,” he said. And Trump just made that more complicated.