Before she voted to impeach President Trump, Rep. Liz Cheney could depend on votes from Jon Nicolaysen.
His family is ingrained into the DNA of Wyoming. P.C. Nicolaysen arrived around 1880, when the land was still a territory. He founded Cole Creek Sheep Co. in 1906 and passed it down to his son, who passed it down to Jon, who years ago told his father he was thinking of taking a job at Merrill Lynch in New York.
“He said, ‘Well, if you do that, I’ll sell the ranch,’ ” he recalled. “So I came back, and I’ve never regretted it.”
At 75, he doesn’t get out to the family ranch much now that his children run it, but he still knows where the cows get into the greasewood to give birth, where the prairie dogs burrow and, more recently, where the solar-powered water pumps, oil wells and windmills coexist.
These days, Nicolaysen says he’s worried about inflation, border security and whether the government will take away his guns. In the past, he helped send Cheney to Congress to tackle those issues. But that’s one tradition he’s ready to break because of her leadership of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.
“It’s time for a change,” said Nicolaysen, who plans to vote for Cheney’s opponent, Harriet Hageman. “Liz has taken on kind of a vendetta against Trump, and she’s forgotten the things that are important today.”
Wyoming GOP primary voters will decide Aug. 16 whether Cheney knows what’s really important to them. On its face, the primary is about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election — creating a rift that has fractured friendships, families and communities across the state.
But it’s also about core values such as integrity and loyalty, and what it means to live up to them as a public official representing Wyomingites. The choice voters make will send a clear signal about what the state stands for today and where it wants to go.
As she seeks a fourth term in office, Cheney has argued there’s nothing more in line with Wyoming values than her work on the Jan. 6 committee — to uphold the rule of law, defend the Constitution and hold Trump accountable for inciting an insurrection.
That’s a tough sales pitch in a state where Trump won nearly 70% of the vote, and even residents who are critical of the former president say his policies were good for Wyoming.
“I liked Donald Trump,” Nicolaysen said. “He was a tough man — everybody he could, he basically kicked them in the crotch. So he wasn’t a nice man, but he was a good president.”
In September, Trump endorsed Hageman, a lawyer, fourth-generation Wyomingite and former advisor on Cheney’s 2014 Senate campaign. Polling is sparse, but polls from two groups — Club for Growth, which has endorsed Hageman, and Wyoming Values, a super PAC with Trumpworld ties that is also supporting her — found Hageman leading Cheney by about 30 percentage points.
In a campaign video announcing her 2022 reelection bid, Cheney invoked an Old West motto: “In Wyoming, we know what it means to ride for the brand.”
To ride for the brand is to be loyal, dependable and reliable — especially to the people who hire you. And both Hageman and Cheney have argued they embody those traits.
Cheney said in May that America’s brand is the Constitution, and that now is a “time of testing.”
“Some things have to matter: American freedom, the rule of law, our founding principles,” she said. “What we do in this election in Wyoming matters.”
But Hageman’s campaign has argued Cheney betrayed the brand by going after Trump.
Wyoming residents “are tired of hearing from Liz Cheney about the January 6th Committee because it’s all she does,” Hageman said in a statement to The Times.
“Cheney has burned her relationship with Republicans, meaning she’s completely lost the ability to be effective in Congress,” Hageman said. “She’s not from here, she doesn’t represent our views, and it’s time for her to stay home in Virginia.”
The Cheney campaign declined to comment, instead pointing to her public remarks on the importance of the committee’s work.
Trump and his allies have made defeating Cheney a top priority. During a May rally in Casper, Trump praised Hageman and blasted Cheney for her role on the Jan. 6 committee.
“I think this is the most important election that we have, right here,” he said of the Wyoming congressional race. “You gotta win.”
In Washington, Cheney has taken on a starring role in the hearings, delivering the biggest bombshells in the committee’s case against Trump and doling out the harshest criticism for her fellow Republicans who refuse to hold the former president accountable.
“Do not be distracted by politics,” Cheney said Tuesday. “This is serious. We cannot let America become a nation of conspiracy theories and thug violence.”
But back home, it might be too late to convince voters who still believe unfounded claims that the election was stolen or, like Nicolaysen, just think the country needs to move on.
“People, for the most part, have made up their minds,” said Jim King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming. “If you’re a Cheney supporter, you’re a Cheney supporter. If you’re a Hageman or [state Sen. Anthony] Bouchard supporter, I don’t think anything that is being said in the committee hearings is going to affect that.”
Instead, Cheney will need to form a coalition of anti-Trump Republicans, unaffiliated voters and potential crossover Democratic voters her campaign is reportedly courting to bolster her to a win. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 4 to 1 in the state, but anyone can register to vote in the GOP primary on election day.
Neal Hibschweiler, a 64-year-old electrician and longtime Democrat from Casper, watched the first committee hearing on the evening of June 9. He gave Cheney $25.
“I appreciate what she’s doing,” he said as he picked up Cheney signs from her campaign.
Later, the campaign stopped by his house to put up an 8-foot-wide Cheney sign in his yard.
On the more than four-hour drive from Jackson to Casper, it’s rare to see any Cheney signs. But in Casper, which is home to 58,000 people and is the second-largest city in the state, yard signs supporting the incumbent line the streets.
Outside her work on the committee, the challenge Cheney has faced with some Wyoming voters is that she wasn’t born or raised full time there.
Wyomingites measure their ties to the state in generations, not years or decades. Cheney was born in Madison, Wis., while her parents were attending graduate school, and was raised between Virginia and Casper. After spending much of her adult life away from the state, she moved her family from Virginia to Wilson, Wyo., near Jackson, in 2012. A year later she announced her primary challenge to then-Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican. She dropped out a few months later, citing health problems in her family.
But Cheney does have deep roots in the state. Her mother, Lynne Cheney, was born in Casper and her grandmother was a deputy sheriff in town. Her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, held the same at-large congressional seat from 1979 to 1989. Dick and Lynne were high school sweethearts in Casper.
If Liz Cheney won, it wouldn’t be the first time she overcame claims that she’s a carpetbagger. In 2016, then-state Rep. Tim Stubson ran against Cheney in the Republican primary for the U.S. House, banking on voters’ beliefs that Cheney inhabited the stereotype.
“‘We’re one of you, Liz Cheney is not from here, she grew up in Virginia’ — that was a central component of our campaign,” said Stubson’s wife, Susan, a lawyer, performing artist and sixth-generation Wyoming resident.
The strategy didn’t work. But seeing Cheney excel in Washington made losing easier — she was elected GOP conference chair at the end of her first term in office, the No. 3 spot in party leadership.
Now, the Stubsons are some of her strongest supporters. They’re on her state leadership team and spent the evening of June 9 glued to the TV watching the first committee hearing.
“I thought she was excellent,” Susan Stubson said. “That was very much the Liz that she has presented to Wyoming.”
But Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol eventually led to her rejection by party leadership in Washington, D.C., and at home. The state GOP voted to censure her in February 2021, and the House Republican caucus ousted her from leadership in May. By the end of last year, the state GOP’s central committee voted 31 to 29 to no longer recognize her as a member of the party.
Stubson said she’s started referring to herself as a “Republican at sea” — she hasn’t changed, but the party has. She’s conservative in her views on the federal government’s role in schools and controlling land in the state, but said she’s felt out of touch with the party in the last two elections. She wrote in Mitt Romney for president in 2016 and 2020 and rejects claims the last election was marred by widespread fraud.
“I think I’m like most human beings, that I have a spectrum of ideas and ideologies,” she said. “Which is why Reagan’s Republican Party was the big tent, which heretofore was a badge of honor.”
But the party of Ronald Reagan has become the party of Trump, and GOP political dynasties like the Bushes and the Cheneys no longer garner the loyalty they once did.
Frank Eathorne, the chair of the Wyoming Republican Party and an ally of Trump and Hageman, has rejected the idea of a big tent. The state GOP he leads has used procedural rules to limit the power of the largest of the state’s 23 counties — Laramie, home to Cheyenne, and Natrona, home to Casper — and has used censures to punish those who don’t toe the party line.
This year Cheney said there was a “very radical element” in her party and referenced Eathorne, who is a member of the far-right Oath Keepers and is among those who broke past the police barricades on Jan. 6. The Wyoming GOP did not respond to requests for comment from The Times.
For Stubson, the Aug. 16 primary isn’t just about Cheney, but about where the rank and file of the state Republican Party stands as a whole.
“Primary day here is going to be terrifying,” she said. “By the end of the day, as the results come in, we’ll go, ‘OK, so that’s where Wyoming sits.’”
Stubson is hoping there’s a less vocal majority waiting to give Cheney another term in office.
“I know it’s super squishy, and maybe there’s a little salt of optimism in there, but I feel like I am not the only one that holds these views,” she said.
In Teton County, where Cheney lives, GOP chair Mary Martin is trying to keep the spirit of the big tent alive. Republicans on both sides of the Cheney-Hageman rivalry weighed in with her as she ate lunch at the Virginian, a lodge and restaurant off the main highway, in June.
“There are those that think Liz is being very brave, that Liz is being true to the Constitution, that Liz is being true to her own convictions,” Martin said. “There’ll be those that will say she’s been bought … she’s compromised. She’s sold out.”
Some of Hageman’s supporters said they believed the Jan. 6 committee was politically motivated given Cheney was appointed to the committee by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). After Pelosi rejected two of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s picks — Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, Trump allies who voted against certifying some of the 2020 election results — McCarthy pulled all his picks.
Others said they believe the Trump campaign’s claims that there was widespread voter fraud, though they have been found to be baseless.
“Normally, Liz would be an absolute champion and a hero, because she’s standing for the Constitution,” Martin said. “But the people that are objecting to the [committee] are saying it’s an illegitimate process on an illegitimate topic that has twisted what the real issue is. The issue is: Were the elections fair and honest?”
After filing more than 60 lawsuits, the Trump campaign failed to show proof that Biden won because fraud tainted the election. In recent Jan. 6 committee hearings, William Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, described his department’s efforts to investigate fraud claims that were not substantiated. And Bill Stepien, who currently serves as an advisor to Hageman, testified in a video deposition that he urged Trump not to declare victory on election night.
Hageman told the New York Times in February that she didn’t know whether Biden legitimately won the election.
“In Wyoming we had a 70% vote supportive for Trump. It’s hard for people to understand — in other states — how that same thing didn’t happen,” said Joseph McGinley, a Cheney supporter and the Natrona County GOP’s state committeeman. “There was suspicion regarding the election results, and I think the suspicion was partly disappointment.”
McGinley said the Trump campaign had its chance in court and lost. Now it’s time to trust the election system, he said. “I don’t question the results of the election,” he said. “I don’t like the results of the election, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong.”
Where Cheney’s supporters are cautiously optimistic, many Hageman supporters are deeply confident their candidate will win.
“I think if it’s a fair election, that there’s no doubt, there is zero doubt, that Hageman will win and she’ll win by a lot,” said Rebecca Bextel, who runs a business services company in Jackson. “The enthusiasm for her is huge. People feel proud.”
Others see their personal experiences reflected in Hageman’s background.
Max Jacobson, a 62-year-old retired oil field worker who chaired a recent Trump rally in Casper, grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota with eight siblings. The kids would wake up in the morning, milk the cows, go to school, come back to help on their farm, and sometimes the neighboring ones.
She sensed that Hageman had a similar upbringing, having grown up on a ranch near Fort Laramie, a town of about 200 people.
“I bet Harriet Hageman ran around and, when they were castrating the cow, she was carrying the bucket,” Jacobson said. “That’s the difference. She leads by example.”
But Cheney’s supporters would argue that she’s leading by example in her own way.
“Liz’s role is what Wyoming is all about,” said Mary Kay Turner, an 80-year-old retired teacher from Jackson who now works on Middle East peace projects.
She said people in the state “feel strongly about the Constitution of the United States, about justice, about integrity and hard work, and all of those things are what she’s doing on [the Jan. 6 committee] right now.”
She and her husband, John Turner, a former Bush administration official who led the Fish and Wildlife Service and worked in the State Department on environmental issues, have known the Cheneys for decades. John and Dick bonded over fly fishing and Liz used to ride horses on their ranch, Mary Kay Turner said.
Like Liz Cheney, John Turner backed Trump in the past. He voted for Trump twice, donated to his campaigns and felt bad about “the siege they waged against him for four years” in Washington.
“But having said that, his behavior after the election was inexcusable,” Turner, a former state legislator, said from the back porch of his home near Grand Teton National Park.
People in Wyoming admire those who stick to their convictions, they said.
“We’ve got too many politicians today that are like a Wyoming tumbleweed,” John said. “They just roll hither and yon across the prairie depending on the political winds.”
As for Liz Cheney?
“She doesn’t take the easy route, she never has,” Mary Kay said.
“She’s tough,” John added. “She’s Wyoming through and through.”