Skip to main content
Menu
Why Liz Cheney Can’t Rely On Democrats To Save Her In Wyoming’s Republican Primary

Despite being a reliable Republican vote for most of two-plus terms in the U.S. House, Rep. Liz Cheney hasn’t been afraid to buck her party when it comes to former President Donald Trump. The Wyoming representative was one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021. She has called Trump a “clear and present danger” to American democracy. She supported the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that Trump incited. Cheney has even earned praise from Democrats, a remarkable turn of events for the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Democrats loathed.

But Cheney’s anti-Trump stance could doom her career in the Republican Party — where Trump remains popular — by sparking intense opposition to her both at home and in Washington. On Capitol Hill, House Republicans ousted Cheney from party leadership and the Republican National Committee voted to condemn her for serving on the House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6. In Wyoming, the state GOP has excommunicated her, while party committees all around the state have formally censured her. And now she faces a stern challenge in Wyoming’s 2022 GOP primary — the state has only one congressional district — from Harriett Hageman, an attorney and former RNC member who has endorsements from both Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

As a result, Cheney may face more danger in her primary than any other House Republican running in 2022. But could she be saved by … Democrats? On March 8, Wyoming’s legislature scrapped a bill seeking to end the state’s “crossover voting” provision. That rule permits voters to switch parties on Election Day, which could allow registered Democrats and other non-Republicans to change their registration to support Cheney in the Aug. 16 GOP primary. The legislature’s deliberations over the bill, which Trump had supported, sparked a raft of headlines raising the prospect of crossover voters being key to Cheney’s survival

The reality is otherwise: Only Republicans can really save Cheney’s political future. If she’s counting on anyone else, then she’s probably done for.

The math just doesn’t work for Cheney if she’s looking for substantial help from non-Republicans in Wyoming’s GOP primary without winning a healthy share of Republicans first. The vast majority (70 percent) of voters in the state are registered Republicans. And in midterm years (like 2022), an even larger share of the state’s primary voters have cast ballots in GOP nomination battles, as the table below shows — meaning they’re very likely reliably Republican-leaning Wyomingites. And of course, in a state as red as Wyoming — Trump garnered 70 percent of the vote there in 2020 — winning the GOP primary is tantamount to winning the election in November.

Far, far more Wyomingites vote in Republican primaries

Total primary votes in the Republican and Democratic primaries and the share of all primary votes cast in major-party primaries, by midterm year

Total primary votes Share of major-party primary votes
Year Republican Democratic Republican Democratic
2018 117,752 19,459 85.8% 14.2%
2014 99,312 18,306 84.4 15.6
2010 106,984 24,707 81.2 18.8
2006 86,989 30,395 74.1 25.9
2002 95,590 38,118 71.5 28.5

Excludes a small number of votes cast in nonpartisan primary races.

Source: Wyoming Secretary of State

Let’s look at what happened in 2018, when almost 100,000 more votes were cast in the Republican primary than in the Democratic contest. Although a super-competitive GOP nomination race for governor partly explains that discrepancy,1 the 2018 cycle marked the third consecutive midterm in which more than 80 percent of the votes cast in the two major-party primaries came on the GOP side. Now, some of those voters might be Democrats or independents who vote in the GOP primary because it will determine the winner in most Wyoming elections. But in a state where the Republican presidential nominee usually wins 65 to 70 percent of the vote, it’s clear that most of those primary voters are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans or at least lean toward the GOP.

So let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope math to consider Cheney’s position based on what we know about the current state of the race and recent Wyoming primaries. There has been little recent public polling of the race, but a December survey from SoCo Strategies put her behind Hageman by 20 percentage points, and older polls found her support or favorability among Wyoming Republicans in the 20s — evidence that she’s in rough shape. For argument’s sake, let’s say that Cheney trails by 10 points among registered Republicans in the final days of the primary campaign (possibly a rosy scenario, considering her polling numbers). So Hagerman has 50 percent, Cheney 40 percent and the four or so other candidates attract the remaining 10 percent (the candidate filing deadline is May 27, so the field could expand or retract further). If there are around 110,000 voters who were registered Republicans before primary day — a reasonable guess since nearly 117,000 total voters participated in the 2018 GOP primary for governor2 — Hageman would lead by around 11,000 votes. Based on the 2018 primary, Cheney would then need nearly 60 percent of the total Democratic primary voters to not only switch to vote in the GOP contest but to also vote for her.

Now, if the race proved to be closer, and/or if another GOP contender — say, state Sen. Anthony Bouchard — took more of the anti-Cheney vote from Hageman, perhaps crossover voters could make the difference for Cheney. Let’s say Hageman is up, with 42 percent to Cheney’s 37 percent among registered Republicans, while Bouchard sits at 15 percent (and other candidates win the remaining 6 percent). In that case, Cheney would trail by about 5,500 votes, or about 30 percent of the total number of Democratic primary votes in 2018. It’s not out of the question that the red-hot spotlight on Cheney’s race could encourage significant crossover voting among Democrats, especially if there isn’t much happening in the Democratic primary. Things could play out that way, considering so far no notable Democrats have declared in Wyoming’s races for the House or governor (neither of Wyoming’s U.S. Senate seats are up in 2022). 

But this still means that Cheney must remain competitive among Republicans to even allow for a scenario where crossover voters could conceivably put her over the top. Granted, she has a huge financial edge — at the end of 2021, Cheney had raised $7.2 million to Hageman’s $745,000 — which the incumbent can use to damage Hageman and play up her conserative bonafides. And Cheney’s wealthy backers might also look to raise the profile of one of the other anti-Cheney contenders in the hopes of fragmenting her opposition. (Promoting another candidate for your benefit is a dark campaign art practiced by past vulnerable incumbents, although usually by trying to influence the other party’s primary.) However, even if Cheney’s allies wanted to go that route, the most obvious choice for prospective assistance looks to be toxic: Bouchard, the state senator, has seen his fundraising dry up after Hageman’s entry into the race and revelations that he impregnated a 14-year-old girl when he was 18 years old.

Beyond any hypothetical campaign intrigue, the fact is that Wyoming’s Election Day registration rules may not even boost Cheney’s chances as much as the conventional wisdom might believe. Wyoming not only permits voters to switch parties at the polls, but it also allows same-day voter registration. So while crossover voters might participate in the GOP primary, there could be even more same-day registrants, many of whom might be newly engaged Republicans. 

Consider the 2018 GOP primary for governor, when some conservatives claimed that now-Gov. Mark Gordon won the party nomination thanks to crossover votes from non-Republicans. Gordon won by about 9,000 votes, but an analysis of voter registration data found that party switching probably didn’t affect the outcome. The GOP added around 8,200 registered voters on primary day, but Democrats lost only about 1,800 registrants, while independents and other third-party registrations dropped by about 2,700 voters. That meant that a plurality of new Republican voters came from fresh registrants rather than party-switching, as about 3,700 new voters joined the rolls (mostly with the GOP). 

Thinking about the 2022 GOP primary, there’s no guarantee that same-day Republican registrants are going to be favorably inclined toward Cheney; they may be predisposed to oppose her, in fact.

And that gets back to the fundamental truth for Cheney: Her political future rests on winning over Republican voters rather than winning over Democratic or independent voters. She needs a good deal of the former for the latter to matter at all.

Footnotes

  1. Hageman actually finished third in that race.

  2. That total includes crossover voters and, as will be discussed below, new registrants.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Comments

Latest Interactives