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The Next Big Primary: Can Liz Cheney Beat Trump and the Wyoming GOP?

The state Republican Party chairman is a serious extremist. Cheney’s opponent, once anti-Trump, now loves him. Can Cheney hang on?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When Donald Trump touches down in Wyoming on Saturday to try to boost the candidate who wants to oust Congresswoman Liz Cheney, he’ll be stepping foot in a state—and sharing a campaign rally stage—with one of the most extreme Republican Party chairmen in the country. That chairman, Frank Eathorne, has helped fuel vicious intraparty fighting between Republicans in the state and led the charge to oust Cheney. He adores Trump and has been the type of state party official the former president is looking to replicate as he tries to retain his iron grip on the Republican Party.

Trump himself has endorsed Eathorne’s position as head of the Wyoming Republican Party, a reward for Eathorne’s role in organizing a formal censure of Cheney by the state party—a rare gesture of disapproval for a state committee to dole out to an elected member of the state party.

Most telling, though, has been Eathorne’s connections to some of the most extreme elements of the Republican Party and beyond—a fact that hasn’t substantially hurt his standing with Trump or the state party. Eathorne, it was revealed after the fact, was one of the nearly 200 Oath Keepers who attended the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Three days after the mob attack, Eathorne released a statement calling it a “peaceful rally near the White House.” He said he didn’t see any violence or damage to property while he was near the Capitol—a near impossibility for anyone who was there.

The Oath Keepers are an extremist group the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of the largest far-right antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.” Eathorne has gone beyond the general railings of the Oath Keepers as well. During an appearance on Steve Bannon’s podcast, he suggested that Wyoming secede from the United States.

“Many of these Western states have the ability to be self-reliant, and we’re keeping eyes on Texas too, and their consideration of possible secession,” Earthorne said, according to WyoFile. “They have a different state constitution than we do as far as wording, but it’s something we’re all paying attention to.”

Within the state, Eathorne hasn’t followed the usual role of a state party chairman, who would normally espouse impartiality between candidates within his own party. Eathorne has helped spearhead efforts to get the Republican National Committee to support Harriet Hageman, although a state party–supported challenge to an incumbent elected officeholder of the same party rarely happens. He has helped lead the state party’s moves to punish any Republicans who refuse to toe the party line among conservatives. And he’s presided over the Wyoming GOP in an era that saw the state add new voter ID laws and new restrictions on abortion while fighting moves to expand Medicaid.

A lengthy profile of Eathorne for the Casper Star-Tribune and WyoFile details how he has engendered a high level of loyalty among supporters while also enraging critics in the state—both Democrats and Republicans. The profile notes the atmosphere in Wyoming Republican circles has gotten so acrimonious that after a Republican state convention at the beginning of May, Tom Lubnau, a former House speaker and “longtime GOP leader,” left the state party.

Some Republicans in the state have grumbled about Eathorne’s seemingly selective disciplinary measures toward party members. Last year, the state Republican Party also declined to punish an official who wrote an obscene email to a state senator, even as the party voted to no longer recognize Cheney as a Republican in the same meeting.

During the state GOP convention in May, most members of the Laramie County delegation were refused seats over a rules violation, the Star-Tribune and WyoFile reported, but the party refused to take similar action when rules violations from other counties were revealed. A Laramie County state committeeman blamed Eathorne for the incivility in Wyoming politics in that article, saying: “A lack of calling decorum on certain party members throughout his entire tenure has led to this attitude of general hate that is coming from the party.”

Eathorne’s preferences are clear even among other Republican national committeemen. One veteran committeeman described him as “content to have a smaller party where everyone has to agree on everything” and someone who is “all-in on Trump.” The committeeman noted that Eathorne co-sponsored with David Bossie, the conservative activist and Maryland RNC committeeman, a resolution at the last RNC winter meeting targeting Cheney and Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a fellow Republican critic of Trump and Trumpism. Cheney and Kinzinger are the only two Republicans on the January 6 House committee.

Eathorne’s support is especially important at this point in the 2022 midterm cycle. Trump, who has prided himself on his kingmaking abilities, has endorsed a number of candidates who have lost, as the former president would say, very badly, in primary contests. Most recently, while Herschel Walker, whom Trump backed, won the GOP nomination for Senate in Georgia, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp both handily defeated their Trump-backed rivals. Kemp and Raffensperger are the only two other Republicans in elected office who engender nearly as much fury as Cheney does in Trump.

Trump’s endorsement of Hageman may have been influenced by Eathorne’s support. In an interview with Wyoming radio host Glenn Woods on Wednesday, the former president said he supported Hageman in part because he “had people in Wyoming that really wanted her.”

“They were pushing hard for her, much harder than anybody else. And I have to let that play a role, you know?” Trump said. “I listened to people from Wyoming in making that pick, and they felt very, very strongly about it.”

Hageman is a former Ted Cruz–supporting Trump critic and lawyer from Wyoming who seems to have decided that the winds of the Republican Party were more favorable as a Trump ally than a Trump critic. She shed her views of Trump as a bigot and wrapped herself in the MAGA flag. In a multicandidate primary vying for Trump’s favor to unseat Cheney, Hageman won the endorsement in 2021. It’s hard for any candidate to oust an insurgent, but Hageman isn’t exactly one of those also-ran sideshows in a primary.

Cheney’s fortunes are still unclear. She’s managed to continue to outraise Hageman in a primary fight that’s seen a record-breaking flood of donations. Sure, Trump is flying into Wyoming soon to rally with Hageman, but he’s doing so under a cloud of opacity over how much that matters to Republicans, even in a state as deep red as Wyoming, and pro-Trump. (Wyoming’s two Republican senators would not say whether they will attend the rally on Saturday. Senator John Barrasso told The New Republic that he was “delighted” that Trump was coming to Wyoming but did not say whether he would attend; Senator Cynthia Lummis said that she was unsure of her plans, citing the death of a friend.)

Cheney has also held a monopoly of support within the Republican professional infrastructure. One keyed-in Republican strategist said, “A lot of the institutional donors and [independent expenditure] efforts that run across the country don’t want to touch Cheney out of fear of her machine,” but they will happily go after other Republicans who have defied Trump, like Congressman Tom Rice in South Carolina.

Clearly, that doesn’t include Eathorne. But as Trump rallies the chairman and other Wyoming Republicans, the question is whether that pool of support will be enough to carry Cheney to victory. If Cheney loses, it will mean the House Republican Caucus has lost its most courageous Trump critic—one of the few who has continued to warn about the severity of January 6.

This article has been updated.