Grassroots and global players: The crowded campaign to oust Cheney
In a Cheyenne strip-mall banquet hall, Scott Presler — a nationally recognized conservative activist and Donald Trump loyalist best known for organizing post-protest community cleanups in liberal cities — whipped up the crowd.
It was April 24, more than 100 days since the storming of the United States Capitol, 71 since Wyoming’s lone U.S. Representative Liz Cheney voted to impeach the former president and nearly 500 before the 2022 Republican primary. It was also the first day of Presler’s nationwide rally tour aimed at networking and training anyone willing to campaign against Cheney or the nine other Republicans who voted to impeach.
Presler, who calls himself the “RINO Slayer,” had been invited to Cheyenne by Freddy Flores-Salieb, a small business owner and activist. In the lead-up to 2020’s Republican primaries, Flores-Salieb organized a group called the Conservative Corner out of the back of her coffee shop. The group would gather to discuss politics and organize support for populist conservatives. Only a handful of people showed up to its first meeting, she said. Roughly 100 attended the April 24 event, which was dedicated solely to campaigning against Cheney.
“My president did not get due process,” Flores-Salieb told the crowd. “… [Cheney] went against her constituents. So now it is on and poppin’.”
Organizers picked the right messenger to rev up attendees. Standing above the crowd at a wiry 6’5, Presler snaked through the throng in thin-legged Levi’s and cowboy boots — western campaign staples he adopted while campaigning for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. For the next 90 minutes, Presler had the audience entranced. He shared anecdotes from the road, instructed on how to recruit voters and research candidates and delivered impassioned speeches about the need for Trump loyalists to run for office and cement their place in the political landscape.
“There is no reason we can’t get whatever we want,” Presler told the crowd. “That means that you need to effectively lobby your legislators to represent you. And if you call them and they don’t represent you, if they don’t pass legislation that you want, you let them know that we will primary you, we will repeal you, and we will replace you. And that’s exactly what we’re doing with Liz Cheney.”
Presler described for the crowd a political movement so divorced from the establishment as to be revolutionary. In it, a battle rages between grassroots conservatives at banquet-hall fundraisers with cheap beer and plastic tablecloths and some of the most powerful Republicans in the country at their $1,000-a-plate dinners. It’s the story of crumpled $20 bills stuffed into in jars versus large checks written by Orange County corporations and K Street PACs; a dogged loyalty to the former president against a congresswoman ready to move on.
For all the talk of homegrown political power however, Trump and his allies in the Make America Great Again movement don’t appear interested in watching from the sidelines as their self-styled Davids take on Goliath.
“The grassroots need direction, they need guidance and they need to be steered with the right message,” Presler said in an interview. “That’s basically why I’m doing this work.”
The movement that catapulted Trump to the Oval Office in 2016 has inspired a political revolution within the GOP in Wyoming and across the country, Presler said, by showing voters that populist candidates long relegated to the party’s fringes could win, and offering the marginalized base an avenue to claim the party.
“[Trump] started saying things that we’ve been saying, the things that we’ve been thinking,” Cheyenne resident Ann Lucas told WyoFile during the April rally. “Why do we allow the media to skew public perception the way that they do? Why do we allow public officials to lie to us and steal from us? He said those things out loud. He didn’t tell us how to think and he doesn’t tell us how to vote. We tell him what we want.”
“The Cheneys of the world,” she added, “are the reason we elected Trump.”
The tension between the traditional “Big Tent” coalition of right-wing activists and suburban moderates and the Trumpian approach of anti-interventionist foreign policy, economic nationalism and cultural conservatism has helped make Cheney’s re-election campaign a surrogate for the national fight for the soul of the GOP.
“This is probably the most important election that we’ve had in a long time,” said David Iverson, host of conservative podcast Cowboy State Politics and organizer of the first candidate forum of the 2022 election cycle ( June 12 in Casper). “… it’s going to chart a big part of the conversation as to where the Republican Party goes from here. Because, Wyoming, for all intents and purposes, is the most conservative state in the country.”
Would-be establishment topplers still face a daunting challenge, though: money.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis — who notably lost a straw poll to a lesser-known candidate at last summer’s Wyoming Republican Convention — spent $750,000 during her 2020 Senate run on 63,000 votes in the primary, good for about 60% of the total. Combined, “grassroots” candidates for the Republican nomination like Robert Short, Sheridan County GOP Chairman Bryan Miller and current Wyoming GOP Secretary Donna Rice spent roughly $400,000 to garner less than half as many votes. Other elections for statewide races have shown similar results. The candidate who raises the most money typically wins.
With the help of friends in high places, Cheney has categorically outpaced her rivals in the fundraising race. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has hosted fundraisers for her, while corporate political action committees have continued to support her bid for re-election.
Cheney posted her best-ever fundraising quarter in the first three months of 2021, according to campaign finance returns, raising more than $1.5 million. Her closest fundraising rival, Cheyenne state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, raised less than one-fifth of that despite counting more than 11,000 donors from all 50 states, according to his campaign.
The backlash against Cheney has a lot of momentum, however, and could level the playing field. Shortly after Cheney voted to impeach Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, more than a dozen county-level GOP organizations voted to censure her, as did the Wyoming Republican Party’s state central committee.
Eight candidates have thus-far announced campaigns against her, most describing her vote to impeach as a betrayal of the nearly three-quarters of Wyoming voters who supported Trump in the last election. The opposition stoked by her vote has had tangible impacts as well. Some county party officials say they’ve seen more engagement among grassroots members than ever before. A recent fundraiser to defeat Cheney in Sheridan County was among the highest-earning fundraisers ever for that county’s GOP, according to organizer Jeff Wallack.
“They want to have a voice,” Todd Windsor, state committeeman for the Sheridan County Republican Party, said. “All we’ve done is give them the ability to talk, have a voice and express it to us.”
The message centers on Trump. The former president has had a tangible presence at recent Republican events around Wyoming, from the meeting room decorations to the policy discussions. Party officials auction Trump merchandise to raise money for the party. A Cheyenne-based, Trump-themed pop-up restaurant called “MAGA Pizza,” catered the Presler event in Cheyenne.
Wyoming Republican Party chairman Frank Eathorne — who Trump endorsed for re-election to party chair earlier this year — holds a role on the Republican National Committee’s election integrity working group, a task force formed in response to unsubstantiated accusations of a stolen election. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, has contacted officials like Wallack to help fundraise for candidates to defeat Cheney, Wallack said, with the spoils of in-state fundraising efforts going to whomever the president endorses.
The movement isn’t confined to Wyoming. In Utah, where Democrats can still compete for state legislative seats, the Republican Party there recently defied its established leadership to elect a new class of young conservatives aligned with Trump. At the same time, the party has sought to purge anti-Trump politicians like Utah Senator Mitt Romney, saying they no longer represent their vision for the party’s future despite deep roots in the state’s politics.
That shift, some activists believe, is a permanent one, a wresting of the party from an old guard that “demands subservience” of the party base, said Michael Smith, the chairman of Utah’s Summit County Republican Party.
“I think we’re at a point right now where there’s really no turning back,” Smith said.
Cheney’s rift with the party has turned a typically provincial affair into a lightning rod for the national media, putting Wyoming’s conservative activists in a position long enjoyed by voters in states like Iowa — serving as a bellwether for the political future of a party and nation.
When Florida Congressman and Trump ally Matt Gaetz came to Wyoming to denounce Cheney’s vote in January, the spotlight of the coastal press came with him, prompting a flood of articles looking to make sense of the movement against her.
Observers believe the national undertones have shifted the traditional Wyoming political calculus. While some candidates, like state Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, have touted endorsements from fellow lawmakers, an endorsement from Trump — whose strongest polling numbers throughout his candidacy came from Wyoming — is now an outsized determinant of who will face off against Cheney.
“There is no active consolidation going on at this point,” Wallack wrote in an email. “We all hope that happens after the President endorses though.”
Cheney, recognizing the novel dynamic in her own press interviews, has argued the race is not about who best represents Wyoming, but whether voters value Trump over principle.
“If the former president decides he’s going to endorse somebody, the choice for the people of Wyoming will be very clear,” Cheney said in a May 26 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “They’ll be able to choose between me, the candidate and the incumbent who has demonstrated faithfulness and fidelity to the Constitution and [a record of] fighting for the people of Wyoming, versus a candidate who has pledged their oath of allegiance to Donald Trump.”
But activists maintain there are also policy differences to parse. Despite Cheney’s conservative voting record, many of her stances — from her hawkish foreign approach to policy, her repeated denouncements of voter fraud claims, her calls for a bipartisan investigation into the events of Jan. 6, and her embrace of policies to contain the COVID-19 pandemic — run counter to the opinions held by a majority of conservatives. Those breaks in messaging, many claim, distracted from a platform populists feel could attract a plurality of voters to their side in 2022 and beyond.
“We believe that Trump won the election,” Wallack, who also serves on the Wyoming GOP’s revenue committee, said. “We believe the election was stolen. And for her and nine other Republicans to vote to impeach our incumbent Republican president — who is probably the best president we’ve ever had — is outrageous. Even though they’re conservative on some issues, they’re not ‘America First’ candidates.”
National attention and negative sentiment alone don’t necessarily add up to a successful primary challenge.
With a deep stable of donors, expertise at leveraging a national media platform and the best fundraising quarter of her career, Cheney is likely the state’s best-known politician. As a sitting member of Congress, Cheney has also spent the last several weeks traveling the state to meet with business owners and community leaders, an opportunity rarely afforded to the average candidate.
There is also the potential for her challengers to split the vote between them, a Wyoming political phenomenon most recently illustrated by Gov. Mark Gordon’s 2018 primary. He emerged victorious from a crowded field with less than one-third of the vote.
Conservatives are well aware of that dynamic. At the party’s recent state central committee meeting in Cody, party officials and lawmakers like Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, called for the implementation of a run-off election system and a crackdown on the practice of “crossover voting” — Democrats switching party affiliation to vote in Republican primaries — as key legislative priorities with Cheney in mind.
“Would you be willing to ask [your representatives], ‘would you sign this pledge to support this legislation?’” Neiman asked delegates at the Cody meeting last month. “Because we know going forward right now, we’re looking at a large slate of candidates. We have eight we see here tonight, and that number could grow.”
To date, just one candidate, Darin Smith, has pledged to drop out of the race should Trump endorse another candidate.
Others, like Gray and Donald Trump Jr., have urged voters to not align behind early fundraising leaders like state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, too early in the race. Early on, the race looks to be a fight to the finish, where the only factors thinning the field, according to Iverson, will be poor performance in the polls or a campaign gone bust. “You don’t drop out in Wyoming,” said Patricia Harper, a member of the Republican Women of Sheridan County, a grassroots conservative organization there.
Despite persistent concerns about his past — including revelations he impregnated a 14-year-old girl at the age of 18 — Bouchard has continued campaigning, even as some have written him off in favor of candidates with less baggage. Bouchard is now working to spin those revelations as a sign the “deep state” is out to get him, and that out-of-state political operatives are aiming to cripple his campaign.
“We certainly all have baggage. But I think he has a good, conservative track record in Wyoming and man, when he sinks in, he doesn’t let go,” Bouchard supporter Jennifer Burns said. “And I like that about him, because he digs his heels in and he doesn’t let go. You really need somebody like that in Washington.”
Meanwhile, relatively unknown candidates like Denton Knapp — a Campbell County High School graduate and a U.S. Army Colonel — have entered the race. Former Pavillion Mayor Marissa Selvig, paralegal Robin Belinskey and perennial candidate Bryan Miller have only just begun their campaigns, and face substantial fundraising deficits to Bouchard, Gray and Cheney.
“If there is a Trump endorsement, that may cause some people to say, ‘Okay, that’s the person that I’m going to support,” Knapp said. “But it’s got to be the right person … when it comes down to early next year, and I mean early, that’s when it will be time for all the candidates to come together and decide what’s best for Wyoming.”
The crowded field and the vocal opposition to Cheney have also raised questions about the appropriate role of state party leadership like Eathorne. Under Eathorne’s leadership, the party has already censured Cheney for her actions. While Eathorne cannot actively advocate for specific candidates against an elected official in his own party, he has attended numerous events opposing Cheney in Wyoming and participated in the Jan. 6 rally in Washington preceding the Capitol insurrection.
With a mandate from the party’s rank and file to oust Cheney, does party leadership have an obligation to do what it can to support an effective challenge?
“Those are the questions we ponder constantly, because there is a balance there,” Eathorne said. “We don’t want to disrespect our elected officials. They won their election, a majority spoke on that day, or at least a plurality. And so it is really challenging. But there are defining moments too, such as the vote she took to impeach the president. That turned the tide.”
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