What's driving the Liz Cheney presidential speculation?

Liz Cheney.
Liz Cheney. Illustrated | Getty Images

On Tuesday, third-term Rep. Liz Cheney will face off in the GOP primary for Wyoming's lone seat in the House of Representatives against a Trump-endorsed challenger, Harriet Hageman. Last year, Cheney was stripped of her leadership role in the party for prominently supporting former President Donald Trump's impeachment, and she has played a lead role in conducting the House inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection. Why are there growing whispers that she could run for the presidency in 2024? Here's everything you need to know about Cheney's political future:

Can Cheney hang on in Wyoming?

Since she voted to impeach former President Trump in 2021, Cheney has faced an uphill re-election battle in her home state of Wyoming. Despite her family's status as mainstream Republican royalty — her father Dick Cheney served eight years as the vice president from 2001 to 2009 — Cheney's position in the GOP has steadily deteriorated. Her opponent, Harriet Hageman, a conservative lawyer and critic of federal environmental and land use policies in Wyoming, has called the 2020 election "rigged," touts far-right activist Dinesh D'Souza's conspiracy-promoting film 2000 Mules  and has assailed the Jan. 6 Committee as "illegitimate from its inception." Staking out those positions has allowed her to open up a large polling lead over Cheney in a state that Donald Trump carried in 2020 by more than 43 points.

Anything can happen on election day, especially in an August primary in a state where Republicans rule virtually uncontested. But Cheney looks like she is almost certainly headed to defeat, despite outspending Hageman and even enlisting her elderly father to cut a campaign ad attacking Trump. Her decision to stand on principle vis-a-vis Trump and Trumpism is likely to cost her the GOP nomination for Wyoming and to effectively end her career in Republican politics. It's a fate that nearly every elected Republican who voted for impeachment and ran for re-election has faced, and she surely priced in that risk when she made her decisions in the first place. But she doesn't talk or act like former Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic whose electoral ambitions disappeared with him when he retired from the Senate rather than trying to win a primary in 2018. And that has fueled speculation that she might challenge Trump for the presidency.

Why would Cheney run?

If she were to run, would she do so as a Republican, or as an independent? Navigating the GOP primaries in a party that is now thoroughly under the former president's thumb seems like a pure suicide run. If the party employs polling metrics to determine who gets on the debate stage (assuming there are debates at all), Cheney might not even make the cut. It's also not hard to see Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel simply deciding to exclude Cheney on principle. And a run that peters out after ruinous finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire doesn't seem worth the effort. That means that Cheney might attempt to pursue a third-party or independent run for the office, a path that doesn't make capturing the presidency all that more likely — no candidate outside of the two-party system of their time has ever won the presidency — but which could undermine Trump's path to restoration (assuming he isn't in jail for violations of the Espionage Act or barred from pursuing office for other reasons) more difficult.

Cheney is on record as wanting to rescue the GOP from the forces of Trumpism. If she is crushed as expected on Tuesday in Wyoming, she will likely conclude that this must be done outside the institutional apparatus controlled by Trump and his acolytes. And almost no one will spend the time, energy, and resources mounting a serious bid for the presidency if they really don't think they could win. Cheney, therefore, must hope to draw votes not just from Trump or the GOP nominee in 2024, but also from conservative Democrats enthralled by her performance on the Jan. 6 committee hearings. Her star turn as insurrection inquisitor could give her some cache with congressional Democrats like Rep. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), who Cheney recently said she would "rather work with" than many of the MAGA supporters on her own team. Perhaps a few could be convinced to support her rather than the Democratic nominee.

But Cheney is no dreamer, and she probably knows she can't win that way. If that's the case, she may see her role as a spoiler who could drain just enough votes from Trump or the GOP nominee to be the difference-maker for Democrats. Even then, though, the calculus is not simple. While Republicans typically blame Ross Perot for siphoning votes from incumbent President George H.W. Bush in 1992, allowing Democrat Bill Clinton to win with a plurality, some scholars maintain that Perot's candidacy hurt Clinton. And third party candidates often attract voters who would otherwise abstain from voting altogether, complicating straightforward cause-and-effect narratives.

Will Cheney run?

The allure of national fame that comes along with a presidential bid is difficult to resist. Dick Cheney himself has said that his daughter will "lead the effort to make sure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office." She refused to rule out a 2024 run in an interview with CNN's Kasie Hunt. Ultimately, serious preparations for a bid are difficult to hide from the media and the general public. And if it looks like Trump is likely to be the nominee for the GOP, it would be foolish to assume that Cheney will sit on the sidelines. What exactly she'll be doing on the playing field, however, is anyone's guess.

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