By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
The circumstances and fallout surrounding the ouster of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney from her U.S. House leadership position have left even a guy who studies state politics and history for a living scratching his head.
James King, a University of Wyoming political science professor and co-author of “The Equality State: Government and Politics in Wyoming,” told the Cowboy State Daily that the situation surrounding Wyoming’s only member of the House has put the state and nation into uncharted territory.
“Normally, the Republican elected officials and the Republicans in the state are pretty much in tune with one another,” he said. “They keep focusing on the same agenda. But we’ve not had a situation where a former elected official has continued to insert and try to exert an influence on what the party is doing.”
King said several key factors are at the heart of the fracture within the Republican Party, primarily former President Donald Trump’s refusal to retire quietly in keeping with tradition. He also pointed to the rise of social media as a popular platform for bickering for all sides of the dispute.
Then there’s the unprecedented rioting at and invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6 during what has traditionally been a benign perfunctory counting of electoral votes.
Regardless of the factors leading up to this point, King noted, the country and party are currently in a place they have never been as backers of both Cheney and Trump dig in their respective feet.
Ironically, King said, Trump and Cheney have more in common than not. Along with winning their respective nominations by landslides, the two align strongly on conservative values and policies popular with the majority of voters in the Cowboy State.
Now, however, Cheney’s dissent seems not to be based on ideological lines, but rather the future direction of the party.
“Certainly we’re in a situation where Representative Cheney has been and is looking to set one course for the Republican Party, and other members want a different course,” King said. “I don’t think there’s really disagreements about policy, or policy objectives…but clearly Cheney has been trying to focus the discussion prospectively, looking to the future, while others who want to continue the link with former President Trump see it as the way to advance the agenda in the coming elections. So basically, we have a disagreement over what’s the best way to get to where we want to go.”
This disagreement in itself, King noted, is rare for a party that is typically aligned on the fundamentals.
This riff will no doubt manifest itself in the upcoming midterms, King predicted, although he thinks that given her voting record and popularity with voters in Wyoming, Cheney will retain her congressional seat should she choose to run for re-election in 2022.
“I think within Wyoming, there’s still going to be a base of support shortly,” he said. “Cheney will lose some support in the primary next year, but there is going to be a primary challenge, and she would lose support regardless.”
As to her motives, King said he would take Cheney at her word that her vote to impeach Trump following the Capitol riot was a principled decision. He noted Cheney was not the only Republican to have voted for Trump’s impeachment, but added her standing and name recognition fueled the discord and name calling seen in the mainstream media and social media.
The national media has highlighted the division within the Republican conference, which further fuels the narrative, King said.
“Stories of everybody getting along don’t make the front pages of the newspaper,” he said, nor has there been a former president so savvy at dominating the coverage.
“When (Trump) was a candidate, he was very expert at keeping the attention focused on him and away from his challengers for the Republican nomination. As president, he set the tone for what the issues were going to be in terms of discussion. And he’s for the Republican Party, at least, has continued to do that. His use of a medium that is relatively new has proved to be quite expert.”
Up until now, there hasn’t been an equivalent of a former president emerging in a show of force in an attempt to influence the party or drive policy, he added.
Together, these elements are proving to be transformative both on a state and national level. If anything, the midterms will be a bellwether for the party’s direction, King said.
“Instead of the Republican primaries playing out as candidates try to position themselves as the best to challenge Joe Biden, they may find the debate being within the Republican primary about who’s most loyal to Donald Trump,” he said. “And that’s a very different dynamic than we’ve ever seen.”