By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney defended her actions against former President Donald Trump on Thursday in the first debate between all five Republican contenders for Wyoming’s lone House seat.
Cheney, in her closing comments during the debate sponsored by WyomingPBS, said the Constitution required her to take a stance against Trump after the 2020 presidential election.
“We need to recognize that if we are not faithful to the Constitution, if we embrace lies, and we embrace the lies of Donald Trump, if we tell the people of Wyoming something that is not true, we will find ourselves without the structure and the basis and the framework of our Constitutional Republic,” she said in her closing remarks.
Thursday’s debate in Sheridan gave Wyoming viewers their first chance to see Cheney and fellow House candidates Harriet Hageman, Robyn Belinskey, state Sen. Anthony Bouchard and Denton Knapp in a debate.
Moments of testy back-and-forth exchange took place between Cheney, seeking her fourth House term, and Hageman, who has Trump’s endorsement for the seat, but for the most part, the candidates stuck to their own policy views.
The topic of former President Donald Trump came up on several occasions. Although Cheney stuck to her mostly conservative views, her opposition to Trump did not waver.
The first two questions asked during the debate pertained to the Republican Party’s relationship with Trump since the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“I think this is an example of how the press and certain people have obsessed over Jan. 6, because we’ve only had two questions in this debate and they’ve both been focused on that,” Hageman said. “The only time that the J-6 situation ever comes up is when people talk about how unfair this entire (House committee investigating the riot) is.”
Hageman has issued a statement in response to almost every session held by the committee.
Cheney implored Hageman to state whether or not the 2020 election was stolen as claimed by Trump.
“I think that she can’t say that it wasn’t stolen because she’s completely beholden to Donald Trump,” Cheney said, drawing a smile from Hageman before she looked down to write a note. “And if she says it wasn’t stolen, he will not support her.”
Hageman said there are questions that need to be asked about election integrity on a national level, but was more vague about whether she believes there was election fraud in Wyoming in 2020.
She endorsed “2000 Mules,” a film that inaccurately claims that drop ballot boxes were stuffed, and mentioned how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that changes in absentee voting procedures violated that state’s Constitution.
Hageman said people should get more involved in elections as judges and poll watchers so they better understand the mechanisms of an election.
Speakers also discussed the lack of civility in Washington politics.
“One thing that’s missing now is the art of negotiation,” Knapp said.
Hageman said she doesn’t see Democrats in Washington making efforts to work in a bipartisan manner. She continued this thought, saying there are too many congressional leaders, on both sides of the aisle, who are solely concerned with getting reelected.
“The way I look at this is that the last 30 years have been terribly disruptive to the United States, because Congress, our current congressional representatives have abdicated their responsibility of actually legislating and they turn it over to unelected bureaucrats and agencies,” she said. “If I’m elected as our representative for Wyoming, we’re going to have to work to roll back 30 years of really bad policies.”
Belinskey said she would support term limits to address this problem.
Cheney said the way to solve these issues is to treat voters with respect.
“At the end of the day we’re all Americans,” she said.
One of the few items all of the candidates could agree on is their opposition to President Joe Biden.
Hageman blamed the bipartisan 2021 Infrastructure Bill, legislation providing funding for items such as road work and internet improvements that Biden had significant input on, for causing the record inflation.
“This is the example of what I talked about when I talked about uniparty and the destruction of Washington D.C. does,” Hageman said. “They made some new construction mill and then they put all kinds of goodies in there that have to do with the Green New Deal.”
She said there is “a special place in hell” for people who adopt policies intended to increase the costs of energy, housing and food.
Knapp said he supports carbon capture, mining rare earth minerals and hydrogen production. Hageman wants to see more energy development and criticized Biden’s policies on the matter.
Bouchard said he sees Biden’s policies as a “planned attack on America.”
“The people that Joe Biden has surrounded himself with know absolutely nothing about No. 1, monetary policy, they know nothing about economics, and they know nothing about how our country really works,” Hageman said, to which Knapp later offered a similar sentiment.
Hageman brought up a statistic she also mentioned during a May 31 rally she held with Trump in Casper that the country had a 4% surplus in terms of national oil production when Trump left office in January 2020. Now, the country has a roughly 4% deficit.
“We can continue to be the arsenal of energy for the world,” she said, but added it will require significant policy changes to do so.
Bouchard referred to his experience with the Wyoming Senate to respond to several questions, while Knapp mentioned his three decades of service with the U.S. Army.
Knapp said he supports states’ rights and is concerned about inflation affecting Wyoming ranchers and residents.
Bouchard and Knapp said they both oppose foreign intervention and oppose involvement with the war in Ukraine. Hageman and Belinskey both said the war was allowed to occur because of weak American leadership.
“Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if President Trump was still in office,” Hageman said.
Cheney continued her support for Ukraine in the war, calling the conflict battle for freedom. She also said Biden was right to reject the importat of Russian oil after the war started, but added he erred by not increasing domestic production in response.
“We need to unleash our energy industry so it is able to produce,” she said.
Hageman said she has traveled more than 30,000 miles during her campaign, while adding Cheney has rarely been seen in the state since announcing her opposition to Trump.
At a recent debate held in Sheridan that Cheney did not attend, a letter from the congresswoman was read to the audience, drawing a large amount of booing, Sheridan resident Maggie Wisniewski said.
“If we’re so scary, why does she want to keep running here?” fellow resident Harry Pollack questioned.
Hageman mentioned her experience as a land and water attorney in her closing statement and stressed that she can bring accountable representation for the Wyoming people.
“I’m the only real proven success up here on this stage,” she said. “I have been fighting the issues for Wyoming for over 25 years.”
All the candidates said they support parental rights and school choice.
“It’s important for parents to be the leading authority with respect to the education of their own children,” Cheney said. She also said the teaching of American history needs to be improved. “If you look at what’s happened over the course of the last year and look at what’s happened over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve got a real deficit when it comes to an understanding and recognition of what the Constitution means and what our duties are as American citizens in the Constitution.”
Hageman said she also supports “hardening” schools, getting rid of gun-free zones and added she finds the U.S. Department of Education unnecessary.
She said “when” she is elected, she plans to talk with former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about her plans for homeschooling and school choice.
“I want to sit down with her and talk to her about what that plan was,” she said.
Knapp said COVID-19 was introduced to kill people and Belinskey and Hageman both criticized the severity of the virus and the government’s response. Cheney said the virus was unleashed on purpose by the Chinese Communist Party.
Cryptocurrency was by far the topic the candidates knew the least about.
“I would like the government to stay out of it,” Bouchard said. “Our dollar is not even backed by gold anymore. We need to have more conversations about that.”
Bouchard said the government is also not adequately fighting Medicaid fraud. Knapp and Hageman both criticized Obamacare, while Bouchard criticized Cheney multiple times during the debate for failing to act on an opportunity to repeal Obamacare.
Cheney told Cowboy State Daily after the debate she did not know what he was talking about, and Bouchard was not able to immediately provide an explanation for this statement.
Belinskey stood between Hageman and Cheney on the Whitney Center for the Arts stage at Sheridan College during a debate that featured many smirks between the former allies, but no shouting or direct attacks. Hageman kept a smile on her face as moderator Craig Blumenshine introduced the debate, while Cheney kept a more dour demeanor. The two briefly shook hands after the debate completed
After the debate, Hageman told Cowboy State Daily she thought the debate went well but was unsure if it changed any voters’ minds. She declined to answer any more questions, while Cheney took a handful from the media gaggle.
About 25 people were in the audience, consisting of media and friends and staff of each of the candidates. Around 20 people, canvassing with pro-Hageman signs, protested outside the building.
“We have a right to see our candidates and see who we want to vote for, hear them talk,” Pollack said. “Not through a Zoom or electronic fashion. We should be able to do it in person.”
Few seemed to be aware they could watch the event on TV or online once it started. The event was played live on CSPAN and PBS, while CNN and Fox News taped the event for later use.
Terry Dugas, Wyoming PBS general manager, said it was the first time he could remember so much national media interest in the debate.
Dugas claimed responsibility for the decision to close the event to the public, a step he said was taken because of security concerns.
The theater was locked from the outside, with a number of law enforcement officers surveilling the perimeter.