Wyoming’s Republican primary for U.S. Representative is attracting national attention. Challengers began emerging soon after incumbent Liz Cheney supported the second impeachment of then President Donald Trump. Her continued criticism of the former president and participation on the House select committee investigating the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, further stoked opposition to Cheney. Ultimately, four Republican challengers filed to run against the incumbent U.S. Representative in August’s primary election.
Most notable among the challengers is attorney Harriet Hageman, a former Cheney ally and former Trump critic who has shifted her allegiance to Trump and criticisms to Cheney. Hageman obtained the former president’s endorsement and has raised more than $2 million for her campaign. Trump and several Republican members of the U.S. House recently appeared at a rally in Casper on Hageman’s behalf. The 11th Commandment coined by California party leader Gaylord Parkinson and made famous by President Ronald Reagan —“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — certainly is not the standard for the 2022 primary election season.
Commentaries on the Wyoming Republican primary commonly emphasize two points. First, many make mention of polls conducted for the Club for Growth PAC and Wyoming Values PAC showing Hageman leading Cheney. These polls have Hageman ahead by 30 and 28 percentage points, respectively. The implication is that Cheney faces, at least, an uphill climb to the GOP nomination and might be engaged in a losing campaign.
Second, commenters often contend that Cheney needs support of Democrats to win the primary. Jason Lemon recently wrote in Newsweek, “Some analysts have speculated that Democrats in Wyoming could potentially save Cheney by casting ballots for her during the August primary.” A New York Times overview of the House race dynamic by Reid J. Epstein concluded that it was “raising questions in Wyoming about whether [Cheney] is counting on Democrats to bail her out in the August primary.” Jason Linkins argued in The New Republic that “it’s becoming clear that [Cheney] will probably need some additional assistance to win back her seat—specifically, from Democrats.”
Such contentions stoke the fears of the state’s Republicans. Wyoming law restricts participation in a party’s primary election to those who are registered with that political party. Thus, only registered Republicans are eligible to vote in the Aug. 16 GOP primary. However, state law also permits people to register and to change their voter registrations at the polls on Election Day. This gives rise to Republicans’ claims that crossover voting by Democrats sways the outcomes of Republican primaries, and led to the introduction of legislation during Wyoming’s 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions that would eliminate Election Day changes in voters’ party registrations.
Geoffrey Skelley of the website fivethirtyeight.com offered a different argument regarding Cheney’s plight. According to Skelley, “[Cheney’s] political future rests on winning over Republican voters rather than winning over Democratic or independent voters. She needs a good deal of the former for the latter to matter at all.” In this, Skelley is half right. Certainly any candidate needs Republicans’ votes to win the party’s nomination, but Skelley’s analysis is flawed because it does not consider the composition of the electorate in a Republican primary. Democrats will play little if any role in determining the outcome of this year’s Republican primary. Independents, however, will play a substantial role.
Undoubtedly there are people in Wyoming who are registered to vote as Republicans yet generally prefer Democratic candidates, but these people are few. A comparison of data from the secretary of state’s website and from surveys show the percentage of Wyomingites registered to vote as Democrats and identifying themselves as Democrats in polls track very closely. In an October 2020 survey conducted by the University of Wyoming, 15% of the state’s respondents identified as “Democrat.” On the day of the August 2020 primary, a corresponding 18% of voters were registered as “Democrat.” By contrast, 70% percent of voters registered as Republicans but only 47% of survey respondents identified as Republicans. The difference between voter registration and identification percentages unquestionably results from independents — people who do not affiliate with any political party — registering as Republicans and participating in Republican primary elections. Among those identifying themselves as independents in the UW survey, 52% reported being registered to vote as Republican.
It is understandable that individuals not affiliated with any political party should choose to participate in the Republican Party’s primary. Republicans have so dominated Wyoming elections for decades that the principal opportunity for independents to have a real voice in who governs them is to vote in the GOP primary. No Wyoming Democrat has won election to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1976 or to the U.S. Senate since 1970. Republicans have swept the state executive offices of secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, and superintendent of public instruction over the past seven elections. The only Democrat to win statewide office over this period was Dave Freudenthal, who won the governorship by a narrow margin in 2002 and was reelected in 2006.
With independents and Republicans — not Democrats — holding the keys to the Aug. 16 Republican primary for U.S. House, we should consider how each of these groups viewed President Trump while in office and the question of impropriety in the 2020 presidential election. Recent polls provide no breakdowns by personal characteristics or political perspectives. It is possible, however, to reflect how independents and Republicans viewed President Trump and the election using data from the UW poll conducted in conjunction with the 2020 election.
First, respondents in the October 2020 UW survey were asked to rate President Trump’s performance in office as excellent, good, fair or poor. As would be expected, Republicans overwhelmingly rated Trump’s performance positively (91% said “excellent” or “good”) while Democrats overwhelmingly rated the president’s performance negatively (92% “poor”). Of interest are independents, whose assessments of Trump tilted to the negative: 41% offering an “excellent” or “good” rating while 17% responded “fair” and 41% responded “poor.”
Second, independents acted on their assessments of President Trump in the 2020 presidential election. A majority (53%) voted for Democratic candidate Joe Biden while 9% voted for the candidate of a minor political party. This translates to five of eight independents not supporting Trump for a second term. Again as expected, Wyomingites identifying as Republicans and Democrats voted for their party’s candidate by substantial margins.
A final consideration is how independents viewed the counting of ballots following the 2020 presidential election. In the second stage of the UW survey, conducted the week following the election, respondents were asked how confident they were that votes were being counted accurately across the country. Three-fifths of independents reported being confident that the election results were counted accurately, compared to only a quarter of Republicans. The continued discussion about election security, disruption of the electoral vote count on Jan. 6 and congressional investigation into these events might have caused a shift. However, a national survey conducted by Monmouth University in November 2021 found no significant changes in public perceptions of the election outcome. As attitudes have changed little nationally, there is little reason to believe that attitudes in Wyoming have changed significantly.
Although the two leading candidates, Cheney and Hageman, speak to a variety of issues on their campaign websites, the contest for Wyoming’s lone U.S. Representative seat seems to boil down to the subject of Donald Trump. The former president is featured prominently on Hageman’s website with “ENDORSED BY PRESIDENT TRUMP” in bold red letters on the homepage and multiple references to Trump policies in her discussion of issues she supports. For her part, Cheney describes herself as “a constitutional conservative voice for Wyoming” who stands for “truth, accountability, and the Constitution”; her opposition to Trump is not mentioned but clearly is implied by her emphasis on defending the Constitution.
Nothing is certain, but evidence from 2020 surveys suggests that Cheney and Hageman will appeal to different segments of the electorate on primary election day. Both candidates need support of traditional Republicans, people who both identify and register to vote as Republicans. Hageman likely leads among these prospective voters but support for Trump — either in job performance ratings or ballots cast — was not unanimous among Republicans. Cheney can expect support from these disaffected GOP voters, but they are unlikely to constitute a majority of self-identified Republicans.
More fertile ground for Cheney is among independents, people who do not identify with a political party but register to vote as Republicans as their principal avenue for influence in a one-party state. In the UW 2020 election survey, majorities of Wyoming independents rated Trump’s presidential performance negatively, did not vote for Trump in the presidential election and were confident that the votes in the presidential election were counted accurately. These people are much more likely to support Cheney than Hageman in the Republican primary. The outcome of the contest for the Republican nomination for U.S. Representative therefore will be determined by the extent to which these Wyomingites go to the polls on Aug. 16 rather than by crossover Democrats participating in the GOP primary.