The opening salvos have been fired in what is shaping up to be the highest-profile political advertising campaign in Wyoming history: the race between incumbent U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and her leading Republican primary opponent, Donald Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman.
Hageman set the tone this month with a sophisticated mock website — complete with a “donate” button — and a video falsely promoting Liz Cheney as an ideal candidate — for Virginia. Small type at the bottom of the site and end of the video states the Hageman campaign paid for both.
“Let’s send her home to Virginia,” Hageman concludes in the video after a series of clips show Cheney condemning Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. This message comes on the heels of Hageman’s digital “Ride for the Brand” video. That ad accused Cheney of abandoning the Republican Party “brand” by voting to impeach the former president.
So far, Hageman has appeared most willing to go on attack, in one instance resorting to a familiar playground taunt. According to conservative Washington Examiner columnist Quin Hillyer, a recent Hageman communication with supporters ridiculed Utah U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s alliance with Cheney in the email subject line: “Romney & Cheney Sitting in a Tree.”
Cheney, whose campaign war chest dwarfs that of Hageman, has not yet countered. Her only campaign spot aired so far was a cheery Merry Christmas message to Wyomingites featuring a holiday voiceover by the late Ronald Reagan.
But if or when Cheney does engage, experts say, she will have ammunition. Hageman’s flip from a Trump opponent in the 2016 election — during which she called him a “racist and a xenophobe” — is one source of that.
Wyoming has had its share of smear campaigns going back at least until 1918, when opponents of gubernatorial candidate Robert Carey tried to tie him to a “German alien” he employed on his ranch.
“It was at the height of anti-German feeling in the country,” University of Wyoming historian Philip J. Roberts said, “but it was quite ironic, given that Robert Carey, was the son of Joe Carey, the first native-born Wyomingite ever to serve as Wyoming governor. The tactic, widely condemned even by Democrats, did not succeed and (Robert) Carey was elected.”
Mock websites and commercials have been a controversial part of campaigns since the mid-’90s, when conservative Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was pictured in one in front of an American flag emblazoned with a Nazi swastika. More recently they were used by Russian hackers to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in favor of Donald Trump.
Hageman campaign manager Carly Miller defends Hageman “Cheney for Virginia” ads as clearly labeled, humorous attempts to question Cheney’s attachment to Wyoming because of the many years she spent in northern Virginia as a child and as a former state department official.
The website “is a perfect, humorous way to highlight the fact that Liz Cheney can be more accurately described as the Congresswoman from Northern Virginia,” Miller said. “It’s where people agree with her, it’s where her power base is, and it’s where she raises a lot of her campaign cash. It’s supposed to be funny, but it reminds Wyoming voters of the serious problem that their only member of Congress isn’t really representing them.”
The “Cheney for Virginia” slogan is not original to Hageman’s campaign. Democratic opponent Ryan Greene raised the critique in the 2016 race.
Both Cheney — who went to high school in Virginia, college in Colorado and law school in Chicago — and her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, have repeatedly weathered charges that they are only tenuous residents of Wyoming. In 2000, Dick Cheney’s selection by George W. Bush as his vice president was challenged in federal court because he had lived in Texas since 1993 and the 12th Amendment prevents the president and the vice president from living in the same state.
As chairman of Halliburton Co., Dick Cheney owned a home and lived in Dallas until he changed his voter registration to Teton County in July 1999, only four days before being named Bush’s running mate. The federal court ultimately ruled Cheney a Wyoming resident.
In 2013, when she was considering a run for U.S. senator in Wyoming, Liz Cheney was the source of a residency brouhaha after it was discovered that she bought a Wyoming-resident fishing license before she met residency requirements.
Beyond a few chuckles, the residency issue had little resonance in previous Cheney candidacies. Moreover, both the Cheney and Hageman campaigns have Virginia and District of Columbia connections. As part of her job as senior litigation counsel for the D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance law firm, Hageman owns a 550-square-foot, third-floor walk up apartment she bought in 2019 for $540,000 in the exclusive Kalorama neighborhood of Washington.
Hageman’s campaign team is headed by former Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh, whose home and Line Drive LLC public relations office are in Alexandria, Virginia. Hageman’s press spokesperson Miller is a Kansas native who worked in Washington for the Trump administration.
Cheney’s campaign spokesman Jeremy Adler is a Massachusetts native, a graduate of the University of Richmond and a veteran Washington insider who worked previously for republicans Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio.
If it continues in this vein, the Cheney-Hageman battle could match the worst fears of Cheyenne attorney and former Trump administration official Karen Budd-Falen. Though she considers herself a friend of both candidates, Budd-Falen worries the race could turn nasty.
“When I lived in D.C., I watched the election campaigns in Virginia and witnessed the way those candidates just slung mud around and beat each other up,” Budd-Falen said. “This was just so repulsive to me. I really hate seeing that in my state.”
By the Aug. 16 primary election, many Wyomingites may long for a previous era, when the most famous and successful campaign ad featured a beleaguered cowboy, a horse and a porta-potty.
That commercial, which mocked then new federal safety and health requirements requiring employers to provide farm laborers portable field toilets, turned the tide in favor of Republican Malcolm Wallop in his 1976 upset victory of Democratic incumbent Gale McGee.
Sketched out on a paper napkin over drinks at Sheridan’s legendary Mint Bar, the commercial suggested that if Washington — represented by three-term Sen. McGee — had its way, working cowboys would have to carry a porta-potty on the back of a pack animal when they rode the range.
An unnamed narrator laments:
Everywhere you look these days, the federal government is there telling you what they think, telling you what they think you ought to think, telling you how you ought to do things, setting up rules you can’t follow. I think the federal government is going too far. Now they say if you don’t take the portable facility along with you on a roundup, you can’t go. We need someone to tell ’em about Wyoming. Malcolm Wallop will!!
Looking back on it, John Jenkins, a Buffalo land developer and former political consultant who was one of the commercial authors, sees it as an example of a more good-natured time.
“In those days, unlike today, there was no particular ill will,” Jenkins said in a recent interview. “I guess that anything that seemed heated back then passes for plain vanilla today. We’ve really gotten angry with one another.”
UPDATE: This story had been updated with details on Hageman’s D.C. apartment. -Ed.