A man named Layne hollered out the question, which echoed through the big back room at the Hangar Bar and Grill in Bar Nunn.
“What do we need to do to bring back voter integrity in order to avoid voter fraud, like we totally saw in the last election?” he asked.
Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman, who is campaigning to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, retorted that she sees voting administration as a state issue. “I do not want to federalize our elections,” Hageman told the crowd on the evening of March 14.
Over the next three minutes, Hageman lauded “incredibly important” election reforms like Wyoming’s requirement that voters present a form of photo identification. The 59-year-old former gubernatorial candidate bemoaned the recent death of a crossover voting bill that would have prohibited registered Democrats from day-of party switching to vote Republican in the Aug. 16 primary election. She called for an investigation into Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s investments in getting out the vote for the November 2020 election and told attendees of the town hall-style meeting she’s been in talks with experts to determine how to make American elections safe and secure.
Hageman alluded to a belief in improprieties during the 2020 election. She calls herself a “strong supporter” of former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Hageman’s challenge of Cheney amid his public battle with the incumbent. But publicly, Hageman stops short of avowing outright that she believes former Trump’s false claim that his reelection bid was stolen.
“We have to pay very, very close attention to this so that 2020 never happens again,” Hageman said in Bar Nunn, which was the closest she came to repeating the stolen election falsehood.
Hageman clarified her beliefs about what happened in November 2020 in an emailed statement. She’s asked frequently whether Joe Biden was legitimately elected, she wrote.
“I’m afraid the answer is that we don’t know,” Hageman said.
Of Cheney’s approach, she said: “I don’t think that shouting ‘the big lie’ over and over again, progressively louder, solves the problem or convinces anyone. That approach isn’t about protecting our constitution; it is about shutting down the debate.”
Polling shows that a significant majority of Republicans nationally believe that President Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election. Still, as much traction as the “stop the steal” messaging holds nationally, the sentiment doesn’t appear to be driving political rhetoric in the 2022 primary election for Wyoming — even as the House race shapes up to be one of the most closely watched in the country.
Cheney challenges Trump
While rubber stamping Trump’s claims has been mostly absent from Hageman’s stump speeches, adamantly opposing the claims has been a centerpiece of Cheney’s.
“We have a duty,” Cheney told an audience at the Center for the Arts in Jackson this week. “People have fought and they have died for this constitutional republic, and we cannot just throw it away because our politics don’t match the outcome of an election.”
Cheney, arguably the most prominent Republican nationally to push back against Trump’s disproven claims, has made protecting the sanctity of elections a hallmark of her political identity. At the same time, Wyoming’s sitting congresswoman echoes Hageman and other challengers about the role states should play in administering elections and the need for some reforms.
“I think as we’re looking at changes, voter ID is really important,” Cheney said at the Jackson forum. She listed other favored reforms, which included having “clean and cleared” voter rolls, all absentee ballots opened and counted by election day and addressing “ballot harvesting,” which “opens up possibilities for fraud.
“So I think we need to empower our states to make sure they’re doing everything they can to improve the integrity of our elections, and that ought to be nonpartisan,” Cheney said at the event, put on by Issue One, a Washington, D.C.-based “crosspartisan” political reform group.
Cheney’s call for altering election laws and practices elicited broad applause at the forum. From the balcony of the auditorium, Jackson resident Cathy Nutter, who wore a red “Make Jackson Hole Wyoming Again” ballcap, clapped.
“I appreciated her message,” Nutter said after the event wrapped up. “I just objected to the way she behaved on Jan. 6. She was the judge, jury and executioner. She should have waited.”
Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), another Republican challenger vying for Cheney’s seat, holds views on election reform that bleed into those of his fellow candidates. Like Hageman, he suggests that the 2020 election was compromised without outright trumpeting Trump’s claims of a stolen election. And he doesn’t believe the solutions to those alleged issues should come from the federal government.
“The rules were changed during COVID and people took advantage of it,” Bouchard said. “But I also think we need to be clear that these things happen at the state levels, and I don’t want Congress meddling in state elections.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Denton Knapp of Gillette and Sheridan resident Robyn Belinskey round out the field of Cheney’s Republican challengers. Belinskey couldn’t be immediately reached, but Knapp’s views of the 2020 election and needed reforms largely align with those of his counterparts.
“I find it very hard to believe President Biden received the most votes of any candidate in history,” Knapp said. “What we’ve got to do is go forward and fix our elections.”
A safe distance
Cody resident and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) told WyoFile he’s not surprised Trump-aligned Cheney challengers have kept some distance from the former president’s rhetoric about the 2020 election.
“Hageman doesn’t dare go off on that tack, because Wyoming people are rather reasonable,” Simpson said. “If her full-page ad is ‘stop the steal,’ then we know that she’s slipped into some unhinged state, and she’s not going to do that.”
Keeping a safe distance from Trump’s claims is a good strategy, he suggested.
“Trump may have got 70% of the vote around here,” Simpson said, “but he ain’t ever going to get it again. I voted for him once, and I’ll never vote for him again.”
But not all Wyoming Republicans share Simpson’s take. National polling data, after all, suggests a majority of the party believes the race was strategically swung in Biden’s favor, even though the outcome of more than five dozen failed Trump campaign election lawsuits indicates otherwise.
“I find it hard to believe that Joe Biden, campaigning from a basement, could have gotten more votes,” said Vince Vanata, a Cody resident and committeeman for the Park County Republican Party. “I really do [believe that], and I try to take a rational perspective to it.”
Vanata’s view is that Cheney’s outspokenness is a result of her own political ambitions.
“She’s had her sights set on the White House for a couple of years now,” he said, “and I personally believe that she is preemptively trying to take out the competition and using the Jan. 6 Commission to do so.”
Other Republicans haven’t permanently written Cheney off for her disavowal of Trump. After having heard Cheney out in Jackson, the red ball cap-wearing Nutter remained undecided on which Republican’s name she’ll be marking come the August primary.
“I’m not going to say at this point, because I don’t know,” Nutter said. “I go to these [events] to learn.”