The person Wyoming voters should really listen to when deciding whether to dump Liz Cheney as their representative in the U.S. House wasn’t onstage for the first debate of the race.
No, I’m not talking about former President Donald Trump, who continues to ask Americans if they’re going to believe him or their own lying eyes.
The person I’m talking about is Hageman’s campaign advisor Bill Stepien. His front-row view of the “big lie” and his understanding that, despite all of the talk, the 2020 presidential election was not stolen from Trump, are now on the record.
That could prove awkward for Hageman, who needs voters to believe that whopper. For her part she keeps strategically dancing around the issue. Cheney tried to bait her former ally into showing her hand at a Wyoming PBS debate in Sheridan last month, but Hageman refused.
“She knows it wasn’t stolen,” Cheney said. “I think that she can’t say that it wasn’t stolen because she’s completely beholden to Donald Trump.”
Stepien, Trump’s former campaign manager who bailed because he also knows his former boss can’t tell the truth, hasn’t fully distanced himself from misinformation.
His new boss, Hageman, said she shares the public’s “serious concerns” about the integrity of the election, referencing debunked conspiracy theories and vaguely accusing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of buying the election for Democrat Joe Biden.
But Cheney, vice chair of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, got the truth out of Stepien. His videotaped testimony explains why he broke ties with Trump.
Stepien told Trump on election night he shouldn’t claim victory before all the votes were counted, but the former president did it anyway.
As Trump’s lawyers concocted increasingly outrageous lies about the election being stolen, Stepien said the White House was divided into two camps: “Team Crazy” and “Team Normal.” Though he organized Trump’s initial “Stop the Steal” rallies, Stepien claimed to be a member of the latter.
Showing why Stepien deserted Trump and then highlighting it at the debate was a brilliant maneuver by Cheney, but only if voters bothered to notice. Stepien casting himself as one of the few sane people around Trump but then going to work for one of his candidates seems far-fetched, but he may get away with it.
Stepien has worked for winners like George W. Bush and Trump and losers like John McCain and Chris Christie (and Trump), and he told Cheney’s panel he’s always maintained a good professional reputation.
“I didn’t think what was happening [after Trump’s defeat] was necessarily honest or professional at that point in time, so that led to me stepping away,” he testified.
Wyoming voters don’t have to consider what anti-Trumpers like me write to judge whether Biden legitimately won the last election. But they should listen to the man who led the re-election campaign, then quit when he could no longer stomach lies that led directly to contesting a peaceful transition of power.
The debate made it clear loyalty to Trump is the only thing that matters in this contest. On all other issues, there wasn’t the proverbial dime’s worth of difference between Cheney and Hageman.
Hageman is counting on Trump’s ability to keep conning the people who put him in the White House, and since Wyoming gave him his largest margin of victory in both 2016 and 2020, it’s not a bad strategy. Factor in the extreme-right taking over leadership of the state Republican Party and Cheney has plenty of reasons to be worried.
What about the other Republicans on the ballot — State Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Burns, retired U.S. Army Col. Denton Knapp of Gillette and Sheridan businesswoman Robyn Belinskey? Well, their collective punches to Cheney landed with all the power of a wet noodle left outside on a hot summer day. The trio joined Hageman in declaring nobody in Wyoming cares about what happened on Jan. 6.
Hageman said Cheney and her committee aren’t focusing on issues important to Wyoming, and are “ignoring the corruption that is absolutely destroying Washington, D.C., and as a result taking down the rest of the country.”
Hageman lamented that liberal Democrats aren’t held accountable for bad decisions, while their conservative opponents “are being punished for expressing their First Amendment rights.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Hundreds of protesters stormed the Capitol after being encouraged by Trump “to fight like hell” to keep lawmakers from certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory.
How can anyone believe what transpired on Jan. 6 is “legitimate political discourse,” as the Republican National Committee claimed when it censured Cheney?
This was a coup attempt carried out on live television. The facts about the crimes are clear and archived for the world to see. The last time I checked no one has a First Amendment right to plunge the staff of an American flag into police officers’ bodies, or try to hunt down the vice president to hang him, or smear feces on the Capitol’s hallowed halls.
Yet 18 months after these and many other criminal acts were carried out by Trump supporters, Wyoming will hold an election in which only one candidate is telling the truth about what happened and what’s at stake.
We all know Equality State voters will send a message about democracy to the rest of the world. Their choices can be boiled down to two actions: reward Trump by sending his surrogate to D.C., or punish him by re-electing his most feared rival. It’s that simple.
Hageman said “the press and certain people have obsessed” over Jan. 6, but campaigning across the state she’s found “the only time that the J6 situation ever comes up is when people talk about how unfair this entire committee is.”
It’s a politically dangerous game Hageman and Stepien have chosen to play. On one hand they have to downplay and willfully lie about Jan. 6 and pretend it doesn’t matter at all; on the other, they must keep talking about it to foment anger against Cheney.
Cheney also faces a difficult challenge: convince voters that if they “embrace the lies of Donald Trump, if we tell the people of Wyoming something that is not true, we will soon find ourselves without the structure and the basis and the framework of our constitutional republic.”
Cheney only has a month to overcome the deep distrust of people who genuinely feel she’s betrayed them. Anger pushes people to the polls; it’s harder (but not impossible) for a traditional conservative to fire up enough independents and Democrats to make a difference in a primary race.
But I’ve never heard a better closing statement than the defiant tone Cheney struck in vowing to never violate her oath of office. “And if you’re looking for somebody who will,” she added, “then you will need to vote for somebody else on this stage, because I won’t.”
As a campaign manager, Stepien has never had to take an oath of office. But Wyoming voters should remember that when he swore to tell the truth to the Jan. 6 committee, what he said helped Cheney and hurt his own candidate.