A year ago on Jan. 7 Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie) drove to Cheyenne for her swearing in as a member of Wyoming’s Legislature. What would have felt like an momentous event for the freshman lawmaker, she said, was overshadowed by the attack on the U.S. Capitol that occurred the day before, on Jan. 6, 2021.
“It felt very heavy,” she said.
In the year since, Sherwood has only started to process the insurrection. It’s been challenging to do so, she said, while so many questions remain about the day itself and what it will mean for our democracy.
The events of that day impacted a nation. But in Wyoming, the influence has been outsized. That stems from the actions of the state’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). As Cheney has forged a lonely path as an unsparing GOP critic of former President Donald Trump, her stance has prompted both praise and outrage.
After Trump targeted Cheney as a political enemy for refusing to parrot lies about the validity of the election and then voting to impeach him, the state party censured her, many Republicans denounced her and a rift opened up in the GOP as challengers lined up to unseat her in the 2022 primary. The political divide has both defined politics on the local level and drawn the eyes of the nation to Wyoming.
Cheney’s role as vice chairwoman of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 has been described as a betrayal by many in the Republican party. Though in Wyoming she has many constituents that stand by the former president — he carried nearly 70% of votes here in 2020 — she herself stands by her assertion that Trump’s actions threatened the U.S. Constitution.
During an interview this week with ABC, Cheney said the Republican Party has a choice to make.
“We can either be loyal to our Constitution or loyal to Donald Trump, but we cannot be both,” she said. Cheney did not agree to a WyoFile interview request by press time.
While he didn’t go as far as to enter the congressional race, as some of his legislative peers have, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) has been a public critic of the congresswoman since her impeachment vote. The freshman lawmaker wrote an op-ed in September accusing Cheney of “betraying Wyoming” by opposing Trump. Bear was once a “big Cheney supporter,” he said, but her foreign affairs policies have also dissuaded him.
Bear is joined in his critique by House Republicans in Washington that ousted Cheney from her leadership post because of her impeachment vote. Additionally, the Wyoming GOP voted in February to censure Cheney, and then in November to no longer recognize her as a member of the party. Had it not been for Cheney taking such a strident stance, Bear said, Jan. 6 might not have taken center stage in Wyoming politics.
“Otherwise, I don’t think that there would be a great deal of interest in what’s currently going on in the investigation,” Bear said. “Because Liz Cheney made a big issue of it … it is something of interest for the next election, and especially the primary and mostly in regards to her.”
Despite participating in the discourse around Cheney, Bear said he would have preferred Wyoming residents to focus on other, more local issues.
“I think that energy needs to be turned toward both what’s happening in Cheyenne, and what’s happening in our own counties,” he said. As one example, Bear pointed to legislation designed to shift Wyoming’s elections to a runoff system. Lawmakers have proposed the measure several times.
Even that is tangential to Cheney, however.
Though the idea cropped up following the 2018 gubernatorial race when Gov. Mark Gordon won the Republican primary with less than the majority of the votes, conservative advocates have recently expressed hope that it prevents vote splitting and ensures Cheney’s defeat.
On its website, the Wyoming Republican Party said a runoff system would “help combat vote dilution in the primaries,” and that “Democrats should not be voting in the GOP Primary.”
For all the lumps she’s taken from her party, Cheney has inspired others, including Sherwood.
“It’s so admirable, and it’s so brave, and it’s so honest,” Sherwood said. The anniversary is an important opportunity to talk about where Wyoming citizens can find civility in local politics, she said. At Laramie’s remembrance ceremony Thursday night, 20 or so people gathered in the wind and frigid temperatures, bundled up tightly in heavy jackets.
As for Cheney, the congresswoman spent the morning of the anniversary on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was joined by her father, former Vice President and House member Dick Cheney. There was a prayer, a pledge and then a moment of silence.
No other Republicans were present.