(WASHINGTON) — In many ways, Tuesday’s GOP primary battle for Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat is a war — by proxy — between former President Donald Trump and someone he deems disloyal.
But the former president’s hand-picked choice to take on Trump’s harshest GOP critic — Rep. Liz Cheney — is especially noteworthy for earning Trump’s backing after also once denouncing him.
Former Cheney adviser and never-Trumper Harriet Hageman has won the endorsement of the man she called “the weakest candidate” in 2016, joining other Republicans in attempting to undermine his nomination at that year’s Republican national convention.
On Tuesday, the natural resources attorney who ran an unsuccessful primary bid for Wyoming’s Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2018 is widely expected to clinch her race against longstanding Wyoming political royalty in one of the most watched races in the nation, an indication of how strongly voters turn out around Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election fraud — in a state he won by nearly 70% in 2020.
Previously called Trump ‘racist and xenophobic’
Trump’s memory is short when it comes to endorsing candidates who have flip-flopped from being critical of him to becoming stark defenders. Hageman is no different. In 2016, she condemned Trump as a “racist and xenophobic” candidate who would repel voters Republicans needed to win a national election.
She backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the Republican presidential nomination, joining with other Cruz supporters at the GOP convention in Cleveland — when she was a Wyoming delegate — to force a vote on the floor to block Trump’s ascension. Cheney supported Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Hageman has not publicly addressed those efforts, but has briefly mentioned her past opposition to Trump, telling the New York Times in 2021 that she “heard and believed the lies the Democrats and Liz Cheney’s friends in the media were telling at the time.”
“But that is ancient history as I quickly realized that their allegations against President Trump were untrue,” Hageman said.
“He was the greatest president of my lifetime, and I am proud to have been able to renominate him in 2020. And I’m proud to strongly support him today.”
Hageman earned Trump’s backing after Cheney, along with nine other GOP House members, voted to impeach him.
A long history as an anti-conservationist
The daughter of a longtime Wyoming state legislator, Hageman, 59, was born and raised on a small ranch outside Fort Laramie, Wyoming. She’s married to Cheyenne-based malpractice attorney John Sundhal.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wyoming and a juris doctor degree from the University of Wyoming College of Law, she worked as a law clerk for federal appeals judge before building a decades-long career as a water and natural resources lawyer throughout Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado.
Hageman has long sparred with environmentalists over her anti-conservation record, a background that earned her the title “Wicked Witch of the West” — something she embraced. She became known in Wyoming for suing federal agencies over land use decisions and a successful battle to end a Clinton-era policy to halt road construction on millions of acres of federal land.
She claims to have “stopped the EPA from seizing control of our irrigation infrastructure and operations,” and prevented the USDA from enforcing the registration of all ranches with the federal government.
“I have been fighting back against Federal agencies that try to usurp our rights with overbearing regulations. I’ve never allowed my Conservative values to be shaken in the face of Left-Wing ideologues,” she has written on her website.
Her political career began with her campaign for governor in the 2018 election — a race in which her past as a natural resources attorney influenced her attempts to win the Republican nomination.
When campaigning, Hageman was vocal in her support for transferring control of public lands to states, which caused blowback in Wyoming’s robust hunting, outdoor recreation and conservation communities. The Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance, then a rising hunting and public lands advocacy group, endorsed Hageman’s then-opponent and current Wyoming GOP Gov. Mark Gordon, because of her views on public land transfer, according to High Country News.
If Hageman beats Cheney and scores a general election victory in November, she’d likely aim for a position on a House Committee with jurisdiction over energy development on public lands and wildlife. And if successful, she could continue to push back against conservation efforts and possibly dismantle provisions established by the EPA, Fish & Wildlife Service, Forestry Service, and the Dept. of Agriculture — something she has spoken proudly about on previous podcasts and at rallies.
But before her failed gubernatorial bid, Hageman served as an adviser to Cheney’s short-lived 2014 Senate campaign. She then endorsed and stumped for Cheney’s 2016 congressional campaign.
Voters are embracing Hageman, despite her past
Trouble looms for Cheney, who trailed Hageman by 29 points in a University of Wyoming poll released this week.
Outside an early voting site in Jackson, Wyoming, on Monday, Horton Spitzer — a retired rancher and staunch Trump supporter — after voting for Hageman, said he believes Cheney’s political career is over.
“There’s a visceral hatred. And this is gonna drive people to the polls. The code of the West says ride for the brand. If you don’t you then take your saddle, take your cowdog, walk into the sunset and never come back,” he said.
Hageman’s flip-flopping in first opposing then supporting Trump means little to many GOP voters ABC News spoke with as the election grew near.
“Cheney represented herself as a total as a conservative. Well, I think she is totally a RINO,” said Wyoming GOP voter Fred Skorcz.
“In fact, the Republican Party has pretty much ousted her. And Harriet seems to be a true conservative. She’s multi-generation from Wyoming. She knows the issues. She knows the people. And I think that she would do everything she can to help our state and not just the state, but the country as well.”
Cheney’s agreement score with Trump was very high, 93% better than several of her critics, including that of Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who ousted her as the No. 3 House Republican, professor Jim King of the University of Wyoming told ABC News.
But Cheney turning on Trump is something voters can’t seem to overlook during this contest.
“I did vote for Liz in the last elections that she ran for. And at that time, I was very happy with what she was doing. But I just don’t think that she cares about Wyoming. I think she cares more about what she’s doing in Washington,” said another Hageman voter outside an early voting site in Jackson, Wyoming, on Monday.
“There was a time that I told her that I would vote for her for president. I rescind that with a vengeance.”
If Cheney is able to eek out a primary win Tuesday, it will be in large part because of efforts to persuade Wyoming Democrats to temporarily change their voter registration status and cast their ballots for her — a trend many forecasters say won’t be enough of the vote to make a critical difference.
“I was Republican until about ’80 till about ’94. And then I was a Democrat until today,” said Prichard, a Cheney voter in Jackson.
“The Republican Party is going a little too far to the right. And, you know, it seems it’s pretty scary situation, the way they sort of twist the facts and make up things and I just felt like [Cheney] was the one who was standing up for her, her beliefs and I have to go along with her on that.”
ABC News’ Brittany Shepherd, Lalee Ibssa and Tracy Wholf contributed to this report.
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