Talk of Trump Takes Center Stage at First Primary Debate of WY House GOP Candidates
Rep. Liz Cheney and Harriet Hageman, who lead in the polls, sparred over the legitimacy of the 2020 election and the Republican Party’s embrace of former President Donald Trump
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Jul 01, 2022
GOP candidates for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives convene for a debate at Sheridan College Thursday night. (Wyoming Truth photo courtesy of WyomingPBS’ June 30, 2022 broadcast)
By Jacob Gardenswartz
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Thursday night may have marked the first time that the five candidates vying for the Republican nomination to represent Wyoming’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives were all in the same room together, but it was a different politician who dominated the conversation: former President Donald Trump.
From the onset, the candidates participating in WyomingPBS’s GOP primary election debate at Sheridan College were asked about incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney’s forceful denunciation of the former president and her work as the vice chair of the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Cheney did not back down from her belief that “we have to put our oath to the Constitution above party,” asserting in her opening statement that “we are now embracing a cult of personality, and I won’t be part of that.”
Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman, Cheney’s top rival who has benefited greatly from Trump’s endorsement, took a different view: “Our republic is not in danger because of President Donald J. Trump,” she began. Of Jan. 6, Hageman said that “you have the conservatives or Republicans who are being punished for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Cheney responded, “I’m frankly stunned that one of my opponents on the stage who is a member of the Wyoming Bar… would be in a position where she’s suggesting that somehow what happened on January 6 was justified.”
While the other candidates on stage — including state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, paralegal Robyn Belinskey and veteran Denton Knapp — worked to wrestle back time from the two top contenders, it was clear that Hageman and Cheney were focused squarely on each another. Early polls indicate Hageman holds a significant lead over Cheney with the other candidates trailing the two, though experts caution it is too early to predict the outcome of the race.
Throughout the debate, Cheney challenged Hageman directly several times, insinuating that her efforts to call into question the results of the 2020 election were disingenuous and noting Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who is now advising the Hageman campaign, has himself conceded that the election was not stolen.
“I’d be interested to know whether or not my opponent, Ms. Hageman, is willing to say here tonight that the election was not stolen,” Cheney posed. “She knows it wasn’t stolen. I think that she can’t say that it wasn’t stolen because she’s completely beholden to Donald Trump.”
Hageman, for her part, doubled down on unproven allegations of election tampering in 2020 despite dozens of investigations and court cases finding no evidence of fraud sufficient to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory. “We have serious questions about the 2020 election,” Hageman said, referencing unsubstantiated claims about fake ballots and Facebook rigging. She also argued that the press and politicians like Cheney are unnecessarily “obsessed” about Jan. 6 when they should be focused on other issues, a point about which the other candidates on stage expressed their agreement.
But it wasn’t just 2020 and Trump where the candidates split. Hageman repeatedly highlighted her extensive travels throughout Wyoming, working to paint Cheney as a member of the “unitary party” in Washington who “don’t necessarily care who’s in power just so long as they are.”
The two also broke on the crisis in Ukraine and the role that the United States should play in the ongoing war. Hageman argued that Russian president Vladimir “Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if President Trump was still the president,” and that “the radical environmental policies that the western world has been pursuing and adopting over the last 30 years has made all of us unsafe and all of us dependent on dictators and tyrants like Putin.”
Cheney, meanwhile, said she thought Ukraine was the “frontline in the battle for freedom,” adding that “it’s a tremendously positive thing that we now have Sweden and Finland joining NATO.”
Despite their many points of disagreement, Cheney, Hageman and the other candidates on stage did see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, especially when it came to criticisms of the Biden administration.
Every candidate attacked federal spending as the main driver of inflation, and lambasted Biden’s energy policies. On education, the candidates were in agreement about the need for more local control over schools and investments in policies to promote school choice, though Hageman and Bouchard went so far as to float abolishing the Department of Education.
Asked about the coronavirus, the candidates decried vaccine mandates, with Hageman attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the president, as “one of the most corrupt individuals in Washington.” While Cheney stressed that “everyone should be vaccinated,” she said she believes the federal government lacks constitutional authority to impose a nationwide mandate.
Thursday’s debate came just one day before the start of absentee voting in the Aug. 16 primary, and the Cowboy State’s GOP race has become a major point of focus for national media. Cheney is one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, and she is the most prominent Republican participant in the Jan. 6 investigation. If she can successfully fend off a Trump-backed primary challenge, it could foretell the beginning of the end of the Trump movement. If she loses, however, Trump’s power as Republican kingmaker will be ascendent.
“The people of Wyoming do not believe that they’re being represented in Congress right now because our representative doesn’t come to Wyoming,” Hageman said in her closing remarks. Cheney, she argued, “focuses an awful lot of time on the January 6 committee, but she’s not addressing the issues that are important to Wyoming.”
Cheney said in conclusion, “If we 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. I will never violate my oath of office. And if you’re looking for somebody who will, then you need to vote for somebody else on this stage.”