The Prime Time of Harriet Hageman
The Trump-backed U.S. House candidate stresses importance of accountability and representing constituents; congressional race: for or against Liz Cheney?
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Jun 29, 2022
Harriet Hageman, a candidate for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat, hosts a town hall on June 18 at the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office in Rock Springs. (Wyoming Truth photos by Shen Wu Tan)
By Shen Wu Tan
Special to the Wyoming Truth
ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. – On a recent Saturday night, Harriet Hageman, rocking her signature gothic cowgirl outfit—black dress, black boots and bold silver and turquoise jewelry—ambled around the training room at the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office in Rock Springs, appearing at ease as she conversed with the small crowd gathered for her town hall.
She smiled brightly. She shook hands vigorously. She listened intently to voters’ concerns.
It was retail politics at its finest.
Hageman has had plenty of practice schmoozing voters in the weeks since former President Donald Trump drew 8,000 GOP faithful to a campaign rally for her at the Ford Wyoming Center in Casper. Through late June, Hageman, a candidate for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, has traveled thousands of miles across the state and hosted more than a dozen town halls to promote her “Wyoming First” message. She’s met ranchers in Greybull and veterans in Cheyenne. She’s huddled with pro-lifers at a prayer vigil in Casper and cheered with horse racing enthusiasts in Gillette.
Without a doubt, Hageman is working for the Wyoming vote.
“We really do have to start making our representatives work for us,” she told the audience of 15 in Rock Springs. “What has happened so many times and what is happening now with our representatives in Congress, especially, is that they don’t represent their constituents.”
Hageman added, “What I’ve heard more than any other word as I’ve traveled the state is accountability. People are really hungry for accountability. People are really hungry to know that people are representing them and representing their interests and that they are answerable to them.”
Hageman was taking direct aim at U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), her chief opponent in the GOP primary Aug. 16. Cheney, 55, is one of two Republicans serving on the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and Trump’s alleged involvement in provoking it. For weeks, she has basked in the media spotlight, presiding over televised hearings from Washington, D.C., as she appears to be seeking to achieve what two impeachments failed to do: Cancel Trump as a viable candidate for a second term.
On Thursday, Hageman and Cheney, along with three other GOP contenders, will face off in a televised debate hosted by WyomingPBS. The debate will be aired at 7 p.m. Mountain Time on Wyoming statewide television, as well as live-streamed on Wyoming Public Media and YouTube.
Harriet Hageman, the 59-year-old land use attorney from Cheyenne, is about to have her prime time moment.
Hageman surges to the lead, while Cheney seeks help from Wyoming Democrats
The debate comes at a critical time in the midterm election cycle. With less than 50 days until the primary, Trump’s endorsement and Hageman’s tireless campaigning seem to be paying off. Polls suggest that it’s Hageman’s race to lose. A June poll conducted by Fabrizio, Lee & Associates for the pro-Hageman Super PAC Wyoming Values found that 58% of GOP voters view Hageman favorably, up from 48% in December, while only 26% view Cheney favorably, down from 29%.
Another poll, conducted in late May by the WPA Intelligence on behalf of the Club for Growth PAC, gave Hageman a 30-point lead over Cheney among Wyoming Republican primary voters. The poll found that 56% of primary voters would support Hageman compared to 26% who would support Cheney.
Both polls were funded by groups backing Hageman. Consequently, Erich Frankland, a political science professor at Casper College, advised taking the findings with a grain of salt.
“[They] are somewhat suspect due to their funders, sample size, etc.,” he told the Wyoming Truth. “Likely subsequent polls will show a much tighter race.”
Even so, it’s clear that Cheney is feeling the heat. Last week, just minutes before she took her seat center stage at the fifth Jan. 6 hearing, The New York Times reported that Cheney sent mail to Wyoming Democrats this month with specific instructions on how to change their party affiliation and urged them to do so to support her in the Aug.16 primary. Cheney’s campaign website also provides directions for making the switch.
“I wouldn’t fault the Cheney campaign too much — after all, the goal of any campaign worth its salt is to identify and mobilize voters that it feels would support its candidate,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political newsletter of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “That said, the Cheney campaign probably wouldn’t be going out of its way to court non-Republicans if it didn’t need all the help it could get.”
Dean Ferguson, spokesman for the Wyoming Democratic Party, described Cheney’s campaign strategy as “an unusual tactic that suggests she isn’t very confident that she will prevail in a primary made solely of Republicans–the majority of whom are extremists aligned with the Trump-seditionist bloc of the GOP. If one Democrat switches party affiliation to vote for [Cheney], that helps her. Winning is all about finding people to vote for you. Whether she can find enough Democrats, Independents, and Republicans to support her is the question.”
While Democrats appreciate that Cheney is standing up to Trump, Ferguson said, Cheney otherwise does not share their party’s values because she voted with the former president more than 90% of the time.
Coleman noted that since Cheney seems to be so far behind, at least according to available polls, even Democrats crossing over en masse for her wouldn’t be enough to secure a victory: “The state is 70% Republican by registration, and if she is struggling with GOP partisans, that’s the ball game,” he said.
At Trump’s rally for Hageman last month, several Wyoming residents called for Cheney’s removal, claiming she doesn’t represent the state’s interests and values. And at Hageman’s Rock Springs town hall, folks who previously supported Cheney expressed buyers’ remorse.
John DeMatteis, a Buffalo resident who attended the Trump rally with his wife, Laura, believes Wyoming voters are tired of Cheney. “She hasn’t done what we would’ve wanted her to do,” he said at the rally. “And what she’s doing on the Jan. 6 commission is unconscionable.”
DeMatteis spoke with Hageman at the state GOP convention and during one of her campaign stops in Buffalo. “I think she’s very sharp,” he said, “and I would be happy to have her replace Liz Cheney.”
From cowgirl to counselor – and perhaps Congress
So who is Harriet Hageman, the prospective politician who seems poised to end the Cheney dynasty? (Liz Cheney is the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who also held Wyoming’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms.)
On the campaign trail, Hageman has capitalized on voters’ negative impressions of Cheney—her critics call her the “Virginian”—to stress her own deep roots in the state.
“I think that it’s time we have people who represent us in Congress who are just normal, everyday, average people,” Hageman said at the Rock Springs town hall. “I want to represent you. I am one of you. As I said at the [Trump] rally, I know Wyoming, I am Wyoming, I love Wyoming. This is for me the last shining city on the hill. And I think if we can get things right in Wyoming, I think we can have the rest of our country follow our lead.”
(The Wyoming Truth sought interviews with Hageman and Cheney for this story. Reached on her direct line, a slightly surprised Hageman was noncommittal about granting an interview and deferred to her media staffer, who did not respond to multiple requests. Carly Miller, Hageman’s campaign manager, declined requests for an interview with Hageman on her behalf at the Rock Springs town hall. Cheney’s campaign staff did not respond to other requests.)
A fourth-generation Wyomingite, Hageman grew up on a cattle ranch near Fort Laramie with six siblings. Her late father, James Hageman, was a former state legislator. Hageman enrolled in Casper College on a livestock judging scholarship, but transferred to University of Wyoming, earning a bachelor’s degree and law degree.
She then clerked for the Honorable James E. Barrett, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, before practicing law in Michigan and Colorado. In 1997, Hageman returned home to Wyoming, and in 2000, she teamed up with Kara Brighton Fornstrom to establish the law firm, Hageman & Brighton, PC. Four years later, the duo co-founded the Wyoming Conservation Alliance. (Fornstrom declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Hageman’s husband, attorney John Sundahl.)
Over the past 30 years, Hageman made a name for herself while representing oil and gas companies, ranchers and farmers through her private practice in Cheyenne. Since 2019, she also has served as senior litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), a public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C. (That same year, Hageman purchased a $540,000 condominium on aptly named Wyoming Avenue NW in the nation’s capital, according to real estate records.)
Mark Chenoweth, New Civil Liberties Alliance president and general counsel, described Hageman as a competent, articulate, thorough, dogged and impressive attorney, with expertise in environmental and Title IX cases. Hageman helped the alliance win a case in which a judge ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot mandate radio frequency ID tags for cattle; she argued that guidance isn’t law and that the federal agency, therefore, cannot change regulations to require those tags.
Some critics have labeled Hageman as an “anti-conservation” attorney based on some of the cases she’s handled. Chenoweth disagrees: “I don’t think that Harriet is anti-conservation; I think Harriet is interested in making sure that federal agencies respect constitutional rights…. She certainly is adept at holding federal agencies accountable when they run afoul of the law.”
What Hageman brings to the table
Hageman has been a fixture in Wyoming GOP politics for many years. She was a delegate for then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz at the 2016 National Republican Convention and formerly served as Wyoming’s national GOP committeewoman before resigning last September prior to launching her congressional campaign.
In 2018, Hageman unsuccessfully ran for governor, finishing third out of six candidates in the Republican primary and garnering in 21.5% of the votes, according to Ballotpedia. That experience is playing to her advantage this time around. “Hageman has two strengths as a candidate,” Jim King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming, told the Wyoming Truth. “First, she was a candidate for governor in 2018 and thus has experience running a statewide campaign that the other challengers to Cheney lack. Second, Hageman has Trump’s endorsement. This led to greater publicity than she might otherwise have had and led to at least one other conservative candidate to withdraw.”
He added, “The race is shaping up as a choice for or against Cheney, more than a choice between Cheney and Hageman.”
In addition to Cheney, Hageman faces competition from three other Republican candidates: state Sen. Anthony Bouchard; veteran Denton Knapp; and paralegal Robyn Belinskey, according to the Wyoming Elections Division. If she bests this field in August, she will compete against one of three Democratic candidates in November: Fort Washakie resident Lynnette Grey Bull who previously ran for the seat in 2020; Rock Springs resident Meghan R. Jensen; and Casper resident Steve Helling.
“So far Hageman seems to be running on two related things: Trump is the key to Republican successes and Cheney’s involvement with the select committee on January 6 and the challenging of Trump,” said Frankland, the Casper College professor. “There seems to be little attention so far to Wyoming ‘values’ and interests…I think that without Trump’s endorsement and some GOP leaders’ urging, Hageman would not be a significant candidate for the primary.”
Mark Jones, legislative director of Wyoming for Gun Owners of America, said Trump’s backing did not factor into his organization’s endorsement of Hageman. Hageman scored 100% on its Second Amendment survey, whereas Cheney scored 69% and voted for red flag laws in the National Defense Authorization Act, which would allow law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who could pose a risk to themselves or others.
“She’s got a history of standing up for constitutional rights through her work as a constitutional attorney,” Jones said of Hageman. “She is also running on a really strong Second Amendment platform. Just because a representative or a senator is from a state like Wyoming doesn’t always mean they’re always voting for Wyoming values, and Cheney has deviated a number of times.”
Selective media strategy and the Hageman-Cheney relationship
While Cheney plays to a national audience in the televised Jan. 6 hearings, Hageman mostly courts voters on the campaign trail or through interviews with conservative news outlets. In June, Hageman appeared on Fox News’ “Ingraham Angle” to denounce Cheney’s participation on the House select committee. As a guest on Dan Bongino’s radio show, Hageman argued that Cheney was not elected to act as “judge and jury of Donald Trump” and noted that Cheney does not serve on the committee of natural resources, an area of concern for Wyoming residents. Hageman also told syndicated radio host Mark Levin that the House select committee, on which Cheney serves as vice chair, lacks due process and called it “show trial” that will not present a “snippet of evidence” to refute the narrative the panel is pushing.
Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball compared Hageman campaign’s media strategy to a “football team that’s up comfortably in the fourth quarter of a game.”
“It just wants to run out the clock,” Coleman said. “Generally speaking, candidates who are strong favorites don’t go seeking out interviews or beg to have as many debates as possible. It sounds like the Hageman campaign is only appearing on friendly media outlets because they don’t want to risk any unforced errors. In other words, if she’s only given softball questions by conservative outlets, it’s easier for her to just stick to her talking points and stay on message.”
Despite her reluctance to talk to reporters, Hageman enthusiastically engaged with town hall attendees, addressing their concerns that primarily focused on land, water use, and energy policies.
On the personal front, Hageman revealed that she married Sundahl when she was almost 40 and retained her maiden name for professional reasons.
“He wouldn’t let me take his,” Hageman joked.
When questioned about her relationship with Cheney—the subject of much media and public speculation—Hageman claimed that she didn’t meet the representative until 2013 as Cheney was launching what ended up being a short-lived Senate bid. Hageman said she had a falling out with Cheney in November 2020 over a disagreement about Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the presidential election.
“After she [Cheney] dropped out [of the Senate race] in 2014, I never really heard from her again until 2016 when she ran for Congress, and she contacted me,” Hageman explained. “I introduced her at the state convention. I’ve had – I don’t know – probably less than 10 conversations with Liz over the years…We were political acquaintances more than anything else is what we were.”
Even so, Hageman made a $1,500 campaign donation to Cheney in 2016, according to data from the Federal Elections Commission.
Promises of accountability
If elected to Congress, Hageman promised the Sweetwater crowd that she would advocate for fossil fuels and would introduce a bill mandating the federal government use domestically produced energy. In the interest of transparency and accountability, Hageman also vowed to codify the executive orders Trump issued that require federal agencies to disclose all informal rulemaking, guidance and other documents that are enforced as laws.
Additionally, Hageman plans to hold Cheney accountable. “I’m not just holding her accountable by voting against her; I’m running against her,” Hageman said. “We are a republic, and elections are to hold people accountable for the decisions that they make.”
Hageman’s message resonated with the town hall attendees. Phyllis McCoy, 78 of Rock Springs, said that while she strongly opposes Cheney, she was on the fence about Hageman before the event. She wanted to learn about Hageman’s relationship with Cheney, and, satisfied with the candidate’s explanation, McCoy said she will now back Hageman.
Hageman also won the support of Cindy Smart, 61, of Rock Springs, who likes her morals and qualification. “For me, she’s on her own merits,” Smart said. “I like what she stands for, herself. She should win all on her own.”
As the Rock Springs town hall drew to a close, Hageman reminded the attendees about early voting on July 1. With a smile on her face, she bid them farewell and bolted to her car for the drive back to Cheyenne, her cowgirl boots clicking on the floor and her black dress billowing behind her.