WASHINGTON – House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday endorsed a primary challenger to GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, a remarkable step for a party leader that effectively lends his weight to the effort to purge a chief critic of former President Donald Trump's from Congress.
McCarthy's backing of Harriet Hageman for the at-large seat in Wyoming is certain to please Trump, who wants to rid the party of Cheney and others critical of his tenure. Cheney is the vice chair of the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.
The GOP House leader is determined to win back control of the chamber in this fall’s midterm elections, and he sees that mission as running through Trump, who remains the undisputed leader of the party. Trump's endorsement of candidates running in conservative House districts is crucial because of the hold he has over the Republican Party faithful, who tend to dominate voting in primary contests.
A Cheney spokesperson was dismissive of the importance of McCarthy's endorsement of Hageman. "Wow, she must be really desperate,” Jeremy Adler said.
The high-profile move from McCarthy, R-Calif., is an early sign of the tumultuous midterm elections that lie ahead for the GOP. It's all the more stunning because Cheney was the No. 3 House Republican and a member of McCarthy's leadership team until just last year.
Cheney broke sharply from the GOP leader, and most of her Republican colleagues, as they continued to embrace Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection, when a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol to prevent Congress from affirming Joe Biden's election victory. She was among 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the insurrection and increasingly spoke out against him and the attack.
As McCarthy weighs in, the GOP leader's fundraising skills are perhaps an even bigger draw than his name, an ability to lend the kind of hefty campaign support to Hageman that will be needed to counter Cheney's own political strength as a nationally known political figure.
Trump's influence can be seen across the race — one of his former top aides, Tim Murtaugh, is handling communications for Hageman, a Cheyenne attorney, and Trump supports changes to state election laws that could help his preferred candidate and hurt Cheney.
Wyoming lawmakers voted narrowly Thursday to consider a bill that would, in theory, make it harder for Democrats to change their voter registration to Republican to boost Cheney in this summer’s primary. Wyoming is heavily Republican, meaning it would be unlikely that a Democrat could beat the winner of the GOP primary in a general election.
Under the bill, voters would not be allowed to change their party affiliation in the 96 days leading up to the Republican and Democratic primaries, which are set for Aug. 16.
“It makes total sense that only Democrats vote in the Democrat primary and only Republicans vote in the Republican primary,” Trump said in a statement Thursday endorsing the proposed change.
Trump endorsed Hageman last year. Hageman had been an early supporter of Cheney's earlier campaigns but announced her bid to unseat the congresswoman largely for her vote to impeach Trump over his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.
In a statement expressing appreciation for McCarthy's support, Hageman said Cheney was “actively damaging the Republican Party.”
“The Democrats in Washington, D.C. only see her as a temporary but useful tool to achieve their partisan goals, and the Republicans want nothing to do with her,” Hageman said.
It's unclear what, if any, weight McCarthy’s support would carry in Wyoming.
In July, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chose Cheney and another Trump critic, GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, to sit on the Democratic-led panel investigating the insurrection. McCarthy said he was “shocked” that Cheney would join the committee and later called her a “Pelosi Republican.”
Cheney said that “at every opportunity, the minority leader has attempted to prevent the American people from understanding what happened – to block this investigation.”
This year, the committee asked McCarthy to provide information about his conversations with Trump and White House officials “before, during and after” the riot. He declined, saying the investigation was not legitimate and accusing the panel of “abuse of power.”
Gruver reported from Cheyenne, Wyo.