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Liz Cheney is appealing to Wyoming Democrats. Will it make a difference?

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney talks to reporters after House Republicans voted to remove her as conference chair Wednesday.
Chip Somodevilla
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Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney talks to reporters after House Republicans voted to remove her as conference chair Wednesday.

Cowboy State residents have been inundated with political ads recently. Congresswoman Liz Cheney’s campaign team has been spending a lot on radio and TV spots, and Cheney – a Republican and Wyoming's lone representative in the U.S. House – has been making plenty of appearances on national Sunday talk shows.

Some of her messaging is also directly trying to appeal to Independents and Democrats. Mailers and campaign web pages include instructions on how voters can change their party affiliation to cast a vote in the GOP primary on August 16.

Cheney’s main challenger is attorney Harriet Hageman, who’s endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Hageman's been trying to appeal to Republicans who have felt alienated by Cheney for her vote to impeach Trump, and her role as vice chair of the House select committee investigating Trump's involvement in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In an emailed statement, Carly Miller, Hageman's campaign manager, slammed the incumbent’s strategies.

“When Liz Cheney’s only hope is to appeal to Democrats to raid a Republican primary, you know she has gone all the way over to Nancy Pelosi’s side,” Miller said. “Wyoming is fed up with Cheney and it’s too late for any election shenanigans to save her.”

At least one of Hageman's ads compares Cheney to Hillary Clinton.

Nonetheless, as the primary nears, left-leaning and moderate voters in Wyoming are responding to Cheney’s messaging. K.O. Strohbehn lives in Jackson, a liberal, wealthy tourism community at the gateway to Grand Teton National Park, and she recently switched her party affiliation to vote for Cheney.

“She’s one of the few that is living up to her oath of office,” Shtrohbehn said.

Teton County went blue by over 38 percentage points in the 2020 presidential race, but the number of registered Republicans in the county recently overtook registered Democrats for the first time in more than two years. That's because in Wyoming, voters can switch allegiances up to the day of the primary.

“I appreciate the fact that we can do that because she needs to know that there are people that appreciate what she’s trying to do,” Strohbehn said.

Statewide, the number of registered Democrats has dropped 13 percent – nearly 7,000 people – since January, while Republic registrations have risen by more than 11,000.

Jim King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming, said this type of movement often happens before the state's primaries, though this year more people than usual are making the switch.

“It's reasonable that someone, whether they're a Democrat, an Independent or a Republican, looks at it that, 'If I want to have a say in who's going to govern me for the next two years or four years, I need to participate in the Republican primary,'” King said.

More than half of the races for the state legislature and other local offices are decided before the general election, because often an opposing party lacks a candidate. The same is true in several rural Western states and counties.

King said voters, especially Independents, know this and register accordingly.

“Cheney's challenge right now is to get to those voters who disagreed with some aspects of Trump's behavior as president in his post-election activities,” he said.

But because Democrats are so outnumbered in Wyoming, the reddest state in the country, they likely won’t come into play unless the race is extremely close – King estimates within about 5,000 votes. In her race against Hageman, Cheney is down more than 20 points, according to a poll conducted about a month ago.

King points out that Hageman likely wouldn't differ much from Cheney if she heads to Washington. The incumbent has voted with Joe Biden just 18 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight – less than both of Wyoming's senators. She voted with Trump 93 percent of the time.

But the barrage of ads in the race aren't attempting to sway voters based on policy differences.

“For a primary race, there seems to be a relatively low number of undecideds, which suggests that people have made up their mind,” King said. “The challenge now for the candidate is to get their people to the polls.”

Despite the arithmetic suggesting it doesn’t make a difference, some Wyoming Republicans still aren’t a fan of crossover voting. A bill that would’ve banned the practice in the state failed in the legislature earlier this year.

Other conservative lawmakers in the West feel the same way. In Idaho, GOP member Branden Durst is trying to change the state’s rules. He explained his thought process to TV station KTVB last month.

“I look at it like a team, like a sports team. You don't want the other coach picking your quarterback. you want your coach picking the quarterback and the same is true in a political party,” Durst said.

But no matter the laws on crossover voting, donors can still have a say in the other team’s starting lineups. Donors from California have contributed about $1.2 million to Cheney's reelection campaign, as the Los Angeles Times reported last week. Meanwhile, in Colorado, left-leaning groups have tried to prop up extreme right-wing candidates in hopes of creating a more favorable matchup in a general election, an effort that's been condemned by big-name Colorado Democrats.

Cheney has a 60 percent favorability rating among Democrats nationwide, according to a recent poll. Among Republicans, it’s 13 percent.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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