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What Liz Cheney’s GOP problem means for politics in Northern Rockies

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By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Liz Cheney is Wyoming’s sole Congress member in the U.S. House of Representatives. PHOTO COURTESY OF US HOUSE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Remember the line from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” in which the elusive character Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, repeats a passage from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” about the shadow of humanity? “The horror,” Kurtz utters as he’s about to be assassinated, “the horror …” 

In Wyoming, there’s another kind of horror playing out involving the Kabuki theater that is now the Republican Party. A few days ago, leaders of the Wyoming GOP declared that the state’s lone member of Congress, Liz Cheney, will no longer be considered a member of the Republican Party.

She’s been cast out because she believes that former President Donald Trump and his allies need to be thoroughly investigated for events that resulted in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. That a member of the Cheney clan could ever be jettisoned from the overwhelmingly dominant ruling party in that state is head-spinning.

Many consider Ms. Cheney’s bid to win re-election next year, and not be primaried out by a challenger who identifies as a loyalist to Trump, to be a litmus test on national sanity. Not long ago, I had a chat with Tom Sadler, a longtime hook-and-bullet Republican and fishing guide who served on the staff of former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman on Capitol Hill and has fiercely identified as a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. 

Readers here may find the conversation intriguing, for the step taken to oust Cheney from her own party appears to also hold resonance among Republicans in Montana and Idaho. Sadler, who has helped protect large tracts of public land in the West, said he thinks Cheney and her political situation are shining a spotlight on a big problem for not only the Republican party but for our country.

Todd Wilkinson: As a lifelong card-carrying Republican, your head must be spinning.

Tom Sadler: Spinning for sure and party vertigo as well, and some profoundly serious head-shaking.

T.W.: In many ways, the Cheney family, now with two generations having achieved prominent roles in national politics, has rarefied stature across Wyoming. So, let me cut to the chase and ask you: What do you think of Congresswoman Cheney making a “last stand” within her party. And in a case of strange bedfellows, she’s become a darling of the Democrats.

T.S.: I’m not sure I would go so far as say she in the darling of the Democrats, but she is greatly appreciated by former Republicans like me when she stands up to the insurrectionists. This doesn’t appear to be a political ploy for her. She is not backing away from this fight and is now the Vice Chair of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. 

I think she sees this as an existential threat to our form of government. That may seem alarmist but if the actions by the insurrectionists and their enablers don’t scare the heck out of you then you aren’t paying attention.

T.W.: If politicians from both parties committed themselves to telling the truth, to provide leadership by insisting on facts, we’d probably be able to solve a lot more serious problems facing the country.

T.S.: That’s right. Cheney and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who recently announced he will not seek re-election, are stellar examples when it comes to January 6, but that attitude needs to apply to everything. Our elected officials need to be able to separate politics from policy and put country before party.

T.W.: What’s the end game for not only the Trump loyalists but for people like Congresswoman Cheney?

T.S.: I’ve begun to wonder what the politics of the future looks like. Both parties are being held hostage to their more radical wings and a growing lack of space exists for folks who want responsible solutions to the growing issues facing not only the ecosystem and the country, but the planet.

T.W.: Do GOP moderates from the West —people like former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman—have a play in trying to bring the party back to center?

T.S.: I truly hope so.

T.W.: You started this chat suggesting that her fate holds symbolism for where the country is. So, what are the consequences of her losing to radical idealogues in her own party?

T.S.: Here’s the thing. When I was on the Hill you could “go along to get along.” It worked because there was a basic trust that that approach went both ways and people were operating in good faith. That’s not happening any longer. Comity is no longer respected and people who operate from that position are getting taken advantage of.

T.W.: It’s going to be a bruising year of negative campaign ads and hurt feelings. Telling will be who the big money backs from both inside the state and outside. 

T.S.: This race is going to continue to get a lot of national attention and watch what happens on Fox News. Dick Cheney got star-fawning treatment on Fox and so did Liz from people like Hannity. This will show what kind of friend the guy really is. If it goes down to a one-on-one race, it will get very interesting and likely help answer your referendum-on-Trump question.

T.W.: I don’t make predictions but I’d like you to. Do you really think Liz Cheney will prevail in Wyoming’s Republican Primary next year and get re-elected?

T.S.: Yes, I have faith that the good people of Wyoming will use their heads, recognize her value as a defender of the constitution and return her to Washington.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by famed wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, about Grizzly Bear 399. 

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