By Alex Rogers and Manu Raju, CNN
Updated: Thu, 06 May 2021 15:53:14 GMT
Chuck Gray, a Wyoming Republican state legislator, "absolutely" believes that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.
He won't say if Trump supporters were the ones who stormed the Capitol on January 6, instead falsely blaming the "insider media" for "supporting" the looting and rioting in the country last summer.
He says that Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney's vote to impeach Trump for inciting the riot was "unconscionable and disgusting" -- and cannot stand her months-long effort to push back against Trump's Big Lie that he actually won the race.
"The Big Lie is what Liz Cheney is," Gray told CNN. "Liz Cheney is the liar."
As Cheney is about to be forced out of the House Republican leadership for her war with Trump over his role in the January 6 attack, a hodgepodge of Republicans like Gray are vying to take her out back home in her primary next year. They are echoing Trump's baseless claims about a rigged election -- and hoping that their rhetoric will earn his coveted endorsement, which could give them a shot at ending Cheney's bid for a fourth term.
But Trump allies are still weighing who the former President should endorse and whether to recruit a new candidate in an attempt to consolidate anti-Cheney votes behind a single primary foe. The Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative outside group that has long been critical of Cheney, interviewed a number of potential challengers in Wyoming over the last week of March, and its PAC commissioned a poll in late April showing her to be vulnerable in a primary, according to spokesman Joe Kildea.
Wyoming GOP sources believe that Trump's endorsement could help clear the field behind a single challenger and force the others to drop out of the primary. Getting behind one candidate became even more essential after the state Senate blocked a proposal supported by Donald Trump Jr., the former president's eldest son, to create a runoff in the primary that could've pitted Cheney against a single Trump-endorsed opponent.
Gray and state Sen. Anthony Bouchard have so far offered themselves up as pro-Trump candidates and have unapologetically backed Trump's baseless electoral claims, which Cheney has warned are a grave threat to democracy.
But Cheney still has significant support, and some Wyoming Republican political operatives who are not aligned with any candidate don't view Bouchard or Gray to be strong candidates. She raised $1.5 million in the first three months of the year -- much more than even Bouchard and Gray combined -- and it's unclear whether either of the state legislators can mount a viable campaign against her.
Tim Stubson, a former state legislator who ran against Cheney in 2016 for her current seat, said he'd probably work to reelect the congresswoman.
"It's really an existential challenge for our democracy and our government, when you have a fundamental disbelief in whether the system works, and whether elections reflect the will of the people," Stubson said. "And when a huge section of a population doesn't believe that it poses I think a very significant challenge for us and our ability to self-govern."
Republicans say additional candidates are exploring a potential run and are courting Trump's team in the process. In mid-April, the former President hinted that an endorsement was coming "soon!"
"All Donald Trump has to do is say one name," said a Wyoming Republican political operative. "Then that's where everyone will focus -- is on that candidate -- and I don't believe that that person is in the race yet."
Wyoming Secretary of State Edward Buchanan, Darin Smith, a businessman who lost to Cheney in the 2016 House GOP primary, Bryan Miller, the Republican chairman of Wyoming's Sheridan County, and William Perry Pendley, who served as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management during the Trump administration, are all potential challengers who could use Cheney's impeachment vote against her.
"She voted against the people of Wyoming when she did that," Smith told CNN.
The fight between Trump and Cheney has only continued to escalate since January.
Trump claimed on Monday that the "Big Lie" is not his campaign to perpetuate that falsehood but instead the fact that he lost the election. Cheney then pushed back, tweeting that "anyone who claims" the election was stolen "is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system."
Cheney also spoke that day behind closed doors at a conference in Sea Island, Georgia.
"We can't whitewash what happened on January 6 or perpetuate Trump's big lie," she said. "It is a threat to democracy. What he did on January 6 is a line that cannot be crossed."
In February, Cheney overwhelmingly kept her leadership position in a secret ballot vote, 145-61. But her latest comments seemed to be the last straw for the leadership of the House Republican conference.
"All these actions will do is help her sleep better at night because she feels like she did the right thing," said a second Wyoming Republican political operative. "She's willing to pay the price for that."
Cheney is expected to face another vote next week on whether she can continue to serve as the number 3 House Republican. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik has already locked up the support of Trump, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, House GOP Whip Steve Scalise and other top Republicans.
Cheney was first elected to the House in 2016, after a lifetime of promoting conservative values and a hawkish foreign policy personified by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who served in her statewide seat from 1979 to 1989.
But after Cheney voted to impeach Trump, saying he "summoned," "assembled" and "lit the flame of this attack," the Wyoming Republican state party censured her, and said that "there has not been a time during our tenure when we have seen this type of an outcry from our fellow Republicans." The Trump political operation commissioned a poll claiming the impeachment vote hurt the congresswoman's popularity in the state. And in February, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz came to Wyoming to bash her, while Bouchard handed out signs to the crowd that said "Impeach Cheney!"
Her reelection race will be a test of whether the Republican party will turn the page from Trump, or kick out one of its leaders for refusing to go along with his effort to overturn the presidential election. Last year, Trump received nearly 70% of the vote in Wyoming -- the best showing of the former president in any state -- while Cheney got nearly 69%.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republican campaign arm closely aligned with McCarthy, is not coming to Cheney's aid even though her political operation donates to it.
"The NRCC does not get involved in primaries," spokesman Michael McAdams said.