The surprising story out of Tuesday’s Republican House primary in Wyoming wasn’t that Rep. Liz Cheney lost. The pre-election polls all showed her losing handily to eventual winner Harriet Hageman.
The big news from the Cowboy State was her margin of defeat. Cheney’s loss is one of the biggest on record for a House incumbent and is part of a pattern this primary season pointing to former President Donald Trump’s strength within the Republican Party.
Cheney’s defeat appears to be the second worst for a House incumbent in the last 60 years, when you look at races featuring only one incumbent. As of Wednesday afternoon, she trailed Hageman by 37.4 points, which is just worse than California Rep. Marty Martinez’s loss by 37.2 points to fellow Democrat Hilda Solis in a 2000 blanket primary.
Assuming the Wyoming result margin stands, South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis would then be the only House incumbent in the last 60 years to lose by a wider margin than Cheney. He lost by 41 points in a 2010 primary runoff to Trey Gowdy.
The Inglis comparison to Cheney’s loss is notable for two reasons.
The first is that Inglis’ lopsided defeat occurred in a runoff, with only about 77,000 people voting. That was down from the about 87,000 who voted in the first round for the upstate South Carolina seat and far less than the roughly 217,000 who voted in the fall election in that district.
Cheney can’t blame low turnout for her historic defeat. About 170,000 votes have been counted in Wyoming as of Wednesday afternoon. That’s not too far off from the approximately 201,000 Wyomingites who voted in the last midterm general election. Cheney’s loss was no fluke.
The second reason the comparison is notable is that Inglis had alienated the Republican base by opposing the 2007 Iraq troop surge, voting for the so-called bank bailout in 2008 and believing in man-made climate change.
In Cheney’s case, the offense in voters’ minds was that she voted to impeach Trump last year and seemed to relish her opposition to him.
Cheney’s loss wasn’t the only historic defeat this primary season.
GOP Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina, who also voted to impeach Trump, got blown out in his primary in June. He pulled in a mere 24.6% of the vote while losing to Russell Fry. That percentage appears to be the worst performance for a House incumbent in a partisan primary with just one incumbent running since 1992.
Indeed, all six House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and ran for reelection faced tough battles. Four of them (including Cheney and Rice) lost their primaries, which is extremely unusual. Just 2% of other House Republicans who have run for reelection this season have lost primaries, and those defeated lawmakers were either scandal-plagued or lost to a fellow incumbent because of redistricting.
Perhaps, more notable is that none of the aforementioned six impeachment-backing Republicans got a majority of votes cast for GOP candidates in their primaries. Since 1956, House incumbents have averaged more than 90% of the primary vote.
All of these historical anomalies related to those who voted to impeach Trump help us understand Trump’s strength with the Republican Party today.
It makes Cheney’s postelection goal of stopping Trump from regaining power a tough one. (She told NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday that she was “thinking about” running for president in 2024, something Trump is also considering.)
The former President is averaging about 50% of the national GOP primary vote for 2024 right now. That’s the best for any nonincumbent Republican at this point in the modern primary era.
Cheney’s favorable rating among Republicans nationally is 13%, which probably makes her a terrible messenger to GOP voters.
The truth is that Republicans are inclined to believe that President Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election (which he did). Trump’s favorable rating with this group is somewhere north of 80% in most polls. But if Trump is going to be beaten in a GOP primary, it’ll very likely be by someone who has adopted most of his message. Someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
If Trump is defeated in a general election, it will almost certainly be by a Democrat.
An effort led by a Republican who doesn’t like Trump would be speaking to a very small part of the US population.