After Loss, Cheney Begins Difficult Mission of Thwarting Trump

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JACKSON, Wyo. — Hours after her landslide loss, Representative Liz Cheney wasted no time Wednesday taking her first steps toward what she says is now her singular goal: blocking Donald J. Trump from returning to power.

Ms. Cheney announced that her newly rebranded political organization, the Great Task, would be dedicated to mobilizing opposition to Mr. Trump. And in an early morning television interview, she for the first time acknowledged what many have suspected: She is “thinking” about running for president in 2024, she said on NBC’s “Today Show,” and would decide in the “coming months.”

Despite the effort to shift quickly from her defeat to her future, Ms. Cheney and her advisers remained vague about precisely how the congresswoman, who lost to a Trump-backed primary challenger by 37 points in Wyoming on Tuesday, planned to build a movement that could thwart a figure with a strong hold on many of his party’s voters and a set of imposing advantages.

Allies, advisers and Ms. Cheney herself insist there are no detailed plans prepared for her mission. Her focus remains on the panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, they said. (As if to underscore the point, Ms. Cheney on Wednesday jetted from Wyoming back to Washington, where Congress is in recess for the summer.)

But Ms. Cheney’s every move will be watched closely by a pocket of the political class that has been increasingly agitating for a third party that they argue could not only block Mr. Trump, but ease the rising political polarization.

“The amount of money that is available for Liz Cheney to continue her work to keep Trump from terrorizing us depends on how good her plans are,” said Dmitri Mehlhorn, an adviser to several major Democratic donors, including Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn. “If she has really good plans, then the amount of money available to her is definitely in the double-digit millions.”

For the moment, Ms. Cheney’s infrastructure is not much bigger than her family and a handful of aides in her congressional office. But she had over $7.4 million in the bank last month, money she can transfer to the new entity she’s forming.

Ms. Cheney’s options may be obvious, but there’s no clear path ahead — and she faces the risk of inadvertently aiding Mr. Trump’s comeback.

A policy wonk with no great enthusiasm for retail politics, she could build a political operation dedicated to defeating Republicans who endorse Mr. Trump’s false claims of winning the 2020 election. That would inevitably mean openly supporting Democrats, something she has yet to commit to. On Wednesday, when asked if she believes the country would be better off under Democratic control in Washington, she dodged.

“I think we have to make sure that we are fighting against every single election denier,” she said. “The election deniers, right now, are Republicans. And I think that it shouldn’t matter what party you are. Nobody should be voting for those people, supporting them or backing them.”

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Ms. Cheney also could focus on laying the groundwork for her own candidacy for president — either as a Republican or as an independent. The latter effort risks peeling away votes from Democrats and ultimately helping Mr. Trump win if he runs, as is widely expected.

If she runs as an expressly anti-Trump candidate in the 2024 Republican primary, harnessing the media attention that would come with even a long-shot bid, it may only serve to fracture the share of the G.O.P. electorate eager for a Trump alternative. Ms. Cheney needs no reminding that the former president claimed the 2016 nomination with pluralities in many early nominating states, as he had no single, formidable opponent.

It’s clear Ms. Cheney would have competition for the anybody-but-Trump vote in a Republican primary. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence was in first-in-the-nation New Hampshire, offering his critique of the former president and his most ardent defenders. Mr. Pence declared that Republicans’ “attacks on the F.B.I. must stop” and likened calls to defund the F.B.I. after the bureau’s recent search of Mr. Trump’s home to retrieve classified documents to left-wing calls to defund the police.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Mr. Pence also said that he would consider talking to the Jan. 6 committee — the clearest indication to date that he might be willing to participate in the panel’s efforts.

Ms. Cheney could instead decide to mount a third-party candidacy. There’s a well-heeled constituency of donors who would prefer a third option to Mr. Trump or President Biden. No Labels, a centrist group, has said it has $50 million in commitments for an independent candidacy and has sought to woo Senator Joe Manchin III, the moderate West Virginia Democrat, as a potential candidate. The group’s organizers, whose efforts were first reported by Politico, are also open to seeding an independent Cheney campaign, according to a person familiar with their thinking and who asked not to be named discussing private conversations.

Yet should she run as a sort of modern-day Bull Moose and attempt to forge an alliance with the Democrats, independents and lapsed Republicans she urged to “stand together” in her remarks Tuesday, she may strengthen Mr. Trump’s hand further. While she may pick up votes that would otherwise go to the Republican nominee, she also could siphon the critically important support of some moderate voters from the Democratic nominee in 2024, whether that’s Mr. Biden or someone else.

Mike Murphy, a G.O.P. strategist and Trump critic, said Ms. Cheney was “the clear leader now” of those modest ranks of anti-Trump Republicans.

Mr. Murphy said he held out hope that Republican primary voters’ views on Mr. Trump could shift if the midterm election turned sharply toward the Democrats. However, there’s no path today for Ms. Cheney to win her party’s nomination — and an independent bid “might only wind up splitting the Stop Trump vote,” he said.

One possibility, Mr. Murphy added, would be a more “surgical” campaign. Ms. Cheney could hope to be a Trump spoiler by only putting her name on the ballot in red-tinted states where Mr. Biden would otherwise not be competing. But even that would be difficult to execute in a nationalized media environment and could tempt some swing-state centrist voters pining for a third option to write her in.

While hardly expecting Ms. Cheney to defeat Harriet Hageman, a Cheyenne lawyer, many Trump-skeptical Republicans across the country were watching Wyoming closely, hoping Ms. Cheney could at least run competitively. That she lost so resoundingly has only confirmed their fears that they are confronting a demand-side challenge: Most Republican primary voters want Mr. Trump or one of his acolytes as their standard-bearer in 2024.

Even in New Hampshire, where maverick candidates in both parties have found success over the decades, longtime Republicans wondered whether there was a market for a Cheney candidacy within the G.O.P.

“I’d love to see a path forward for her because I’m one of those frustrated Republicans, but I’m left pondering the appeal of a traditional-style candidacy given the disappointing results last night,” said Maura Weston, the former finance chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Even more depressing to Ms. Cheney’s admirers is that the party itself, at both the state and national level, is so in thrall to Mr. Trump that even a protest campaign may not prove fruitful. Mr. Trump’s lieutenants installed his supporters at state parties throughout the country to ward off any potential 2020 primary challenge. Because of that, the state chairs and committeemen and women who oversee the Republican National Committee remain in Mr. Trump’s corner.

William Kristol, the longtime neoconservative writer turned Trump critic, said the best-case scenario for a Cheney candidacy in the primary would be akin to Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent challenge of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Mr. McCarthy, an antiwar Democratic senator from Minnesota, elevated opposition to the Vietnam War and eventually helped drive the president out of the race. (Ultimately, the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, won the White House).

“If she could run and get 25 percent and force a debate on Jan. 6, Trump and democracy, I think it’s very much worth it,” Mr. Kristol said. But he quickly noted the party’s apparatus may stifle her voice, perhaps by requiring all candidates to sign a pledge to support the party’s nominee as a prerequisite for debate participation and ballot access.

A senior R.N.C. official said some sort of loyalty pledge was likely to be included in party-sanctioned debates in 2024.

“The path forward is more complicated right now than people want to acknowledge,” said Mr. Kristol, adding that she won’t have to make any decisions soon because “the Jan. 6 committee gives her a focus for the next four months.”

What’s not complicated is Ms. Cheney’s view of this moment and her role. She not only believes that the country is at risk, but also that it can be pulled from its downward spiral only by those who answer history’s call.

She says she is a firm believer in the “great man theory” of history — the notion that America has been sustained by leaders who emerged at critical times to lead.

“It’s absolutely clear that the only thing that makes a difference is individuals,” Ms. Cheney said in an interview this month. “It’s the only thing that makes a difference.”

Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.

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