The Race to Replace Liz Cheney Is a Trump Sideshow 1

If Rep. Liz Cheney loses in a GOP primary in 2022, her successor’s road to victory will likely have begun at a candidate’s forum held by a QAnon-curious Florida activist who calls himself a “massive disrupter” with “titanium balls.”

Earlier this June, six of the seven Republicans currently vying to unseat Cheney convened in a ballroom at the Ramkota Hotel in Casper, Wyoming, for their first chance to stand out since Cheney’s vote to impeach the former president in January kicked off a fervent effort among pro-Trump Wyomingites to kick her out of Congress.

K.W. Miller, the aforementioned disrupter behind the forum’s organizing group, America First PC—not to be confused with America First Action PAC—came to the podium and declared that Wyoming is “ground zero” for the effort to take back the Republican party from so-called “RINOs” and “leftists.” Gesturing to the long table where the candidates sat, Miller proclaimed, “one of these individuals is going to be your new representative.”

That very well could be the case.

The ensuing two hours made clear that Wyoming’s next representative won’t just be different from Cheney—they’ll be from an entirely different political universe.

During Miller’s forum, the six candidates onstage didn’t just castigate Cheney for calling out Trump’s unfounded claims about the election he lost, or just enthusiastically embrace those claims themselves. They bragged about being in Washington for the Jan. 6 riot. They endorsed nationwide audits of the 2020 election—including in Wyoming, which posted Trump’s largest margin of victory anywhere in the country—and they flirted with leading threads of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

There was massive fraud in this election. That’s why I was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 to protest for free and fair elections, because we didn’t get one.

Darin Smith, conservative activist running for Wyoming’s congressional seat

Wyoming’s GOP congressional hopefuls run the full gamut of experience, poise, and polish. Some are total newcomers who’ve never held or campaigned for office. Some are state lawmakers and party officials. But all are exactly the same when it comes to the most important qualification in today’s Republican Party: unswerving personal devotion to Trump.

“Trump did win, and I hope he will be reinstated by all these different audits that are going on,” said Robyn Belinskey, one candidate who appeared at the forum. “He never—what do you call it, dang it—he never conceded.”

Another candidate, Bryan Miller, said only one endorsement in the race mattered above the voters of Wyoming. “The gentleman whose name is on this hat,” he said, holding up a red MAGA cap. “He is the leader of the Republican Party.”

Every challenger is angling for Trump’s endorsement, which is expected to come in this race. The former president has railed against Cheney ever since her vote to impeach him in January and is reportedly itching to exact revenge. The congresswoman, meanwhile, has already been booted from her post as the third-ranking House Republican over her refusal to accommodate Trump and his election conspiracies.

Public enemy No. 1 of the MAGA movement is a precarious place to be in Wyoming—a state that went for Trump by 43 points. And the truckload of Trump-loving candidates are hoping to capitalize on the backlash.

Similar dynamics are playing out in other districts and states where GOP officials broke with the ex-president. But few GOP primaries in 2022 will be more symbolically weighty than Cheney’s. And judging by the June 12 forum in Casper—the first big event of the contest—few will be as full of MAGA movement red meat and Trumpian posturing as this one.

The field of would-be Cheney vanquishers includes: Belinskey, a paralegal; Miller, chair of the Sheridan County GOP; Denton Knapp, a retired U.S. Army colonel; Marissa Selvig, a former mayor and current kombucha purveyor; Chuck Gray, a state representative; and Darin Smith, a conservative activist who ran in a primary for this seat when it was open in 2016.

The only challenger not to appear at the Casper forum was Anthony Bouchard, a GOP state senator. He was the earliest Cheney challenger, and he calls himself the real “America First” candidate. He also claims to have raised more than $500,000 so far. Recently, he appeared at a Florida rally alongside Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and was a guest at the anti-Cheney rally that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) held in Cheyenne in February.

But Bouchard has mostly made headlines for admitting that he impregnated a 14-year old girl when he was 18 years old, comparing it to “the Romeo and Juliet story.” Miller said Cheney was invited, too, but didn’t show. Both absent candidates were booed by the crowd.

They were smoking crack to think they could put a democracy in the middle of that Islamic nation.

Darin Smith

The introductions in Casper were colorful. Smith—“a MAGA Trump Republican”—used his time to air a laundry list of grievances straight from Fox News: critical race theory, “vaccine passports,” and the New York Times’ 1619 Project, to name a few. Belinskey spoke about her “patriot car” and recounted a story about telling a Pakistani man who found her car offensive, to go back to his country.

Afterward, the candidates took questions from Miller and the audience. The first question from a member of the crowd—”will you fight child sex trafficking and pedophilia, and introduce legislation to criminalize it with stiff prison terms?”—was an overt nod to QAnon, which theorizes that a global elite of devil-worshipping pedophiles run the world. All of the candidates answered that yes, they would fight hard against sex trafficking and pedophilia, though only one noted these activities are already illegal.

The audience also grilled the candidates on whether they back “voter reform” and audits of the 2020 election, like the unofficial, haphazardly-run ballot audit currently unfolding in Arizona that has become a focus for Trump backers still hoping he could return to power.

Candidates attempted to outdo each other in demonstrating their enthusiasm for the plainly false notion that Trump actually won in 2020. “It’s interesting what’s going on in Arizona,” Selvig said, “and I can’t wait to see what the results are.” Gray argued that an audit is needed in Wyoming, of all places, an argument that reflects a nationwide trend on the right to support audits even in safely Republican states.

“There was massive fraud in this election,” said Smith, who brought up no actual evidence to support that dubious claim. “That’s why I was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 to protest for free and fair elections, because we didn’t get one.”

One of the first questions in the forum was about whether the candidates would support designating Black Lives Matter, “antifa,” or other left-wing organizations as official terrorist groups. All of them answered in the affirmative, and brought up stock talking points about Marxism and arguments that Cheney was in league with leftists.

Some went even further, using the question to riff on topics such as the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia. “We need to prosecute people within the government who used government resources to attempt to overthrow our president,” said Miller, to rousing applause from the crowd.

There were a few relatively normal questions about how the candidates would represent Wyoming, whether they supported a new nuclear power plant in the state, and whether they would support U.S. military interventions abroad.

If we can’t remove Liz Cheney from Congress, I’m not sure what state we can win.

K.W. Miller

That last question was an opportunity to tee off on Cheney’s hawkish views and those of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Bush and Cheney, what they did to go into the Middle East… they were smoking crack to think they could put a democracy in the middle of that Islamic nation,” said Smith. The irony of the forum’s rollicking opening music—Toby Keith’s jingoistic post-9/11 anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”—seemed to be lost on everyone involved.

Miller moderating the event was about as revealing as the candidates themselves. How he got into the position of hosting the first major candidate forum in one of the country’s most closely watched primaries is not exactly clear, but the chair of the Wyoming GOP, Frank Eathorne, gave the event his blessing, and took a photo with Miller there. Eathorne, who has previously endorsed the idea that Wyoming secede from the union, presided over the party’s successful censure of Cheney after her vote to impeach Trump.

A native of south Florida, Miller first came to political notoriety by challenging Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) in 2020, charging that the 40-year old Iraq veteran and double-amputee was a liberal RINO and not a true conservative. (Mast, who has a 74 percent lifetime rating from the conservative Heritage Foundation, voted not to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6.)

During his bizarre bid for office, Miller went viral by tweeting that Black Lives Matter was an excuse for white women to “fornicate” with Black men and alleged that Beyonce was a satanist.

His campaign was also laced with QAnon nods. He relentlessly called Mast a pedophile after old social media comments from Mast surfaced, in which he joked about sex with 15-year olds being permissible abroad. Miller’s campaign insisted he didn’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory, but instead just wanted to appeal to its adherents. It didn’t matter, however. In November, Miller drew 2.2 percent of the vote to Mast’s 56 percent.

Now, in Wyoming, Miller is reprising the QAnon-flavored rhetoric, especially on Bouchard, who Miller said should withdraw from the race because of his admission that he impregnated a minor.

“We have no knowledge, no affiliation and no interest in Qannon [sic] or any other groups,” said Miller, when reached by email. “We are a Conservative Republican platform.”

After his failed campaign in Florida, Miller threw his energy into his Facebook page, where he broadcasts all-caps posts and videos of him talking—or “addressing the nation”—to his 13,000 followers. In these posts, Miller airs apocalyptic visions of the struggle for the country, broadcasts his support for Trump, and boasts of having those “TITANIUM BALLS.”

“MY ENCRYPTED PHONE IS LIGHTING UP WITH MESSAGE FROM WORLD LEADERS,” reads one post from the spring. “SUMMARY: LOCK KAMILA HARRIS IN A BOX FOR NEXT 4 YEARS.”

It’s unclear how Miller’s organization, America First PC, is organized or what its exact goals are beyond purging the Republican Party of all RINOs. It is not registered with the Federal Election Commission, meaning it cannot raise or spend money to influence elections. And it is not affiliated with a set of organizations with conspicuously similar names—like America First Action PAC, the official super PAC of Trumpworld.

Miller said his group “is independent by design from other political groups. We do not raise outside money to avoid any conflicts of interest.”

What is clear is that after Jan. 6, Miller—through America First PC—identified Cheney as a target for whatever its future activities would be. “‘AMERICA FIRST’ HAS ANNOUNCED IT’S #1 PRIMARY TARGET FOR 2022,” read a post from Feb. 27. “LIBERAL RINO LIZ CHENY [sic].”

Less than four months later, Miller was in Casper, playing kingmaker in the primary. He declared that his group would endorse a candidate in Wyoming “in the near future” and that it will “most likely coincide with an endorsement by President Trump.” A spokesperson for Trump’s official political organization did not respond to a question about the extent of their relationship, if any, with Miller and America First PC.

Whoever gets Trump’s blessing will immediately become the leader of the pack of challengers in Wyoming. But it doesn’t seem his word will clear the field. At the forum, all the candidates were asked if they would withdraw if they didn’t get Trump’s endorsement. Two of them said no or were noncommittal.

That was probably music to Cheney’s ears. She is treating this like a serious race, bringing in major names from the GOP establishment to fundraise for her, like former Speaker Paul Ryan. In the first three months of 2021, she pulled in over $1.5 million. And she has been criss-crossing the state on official business and keeping a frenetic pace of interviews with local media outlets.

But Cheney will need all the momentum she can get, even if her challengers are split.

At the forum in Casper, Miller ruefully acknowledged that a Cheney win would be a bad sign for the MAGA movement.

“If we can’t remove Liz Cheney from Congress,” Miller told the crowd, “I’m not sure what state we can win.”