From the Center

Liz Cheney is running for president. When the soon-to-be former Wyoming House member lost her primary campaign for re-election last week, she made it clear that her next task was to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Donald Trump from regaining the presidency.

"I believe that Donald Trump continues to pose a very grave threat and risk to our republic. And I think that defeating him is going to require a broad and united front of Republicans, Democrats and independents, and that’s what I intend to be a part of," Cheney said in a television interview the morning after her defeat.

“Whatever it takes” covers a lot of possible options. Cheney has millions of dollars left that she did not spend in her re-election campaign, recognizing that the immense margin of her likely and ultimate landslide loss could not be overcome with even an unlimited advertising budget in a deeply pro-Trump state. She could support another candidate or possibly start a super PAC or a grassroots organization.

That gives her a significant bankroll for her next project – along with immense additional fundraising potential from the traditional Republican donors across the country who want their party back. Couple those dollars with her even more significant motivation to stop Trump, and there’s no question that Cheney will be a formidable political force in 2024.

But on closer inspection, her options aren’t nearly as plentiful as it first appears. Cheney has already made it clear that she is no fan of Florida Governor Ron De Santis, who currently appears to be Trump’s strongest potential opponent for the GOP nomination. And it’s difficult to see how her support for Nikki Haley or Ted Cruz would fundamentally alter the Republican primary campaign. Lining up with another candidate running as an independent or in a third party seems just as unlikely to have much of an impact. And the world will be full of anti-Trump PACS and independent advocacy groups: one more would barely cause a ripple.

When she was asked specifically about a candidacy of her own, Cheney was uncharacteristically coy. "...it is something that I am thinking about" was as far as she would venture. But Cheney and her advisors (and her parents) are sufficiently savvy to know that such a bombshell should not be dropped at the tail end of a post-primary news cycle. They will milk this for several months in order to achieve maximum news impact and fundraising potential, and to find opportunities over the next year to make Trump as angry as possible.

So Team Cheney is probably not thinking about whether she should run, but under which banner. The decision about whether to challenge Trump in a Republican primary or in a three-way general election campaign is impossible to game out in advance: there is no precedent for Trump in American political history, which means there is no fathomable way to apply the lessons of past independent or third party campaigns to the unique circumstances that Cheney will confront.

The safer course would be to challenge Trump in a Republican primary. Cheney would be one of many GOP contenders, but undoubtedly would be the most virulently and vocally anti-Trump candidate in the field. The best possible outcome for her would be that she sacrifices herself so another less antagonist Trump alternative in the mold of Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin can prevail. But it’s also possible that Cheney’s attacks on Trump’s could galvanize the former president’s supporters and make him an even more formidable presence in the party.

But the other, more tantalizing option would be for Cheney to run as an independent in the general election. Cheney made it clear that she intends to remain in the GOP, but her quote at the beginning of this column indicates that she may see a multi-party effort as her best bet for defeating Trump. Some have argued that she could draw votes from Joe Biden or a Biden successor, but it’s improbable that even Cheney’s Democratic admirers would vote for such a conservative candidate. By contrast, Republicans who have either grown disillusioned with Trump or have never cared for him from the beginning could send enough votes to Cheney to elect a Democrat.

Either way, Cheney’s most likely role is that of spoiler -- we just don’t know for which side. Which makes her decision one of enormously high stakes. Prepare for many months of fevered speculation – and ultimately an unprecedented role in presidential politics for Cheney herself.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.