OPINION

Liz Cheney's anti-Trump crusade will end her career or make her a White House contender

I wouldn't want Liz Cheney as my president. But she's an indispensable woman at a time when so many other Republicans are 'willing hostages' to Trump.

There's no Republican more bold, and no politician more on message, than Rep. Liz Cheney. Her speech Tuesday at a First Amendment event in New Hampshire may have been a feeler into presidential politics. It was definitely a call to conscience that cemented her role as the highest-profile Republican truth teller on what she called "a domestic threat that we have never faced before" – a former president trying to unravel the foundations of U.S. democracy, aided by "political leaders who have made themselves willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man."

This daughter of a former vice president, now a national headliner in her own right, projects the kind of fierce vibe many people prize in politicians. Think Annie Oakley meets Margaret Thatcher. The testing moments keep coming and, unlike so many others in the Republican Party, she keeps rising to them – in a very Clint Eastwood, make-my-day fashion.

Bring it,” the Wyoming congresswoman tweeted when former President Donald Trump called her a disloyal warmonger and endorsed one of her former supporters to succeed her. “Pathetic garbage,” she said when Trump trashed former Secretary of State Colin Powell on the occasion of his death. And there was her classic putdown of Rep. Jim Jordan when he tried to get “the ladies” to safety amid Trump supporters' deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. "I smacked his hand away and told him, 'Get away from me. You (expletive) did this,' ” she said, according to the new book "I Alone Can Fix It."

If only I agreed with Cheney on … much of anything beyond Trump.

Trump could lose standing by 2024

Cheney has said she’ll do whatever it takes to make sure Trump is not the GOP’s 2024 nominee and hasn’t ruled out running for president herself. And if there's any state that might appreciate her maverick brand, it's the Live Free or Die state of New Hampshire, where independents vote in primaries and the late Sen. John McCain scored a blowout win against front-runner George W. Bush in 2000.

USATODAY's Jill Lawrence:Youngkin win in Virginia shows voters will reward Trump's dangerous Republican Party

Still, in one indicator of the hostile environment for independent-minded Republicans, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said Monday he would run for reelection instead of the U.S. Senate. He has long accepted the results of the 2020 election and just last weekend urged his party to move on.

His surprise announcement also came amid threats and harassment to Republicans who voted for a bipartisan infrastructure package last week. 

At this point, it's far from clear whether Cheney can even win reelection in her own state. In a Club for Growth poll in July, Wyoming Republican voters gave her a 26% approval rating, and 53% said they'd definitely vote against her in the 2022 primary on Aug. 16. 

Protest rally against Rep. Liz Cheney in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Jan. 28, 2021, after her vote to impeach former President Donald Trump.

Cheney has historically done well, and her voting record matches the state’s policy preferences – with one exception: her vote in January to impeach Trump over his role in inciting the Capitol attack, says University of Wyoming political scientist Jim King. “The whole issue seems to be whether that one vote will be enough to unseat her,” he says.

It very well could, because that vote is now her main political identity. She is vice chair and one of only two Republicans on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s committee investigating Jan. 6. And she doesn't let up. She continually makes news with attacks on Trump and calls for a truthful GOP.

Here's how she put it Tuesday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College: "In this time of testing, will we do our duty? Will we do what we must? Will we defend our Constitution? Will we stand for truth? Will we put duty to our oath above partisan politics? Or will we look away from the danger, ignore the threat, embrace the lies and enable the liar? There’s no gray area when it comes to that question, when it comes to this moment. There’s no middle ground."

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College on Nov. 9, 2021, in Manchester, N.H.

Neil Levesque, executive director of the politics institute, says the "cracks" between Republicans and Trump "may start to get wider as we move to 2024." Trump did draw 56% support from Republicans in the University of New Hampshire's Granite State Poll last month, but that doesn't mean he could win the 2024 primary. It's an open-ended question, and the last nominee – be it Al Gore, John Kerry, McCain or President Joe Biden – is always at the top, says poll director Andrew Smith.

Cheney knows what she's risking

Cheney is doing her best to make her congressional race a referendum on Biden. She has been brutally critical of his Afghanistan withdrawal (he handed terrorists "an entire country") and on Tuesday said she disagrees "strongly with nearly everything" he's done since taking office. As I researched this column, this popped up on my screen: "Liz Cheney is fighting back against the radical policies of Joe Biden. Donate $10 today and help Liz fight to preserve our shared conservative values!"

USA TODAY's Jill Lawrence:Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny create an ex-president as dangerous and magnetic as Trump

Wyoming was the Trumpiest state in the nation last year, edging out West Virginia 69.9% to 68.6%. Cheney, who aspired to represent Wyoming in Congress as far back as her Colorado College days, knew exactly what she was risking when she took him on. 

It's hard not to admire that, to wish more Republicans felt the same way, and to wish Cheney herself was more open to compromise and bipartisanship in other areas. Like, for instance, infrastructure.

I wouldn't want her as my president. But she's an indispensable woman at a crucial moment, with the backbone this country desperately needs.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence