The vast majority of conversations about politics these days occur on either a Democrat-versus-Republican axis or a conservative-versus-liberal axis, to the point where things get awfully dull and predictable. That’s why it can be fun to look at stories that are about something else entirely.
One of the more interesting of the “something else” political conversations going on these days is about next year’s fight for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Wyoming. This would be a nothing-burger race if it weren’t for the decision by Liz Cheney to seek the nomination for the seat now held by three-term incumbent Michael Enzi. Cheney is the older daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who held Wyoming’s single House seat for 10 years — briefly as minority whip — before being named by President George H.W. Bush to be secretary of Defense and later picked by George W. Bush to be his running mate.
There are two cable-catnip aspects to this race. One was the intra-GOP fight between two political families that had heretofore gotten along following Cheney’s announcement that she would challenge Enzi, and the second is the soap opera between Liz Cheney and her younger sister, Mary Cheney. The former Cheney has come out strongly against same-sex marriage, while the latter Cheney, and her wife, are (obviously) in favor. Democrats are taking great delight in watching all of this, but this isn’t why this contest is of interest to me.
The conventional wisdom in both Wyoming and Washington is that the 69-year-old Enzi is a heavy favorite to win the Aug. 12 primary. Indeed, polling by The Wickers Group for a pro-Enzi super PAC shows him with a 52-point lead over his 47-year-old opponent — 69 to 17 percent. The same firm had a 40-point Enzi lead in August, 61 to 21 percent. A large (by Wyoming standards) super-PAC ad buy attacking Cheney could possibly explain the difference in the two polls, because they were conducted by the same firm. I am not a particularly big fan of this polling firm, but I have no reason to believe that the poll is way off or that the conventional wisdom here is wrong. In the time since the poll was conducted, Cheney’s first wave of advertising has aired, emphasizing the deep roots she and her family have in the state going back five generations, and attempting to smooth over her having spent most of her adult life outside of the state. Political journalists visiting Wyoming, such as the Los Angeles Times’ top-notch political reporter, Mark Z. Barabak, suggest that Enzi does, in fact, have a huge advantage in the contest.
The question often asked is, “Why is she running?” Enzi has not been involved in any scandal; if he has said anything particularly dumb or politically troublesome, I am unaware of it. Enzi is reliably conservative in a state that is, well, reliably conservative. By all accounts, he is well liked by his colleagues in a body where not everyone is liked by their peers. So many Republicans — and others, for that matter — who question Cheney’s decision to run chalk it up to just a case of a younger person who is very ambitious and not willing to wait her turn. Barabak’s story on the race from late September captured it all in one short paragraph. Enzi is quoted as saying that voters “expect results out of Washington,” not “just a bunch of poking a finger in the chest of the other person and out-shouting them.” Barabak then quotes Cheney saying that this approach amounts to “going along to get along.”
But just to be contrary, let’s look at the contest from Cheney’s standpoint. First, this isn’t Enzi’s personal Senate seat; rather it is one of Wyoming’s two Senate seats. The other is occupied by John Barrasso, who was appointed to the chamber in 2007 and won a special election in 2008. The seat does not belong to Enzi, just as no Senate or House seat “belongs” to anyone; it’s still a free country, and Cheney is perfectly free to run for it just as is any other person from Wyoming who thinks they can do a better job (and meets the constitutional and state requirements to serve).
The second argument Cheney might make is that Enzi would appear on few lists of the most powerful or influential members of the Senate and is not thought of as a real mover and shaker in the body — just one of 100 senators. No one suggests that he doesn’t show up, vote, and work hard, but he is not one to stand out in the Senate crowd.
Third, at a time when Congress’s approval ratings are at 9 percent in a recent Gallup Poll — the lowest in the 39 years that Gallup has been asking that question — and presumably when many Wyoming residents are angry at Washington, Enzi is not particularly seen as an agent of change or someone trying to shake things up either in Washington in general or the Senate in particular. If someone were looking for an agent of change, someone who would try to be a force to truly affect the business of the institution and the city, Enzi wouldn’t be at the top of the list.
So when people ask, “Why in the world is Elizabeth Cheney taking on Mike Enzi?” maybe the answer ought to be, “Why not?” With so many Senate seats now in states where the opposition party has no plausible chance of winning, it does inject a bit of competition where there is effectively none and punishes complacency in a body where members in one-party states could easily get that way. When there is so much animosity toward Washington, it actually is surprising that there are fewer incumbents facing primary challenges.
Cheney’s run appears to be a campaign against Washington more than an ideological jihad. It would be wrong to see this as a tea-party challenge; this is more of an outsider — albeit from an insider family — running against a longtime incumbent. These are so rare that they are newsworthy.