Why Is Cheney Running for Enzi’s Wyoming Senate Seat? Better Question: Why Not?

Pundits puzzle over her taking on the incumbent, but he may be more vulnerable than they think for what he hasn’t done.

Wyoming Senate candidate Liz Cheney holds a news conference at the Little America Hotel and Resort in Cheyenne, Wyoming on July 17, 2013. Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, will run against longtime incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY). Cheney launched her campaign yesterday following Enzi's announcement that he will run for a fourth term.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Nov. 18, 2013, 4:48 p.m.

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.

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