Liz Cheney’s decision to move to deep red Wyoming and launch what promises to be an expensive primary challenge against GOP Sen. Mike Enzi continues to baffle.
And it’s not just pollsters — whose early surveys show her trailing the popular Enzi badly in a state where an overwhelming majority of voters say they don’t view her as a “Wyomingite” — who are scratching their heads.
It’s also members of her own party who, even knowing the downside of criticizing the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney (Wyoming’s retired GOP Sen. Alan Simpson clammed up after publicly characterizing her run as “a disaster”), have begun openly questioning the motives of the 46-year-old lawyer and frequent Fox News commentator.
They range from Wyoming Republicans like state Sen. Cale Case, who recently characterized Enzi as a dues-paying, “salt of the earth” guy, to GOP senators in Washington who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Enzi.
Enzi, 69, a former mayor and decade-long state legislator, has even won over conservatives like Tea Party provocateur Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. A libertarian and war skeptic whose candidacy in 2010 was opposed by Dick Cheney, Paul said he’ll endorse the low-key, three-termer Enzi, who was last re-elected in 2008 with more than 75 percent of the vote.
The question of what has animated her candidacy is animating GOP conversations well beyond Wyoming: Republicans looking for a viable candidate to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in Virginia, where Liz Cheney lived long before moving to Wyoming last year, have also begun to take aim.
Her dad and the Cheney brand
Liz Cheney has been seen as a key adviser to her father, and was the person who helped persuade him to write his 2012 memoir, “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” which she also co-wrote.
She’s been a staunch defender, and promoter, of his world view, relying on Fox News as her pulpit of choice. And her reach for the Senate has been characterized by some as not only reflective of her own driving political ambition, but also her commitment to bolstering the legacy of a father who left office as the most unpopular vice president in modern history.
But Liz Cheney, who was born in Wisconsin, grew up in Virginia and spent some of her schoolgirl time in Wyoming, may be accomplishing quite the opposite.
“Carpetbaggers, regardless of who they are related to, haven’t done well in Wyoming,” says Phil Roberts, a University of Wyoming expert in the state’s history. “Family name won’t do it.”
Steve Peck, editor and publisher of The Ranger newspaper in Riverton, Wyoming, recently noted in an opinion piece: Cheney may have instant name recognition in the state, but will have to “rough up” Enzi, a former shoe store owner whose approval ratings are north of 70 percent, according to one poll.
“Cheney probably will have the stomach for it,” he said. “She has made a good living over the past couple of years giving rip-snorting speeches.” But her usual targets have been President Obama and the “liberal elite.”
Turning her sights on a fellow Republican with a 92 percent rating from the American Conservative Union may not seem a path to enhancing her dad’s legacy, despite the immediate political opportunity she may see in it.
Besides, many party stalwarts say that her dad, described by Peck as one of “Wyoming’s all-time political figures,” is in little need of reputational repair among the state’s Republicans.
“Dick Cheney is still viewed very much as a hero among a great many Republicans — the tough guy who was a leading force behind a very aggressive stance against terrorists and the state that protect them,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “He has been a loyal Republican soldier for many, many years.”
When Liz Cheney announced her candidacy, it was almost immediately characterized as another example of the battle raging for the soul of the Republican Party.
Ayres, the Washington-based pollster, scoffs at the notion.
“It’s going to be pretty hard to spin the daughter of one of the pillars of the Republican establishment as an anti-establishment candidate,” he says.
Tea Party and conservative groups have not rushed to her side, as they have for Republican candidates who have previously challenged party incumbents seen as too entrenched, or willing to compromise with Democrats, and, especially, Obama.
That’s even though Liz Cheney is viewed within the party as having a much sharper ideological edge than her father, with political views that perhaps can be best summed up in her own Twitter comment from earlier this year: “What should GOP do in face of radical Obama agenda? Everything possible to resist/block. That’s not obstructionism. That’s patriotism.”
Her dad, in his years on Capitol Hill before becoming vice president, could fairly be described as a Republican perhaps more like Mike Enzi than Liz Cheney.
Here’s a description of Dick Cheney as a member of Congress, from a 2004 Associated Press story: “He rose to the No. 2 position in the Republican leadership, well-liked by colleagues of both parties through five terms in the House. In 1989, after the first President Bush’s nominee for defense secretary went down amid controversy, Cheney was the choice as a man who could be easily confirmed. He was, unanimously.”
Roberts, the Wyoming historian, predicts that Liz Cheney will have difficulty shaking the perception that she’s “of Washington,” given her lifelong ties to the Washington area.
“I think that once Wyoming voters start hearing her contrasted with Enzi, all of what is wrong with Washington will come back to them,” he says.
But even given the clear roadblocks, Cheney can’t be dismissed given her built-in name and money advantages, and her own proven ability to deliver a tough and consistent conservative message.
“She’s clearly an articulate, conservative female voice, of which the Republican Party needs more,” Ayres says.
The question of whether voters in Wyoming will prefer her in 2014, he says, “is still very open.”