Playing the age card won’t help Liz Cheney
— July 23, 2013
With 392 days left until Wyoming’s August 19, 2014, primary election, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Liz Cheney has already played the age card against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, the long-time friend of her father she has to beat to get the national political platform she craves.
Yes, craves is the right word. Why else would a person move 1,763 miles west — the distance as the crow flies between her old home in McLean, Va., and her new digs in Jackson — so she could work in the Capitol, which was less than eight miles away? Why else would a person spend millions of dollars — albeit mostly belonging to friends of her dad, former Vice President Dick Cheney — to put one of the state’s most popular politicians out on the pavement?
While tempted, I didn’t write “desperately” before “craves,” because we won’t really know what adjective to apply until we see with how much vigor Cheney is willing to throw Enzi under the bus to win his seat. It may be a little, it may be a lot, but it’s already started.
At her first news conference a week ago in Casper, Cheney explained that despite Enzi’s claim that she told him she wouldn’t run if he chose to seek a fourth term, she made no such promise. She also pointedly said it’s time for a “new generation” of leaders.
“I think Sen. Enzi may be confused. He may have me mixed up with (Rep.) Cynthia Lummis,” Cheney said. The GOP congresswoman is blonde, like Cheney, but 12 years older than her, and of course is someone Enzi has worked with in D.C. for nearly five years, plus all that time spent as colleagues in the Wyoming Legislature.
As Alex Pareene noted in a July 18 Salon.com article, “In politics, ‘confused’ is often code for ‘old and possibly suffering from dementia.’” Yet Enzi will only be 70 when the primary rolls around, which still leaves him younger than a quarter of the Senate’s current occupants.
The blog Wonkette made fun of the issue with the headline, “Liz Cheney Didn’t Mean to Hurt Her Senile Opponent’s Feelings.”
Cheney’s campaign announcement landed with a thud in many parts of Wyoming. The initial poll after Enzi and Cheney announced their intentions for 2014 showed Enzi with an immediate 34-point lead, and while an advantage of that size won’t last very long, it’s an indication that the first bricks the Cheneys put in place to build her road to victory are set in very shaky ground.
Judging by comments I read from people reacting to her candidacy on several national news websites, the “confused” comment was certainly seen as condescending and/or downright mean by some. The Cheney-haters made it clear there is much to hold in contempt in this race, beginning with Dick Cheney’s imperial vice presidency that earned him the nickname “Darth Vader,” to Liz’s carpetbagging move to Wyoming because she feels serving in the Senate is her destiny.
Liz Cheney’s overall mean-spiritedness, which has been on display for several years as she used her Fox News platform to defend her father’s actions in Iraq, torturing prisoners at Guantanamo and a whole host of dirty deeds, is also a unique gift to her primary opponent. There’s no reason for anyone to get too excited about what Enzi has done in the Senate during the past few years.
But even those on the opposite side of the political fence from Enzi will readily admit that he’s a likeable guy who genuinely tries to serve the majority of his constituents in a state famous for its bedrock conservatism. Being perceived as picking on Enzi won’t help Cheney one iota when it comes to influencing voters that she’s a better choice.
I must admit I enjoyed reading stories by a few national political pundits who automatically assumed that the Cheney name is the equivalent of gold in Wyoming, and that voters would be overjoyed to get rid of Enzi and replace him with a younger, female politician who, if not more conservative than the incumbent, is at least hell-bent to point out non-stop that President Barack Obama is the antithesis of everything that is good about this country. Two days after declaring Cheney the favorite, the Christian Science Monitor’s Pete Grier admirably backed off that knee-jerk reaction when he wrote that he’d received some push back from Wyomingites who know a lot more about the state than he does.
But the more I read why people either despise the Cheneys or think it’s great she’s in the race because a lackluster, worn-out Enzi can use some competition, the more perplexed I became. If it’s this obvious that her candidacy is going to be so polarizing within the Wyoming Republican Party, why did she jump into the race?
For some insight I turned to a good friend, former state legislator Rodger McDaniel, a man with astute awareness of what’s really going on in Wyoming politics, which at least partially comes from running his own spirited, if ultimately unsuccessful, race against then-incumbent Republican Sen. Malcolm Wallop in 1982.
If you’re Liz Cheney or her advisers — especially her father, who is the only one who matters anyway — how does taking on a three-term senator who won six years ago with 76 percent of the vote possibly make sense?
“The Cheneys are not people who walk into ambushes or humiliate themselves,” McDaniel explained. “My guess is that they did very extensive polling that shows what Wyoming really wants is a senator who not only won’t compromise, but won’t even talk to the other side.”
Neither of us knows Liz Cheney personally, but McDaniel believes she’s conveyed what she’s all about during her time at Fox News. “This isn’t really about political differences, because I think Enzi and Cheney would vote the same way on almost everything,” he noted. “This is simply about pure ambition and her sense of entitlement.”
McDaniel added that Cheney “got pretty energized as she became the darling of the right wing of her party,” and she apparently believes representing Wyoming in the Senate is the perfect place to showcase herself in that role. The problem, from the Democrat’s view, is that Cheney doesn’t have anything to offer Wyoming Republicans that Enzi isn’t already providing.
“[Enzi] is a trustworthy conservative,” McDaniel said. “It’s not like he’s wandered off the ranch. But he has shown an ability to work with people on the other side of the aisle that’s unacceptable to the right wing of his own party. They believe Wyoming voters will respond to Cheney’s no-holds barred, no compromises, blame-Obama-for-everything campaign. They say Enzi is a nice guy, and that that’s the problem.”
Enzi’s sponsorship of a bill to allow states to benefit from sales taxes on Internet purchases will likely hurt him with the no-new-taxes-ever crowd, and there could be a handful of other votes that Cheney will use against him. But a large part of this race will be decided by a couple of other factors far more important than Enzi’s voting record or what Cheney would actually do in office.
Cheney has to be careful to preach her anti-Obama views without painting Enzi as a bad guy, which would simply be unacceptable to too many Wyoming voters. Perhaps she doesn’t care how bloody her hands get in this race, but she should if she hopes to actually have a sustained political career here. Some voters may forgive her if she goes too negative against Enzi, but there may not be enough of them to win the primary.
Enzi, meanwhile, has suddenly been forced into an extremely uncomfortable position. He’s never been particularly adept at raising large amounts of money, while Dick Cheney is a master of the game. There’s no doubt he will be outspent; the intangible factor here is whether he can use what he does raise to his maximum advantage. Enzi has about $375,000 in his campaign war chest right now; McDaniel speculated Cheney could easily spend $4 million in the primary.
Enzi has also never had to go negative in a campaign, not even when he narrowly defeated John Barrasso in the 1996 GOP primary. Enzi won a nine-way race with 32 percent of the vote, compared to his now-Senate colleague’s nearly 30 percent. He’s never had the type of competition that’s made him go negative, which is a good thing, because it’s not in his nature. Another unknown: Is he capable of at least giving Cheney a few jabs in self-defense? If not, he could suddenly look very weak in voters’ eyes.
The final factor that could help determine the outcome is who will be the Democratic nominee. McDaniel and I agree that the only candidate with any kind of shot at being elected to the Senate is former two-term Gov. Dave Freudenthal, and he’s generally shown only open disdain for Washington and everything the place stands for. Plus, his wife is a federal judge in Cheyenne, and the idea of a long commute to D.C. couldn’t be very appealing.
So if there’s no legitimate Democratic candidate, that leaves room for the state’s minority party voters to briefly change their status to Republican at the polls and cast a ballot against a woman and a political family they love to hate.
The tea party crowd may be motivated to get out and vote as well, with the gubernatorial battle of Gov. Matt Mead and Cindy Hill looming down the ballot. But once again, I agree with McDaniel’s assessment that Democrats and Independents could sink Liz Cheney’s candidacy, and in an embarrassing fashion, if they indeed come to Enzi’s rescue.
“What value is there going to be for Wyoming to have two senators who do nothing at all except oppose the president 24/7?” McDaniel asked. The answer is none, and Democrats could actually be doing Wyoming Republicans a huge favor by supporting Enzi. Cheney and Barrasso could hurt themselves fighting over which one gets to stand on the right side of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on TV.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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