And in this corner: Liz Cheney, her dad and a mountain of cash
— July 16, 2013
It’s May 2014, and you’ve come home from a hard day at work. You grab a cold beer and the TV remote, punch up Fox News, and this is the first thing you see:
ANNOUNCER: (as a grainy black-and-white close-up of Mike Enzi’s face fills the screen.) Mike Enzi claims he’s a conservative with Wyoming values. Wonder what values he was talking about with this fellow? (pans photo to show that Enzi is talking to a laughing Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor.) They really liked working together.
Mike Enzi also talks about how we need fewer taxes. So why did he sponsor a bill that will tax people for everything they buy online? (shows headlines of letters to the editor complaining about Enzi’s Internet tax proposal.) Does he really think we sent him to Washington just to take more of our hard-earned money and give it to the government?
He was one of the “Gang of Six” that tried to reach a compromise on Obamacare. (shows footage of Enzi shaking hands with a grinning President Obama, then freezes frame.) Well, there was no compromise, but we do have Obamacare, and now we’re all stuck paying for a massive, unworkable federal takeover of health care.
Wyoming just can’t afford any more “conservatives” like Mike Enzi. Can you?
LIZ CHENEY: (cuts to a shot of a beaming Liz Cheney wearing a cowboy hat, with the Grand Tetons in the background and her father Dick at her side.) I’m Liz Cheney, and I approved this message.
Every evening for the next three months, you’ll see this campaign spot or others like it on every channel, hammering away at Enzi. The senator has his own ads, of course, but there’s only one of his for every four of Cheney’s. By the time the Republican Senate primary rolls around, even though you voted for him in his last three races, you may find yourself wondering, “Is he still a conservative? I know who Liz Cheney is, because Sean Hannity says so.”
Former Sen. Al Simpson told The New York Times recently that Liz Cheney running against Mike Enzi would be “a disaster – a divisive, ugly situation – and all it does is open the door for the Democrats [in Wyoming] for 20 years.”
I agree that forcing Enzi to run in a primary against the former vice president’s daughter, who just moved to Wyoming last year, would be a disaster. I think the fictitious campaign spot I created above would just be the tip of the iceberg in trying to put a wedge between the incumbent and Wyoming voters. I would expect the campaign to turn a lot nastier.
But I also think that Enzi, Simpson and other leaders of the Wyoming Republican Party are playing the possibility of a Cheney run for his seat as cagily as possible. Remember, although it’s long been rumored that Liz Cheney was interested in entering politics in her father’s old state, it was in fact Enzi who first told reporters that she called him and said she was thinking about running — without even bothering to ask if he was going to seek a fourth Senate term. Oh, that’s cold! And then Enzi added that he presumes if Liz decides to throw her hat in the ring, he expects to receive a call from her father, his old fishing buddy.
The underlying message from Enzi to Wyoming voters seems pretty clear to me: This is a family that has a lot of nerve thinking it can come into the state and even think about using its money and influence to run a completely untested candidate against a well-liked, experienced senator with conservative credentials that are beyond question. And he got the word from Liz instead of Dick? That’s chutzpah, Cheney style.
So it makes sense that Simpson, the party’s elder statesman, would enter the picture to throw some cold water on the whole idea, and talk about it in apocalyptic terms for the Wyoming GOP. Enzi knows he’s done absolutely nothing to merit any type of challenge within his party if he wants to seek re-election, but he needs others to get the outrage machine rolling. So here, he’s gone with a two-pronged attack: Simpson and others can approach the Cheneys to back off for the sake of party unity, while Enzi has quietly stood in the background and pointed the finger of blame squarely at the Cheneys for his sudden, undeserved job insecurity.
Now, we all just have to sit back and see if it’s a ploy that will work to keep Liz Cheney out of the race. There are so many variables in play, it’s difficult to predict the outcome.
As we entered 2013, my best guess was that Enzi would decide to retire and return to Wyoming to spend more time with his family. He could easily win re-election, but so could whoever the party’s nominee is, so he wouldn’t be putting the state’s GOP in a bind. After 18 years in office and not much of a chance for the Republicans to return to the majority in the Senate next year, he could bow out gracefully.
But the idea of being challenged for his seat – especially by the daughter of a long-time friend – would obviously irk Enzi, just as it would bother anyone put in that position. Enzi may be quiet and unassuming, but you don’t spend nearly two decades in Washington without developing a healthy ego and competitive spirit. Enzi has both. He just doesn’t show them very often. If he’s forced into a fight, I don’t think he’s going to go gently into the night.
So the real question becomes, how much does Liz Cheney want to be a U.S. senator? The query tied to that one is, how much does her father want to see her in office, carrying out his legacy?
I don’t know Liz Cheney, except from watching her on TV, but I have followed her father’s career since he first ran as Wyoming’s congressman in 1978, and I suspect the answer to both questions is “a lot.” That doesn’t bode well for Enzi’s preemptive strike to get others to tell them to leave him alone.
Liz Cheney is only 46, so her age isn’t a factor. If she decides not to run for any office in 2014, she has a long time left to launch her political career. But her dad, plagued by heart problems for many years, isn’t going to be around forever. If the political baton is to be passed to the next generation, it needs to happen soon, and her chances don’t improve by quietly waiting her turn.
And let’s face it – where else but Wyoming could she actually use the Cheney name to her advantage?
Sen. John Barrasso is already in the GOP Senate leadership and looking to move up in the ranks. He would be more difficult to beat than Enzi. And if Enzi doesn’t run, next year Liz Cheney would still be facing a primary against Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who has already fired a warning shot at Cheney. She said she would run for Enzi’s seat if he retires.
Even as a three-term U.S. senator, Enzi won’t be able to compete with the Cheneys’ ability to raise massive amounts of cash. Historically, a candidate hasn’t needed a lot of money to win a Senate seat in Wyoming, but an Enzi-Cheney race could turn that notion on its head.
So who would be left standing, Mike or Liz, if they were both determined to run? My gut says it’s Enzi, but that’s only because I’m convinced there are enough Wyoming Republicans who simply won’t put an official out to pasture against his will when he’s pleased the vast majority of them for so long.
What about Simpson’s dire warning that Cheney entering the race opens the door to Democrats? Realistically, either Enzi or Cheney should be able to easily defeat anyone the Democrats put up as their nominee.
But it’s not impossible that given the right candidate, the Democrats could wage a legitimate fight for the seat. It doesn’t even take very wild speculation: Let’s say that Cheney wins the GOP primary, but she’s bloodied herself after beating up poor Mike Enzi so relentlessly. She’s also spent a lot of the Cheney war chest, which unexpectedly needs an infusion of cash for the general election.
The Democrats, meanwhile, convince Dave Freudenthal, a former two-term governor, to come out of his self-imposed political retirement in the hope that he would face Cheney, not Enzi. As he always has, Freudenthal would appeal to many moderate Republicans — exactly the voters who would be ticked off about what happened to Enzi. And he can also raise money.
While he’s not completely unblemished after eight years in Cheyenne — Cheney can always throw charges of nepotism in Freudenthal’s face for the way he advanced his wife Nancy’s name for a federal judgeship while serving as governor — he can also swiftly tag her as a carpetbagger running on her daddy’s name, which isn’t that distinguished among the state’s entire electorate. It would then come down to whether Enzi’s supporters could hold their collective nose and vote for his primary conqueror.
You can’t see me now, but I’m grinning from ear to ear. I’ve just described Al Simpson’s nightmare scenario.
— 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.
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact Guy Padgett at email@example.com or Dustin Bleizeffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.