Family Ties Unravel Liz Cheney’s Wyoming Senate Campaign

Enzi was a tougher target than anyone expected

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Ruffin Prevost / Reuters

U.S. Senate candidate Liz Cheney speaks with voters during a Republican and Tea Party gathering in Emblem, Wyoming.

Liz Cheney’s Wyoming Senate campaign was all about family. She brought her children to campaign stops across Wyoming, invoked her dad in conversation like a college-bound legacy applicant, and tapped the Cheney network to finance her run.

In the end, family was her campaign’s undoing.

“Serious health issues have recently arisen in our family, and under the circumstances, I have decided to discontinue my campaign,” Cheney said in a statement Monday morning. “My children and their futures were the motivation for our campaign and their health and well-being will always be my overriding priority.”

But even before health intervened, the Cheney family had already been riven by a nasty public spat over gay marriage. The feud between Liz and her sister, Mary, sapped what little momentum Cheney had mustered during a brief campaign in which little went right. There were accusations of carpetbagging, a flap over a fishing license, minor tax issues and dust-ups with local newspapers. Wyoming’s Senate primary isn’t until next summer, so Cheney had time to repair her campaign, but it was a bumpy start from which she never quite recovered.

What does her failed campaign tell us about the political landscape in 2014? Not much. Nearly all of the Republican primary scuffles this cycle feature a Establishment-type incumbent trying to fend off a Tea-infused upstart. Cheney’s challenge to Republican Mike Enzi didn’t fit that format. The Tea Party was not a factor. Both are Establishment figures. Neither are squishy moderates by any means. The race drew national attention (and national money) because of Cheney’s name and network, but on the ground it was very much a local affair, flavored by issues like coal.

If there is a lesson to draw from the race, it may be that the Republican grandees with targets painted on their backs this year may be tougher to take out than people think. Pundits will snark about the colossal failure of Cheney’s campaign, but up close she was a strong candidate: smart, polished, and informed. But Enzi had few vulnerabilities. During three terms in the Senate, he’s compiled a deeply conservative voting record. He’s widely praised for constituent service back home. And his low-key, avuncular style plays well with the sparse and spacious frontier state he represents.

When I went to Cheyenne for a few days in November to write about the race, I was struck by how little ammunition Cheney had to hit him with. Her case against him boiled down mostly to three main sins: supporting the Marketplace Fairness Act; serving the state for too long without accomplishing enough; and being willing to compromise during the early phase of health-reform negotiations. The first charge is a parochial issue with some bite in the Cowboy State. The second is empty boilerplate. And the third is silly considering Enzi never voted for any version of the Affordable Care Act. It wasn’t enough to convince Wyoming Republicans to fire a guy they basically liked.

While I was reporting on the race, I spoke to a lot of people, inside the state GOP and out, who said they’d be eager to vote for Cheney—if only she were running against someone else. One afternoon I attended a town hall Cheney held with the local Chamber of Commerce, inside the old railroad depot in Cheyenne. It was a friendly crowd, and yet as they ate Jimmy John sandwiches and peppered the candidate with questions, it was clear Cheney wasn’t winning anyone over. Rick Scum, a local healthcare executive who described himself as a conservative Republican, tried mightily to get Cheney to articulate the differences between herself and Enzi, rephrasing his question three or four times to no avail. What would be different if you were elected? he asked her. “Mike’s a known. You’re an unknown.”

I buttonholed him afterward. “I don’t see any need for change for change’s sake,” he said. “That’s her challenge.” She never overcame it.