Welcome to our version of Wyoming’s hottest political game, “What Will Liz Cheney Do Next?”
Here’s a warm-up question: Like the other 434 members of the U.S. House, Rep. Cheney is on vacation. What will be the next big thing she does that makes headlines on Fox News?
A) Defend a decision by President Trump that pushes us to the brink of nuclear war.
B) Buy a plane ticket for a minority member colleague so she can “go back where she came from.”
C) Blame former President Obama for (fill in the blank).
Like all the questions in “What Will Liz Cheney Do Next?” the correct answer is always, “Who really knows?” A, B and C would fit right in there with her greatest hits and since she knows they’d grab the national political spotlight, are real short-term possibilities.
But today’s guessing game is focused on Cheney’s long-term behavior. When Wyoming’s senior U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi announced in May that he will retire instead of seeking a fifth term, the first thing national and state political observers latched onto was the possibility Cheney will launch a Senate campaign to land her dream job.
But is that what Wyoming’s two-term Republican congresswoman actually believes is her destiny? The stakes are high, and the choice she makes in deciding to run for re-election to the House or move on to the Senate will set the stage for her future political ambitions.
Oh, and let’s not forget that it will also have an impact on Wyoming residents, though not as much as one might think. We’ll explore those possibilities in a bit, but the focus of this game is on what Cheney thinks will benefit her the most in the future.
Winning whatever contest she decides to enter in 2020 isn’t part of the formula, because she’s close to being a lock in either one. The only question is whether Wyoming is guaranteed to have two conservative women representing the state in Washington, D.C., or just Cheney.
Her predecessor in the House, Cynthia Lummis, is also popular in the Equality State. She was a veteran of the Wyoming House and Senate and a two-term state treasurer who had an excellent record of improving Wyoming’s investment portfolio.
Lummis, 64, served four terms in Congress before unexpectedly deciding to retire in 2016. Speculation was rampant that she would return to the state to run for governor last year, but even though she would have been the odds-on favorite, she decided against that move. Perhaps she was already eyeing Enzi’s seat, since few expected him to seek another six-year term.
Lummis had to realize that the only thing blocking her path to the Senate was Cheney, who tried to oust Enzi in the 2014 GOP primary. I fully believe that’s why Lummis gambled on announcing her Senate candidacy on July 11, 10 months before the filing deadline for the race.
Call it a pre-emptive strike, an attempt to scare Cheney onto the easy route to reelection and what could be, in a few years, a chance to become Speaker of the House.
The rise of Cheney in Wyoming politics seems highly predictable in hindsight, but in reality, it’s nothing short of phenomenal despite the clear familial advantages she’s had as a candidate in her House contests.
Let’s not forget that Cheney’s initial Senate campaign was miserably inept. She made one mistake after another, including taking on a popular incumbent in Enzi and calling him too old to continue the job. She even questioned his conservative credentials, which offended the senator and riled up his supporters.
Gaffes like not qualifying for a resident fishing license, and then throwing the poor clerk who sold her one under the bus, didn’t help. It also highlighted what was the chief criticism of her candidacy: Cheney was quickly labeled a carpetbagger from Virginia who bought a home in Jackson just so she could run for a “sure thing.”
Many Republican voters thought it was an arrogant move, and Enzi had more than an early 50-point lead over Cheney in polls before she bowed out of the primary. Political observers knew she’d be back at some point, but there were legitimate doubts about how far she could ride on the coattails of her father, Dick Cheney. He was elected by Wyoming voters five times to the House before serving as Secretary of Defense and George W. Bush’s vice president.
But Cheney was a poised politician when she won her House bid in 2016 and cruised to a second term. Her famous last name, combined with her stint as a Fox News commentator — which she used to rabidly defend her father’s controversial role in Bush’s administration — helped her win the chairmanship of the Republican House Conference. It’s the No. 3 leadership position, and the highest position any woman has ascended to in the GOP.
That’s a meteoric rise in any career. It’s also undoubtedly made her 2020 decision a tough one. She has a clear shot at the House Speakership whenever Republicans win control again, and at 52, her age isn’t really a factor no matter how far down the road that occurs.
Whoever has the U.S. House seat from Wyoming effectively has a lifetime job if she or he wants it. So, the only thing that could derail an eventual Cheney speakership would be if the party’s extreme conservative wing falls into disfavor at some point. I admit it could happen.
Does Cheney want to chance a history-making promotion to the No. 1 House position to become one of 100 U.S. senators, no matter how elite the chamber is? Would she have a legitimate chance of becoming Senate majority leader at some point?
A recent Republican poll shows Cheney having a 22-point lead over Lummis for the GOP Senate nomination if they run head-to-head. Both candidates have great name recognition in Wyoming, have shown they are capable officeholders and can each raise a lot of campaign money.
It may be difficult to fathom, but Lummis is actually more conservative than Cheney and would likely defend Trump even more vehemently if he wins a second term. She vowed to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the president. I expect she could close the current gap, but not enough to keep Cheney from being sworn in as Wyoming’s new junior senator.
A Cheney-Lummis race would be a barnburner and stand to strain and divide the Wyoming Republican Party. But I don’t think for a second that such a possibility would matter to Cheney if she decides the Senate is where she wants to be.
I’ve told friends since Enzi’s retirement announcement that I thought Cheney would decide to stay in the House. Now, I’m asking myself what planet I was living on when I made that private prediction.
Of course she’s going to run for the Senate. Cheney will stand out as a conservative woman unafraid of offending anyone or letting anything get in the way of her power grab. She’s the ideological clone of her father, and the fact that Dick Cheney was one of the most unpopular vice presidents in the nation’s history won’t keep her from using her Senate seat to try to climb to new heights.
Fox News hosts and conservative websites like Breitbart News gush at the thought of her someday being on a national ticket. With her media savvy and more time in the Beltway spotlight, she could certainly one day be on a short list of candidates for a Cabinet position.
Secretary of Defense Cheney? Secretary of State Cheney? It’s not a pipe dream, but it likely won’t become a reality if she doesn’t step up now and become a senator. John Barrasso is 67, the Senate is his dream job and he likely isn’t going anywhere else for a few elections.
Cheney’s family aims high, and her time is now. I think she’ll try to grab the brass ring and hope it turns into political gold.