(Opinion) — Nine Republican candidates who each want to succeed Rep. Cynthia Lummis as Wyoming’s lone member of the U.S. House aren’t doing much to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.
But when there are so many vital issues to debate — including the fight against terrorism, what to do about income inequality and improving healthcare for Americans — why on earth is the first major tiff in the Wyoming race over an abortion bill that the state Legislature defeated five years ago?
Here’s why: It’s almost impossible for Wyoming Republicans to “out-conservative” each other on key issues that members of their party care about most. The entire GOP field opposes what it calls “federal overreach” by environmental regulators who have hurt the state’s energy-based economy. Even in the wake of mass shootings that have spurred demands across the country for common-sense gun regulations, these candidates are steadfast in their efforts to protect Second Amendment rights at all costs.
The inability of congressional hopefuls to each carve out a niche for themselves in this crowded race has led to an inevitable problem. Since there aren’t any issues yet where their opinions influence voters, so far the political discourse has been limited to eight candidates disparaging — to varying degrees — the Wyoming credentials of Liz Cheney.
Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was the perceived front-runner from the moment she entered the race. The fact that her opponents have tried to use the limited time she’s been in Wyoming against her may put her at an initial disadvantage, but it can also be viewed as a positive for Cheney. With all of her rivals ganging up against the only woman in the race, her standing as the candidate to beat is enhanced beyond what it actually deserves to be.
Cheney ran a disastrous primary campaign against popular U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi two years ago, and one of the pitfalls she faced was being tagged by a national conservative political action committee as not nearly conservative enough. The group’s television spots painted her as a same-sex marriage supporter — a position she apparently held based on what she previously said, but ran away from as fast as she could.
Cheney’s main challenge in 2016 is to show voters she’s really from Wyoming, even though she’s spent most of her adult life outside the state. So far she’s trying to accomplish that with homespun campaign commercials that focus on her family’s enjoyment of Wyoming.
Her other priority is to show she’s more conservative than most of her opponents so she doesn’t fall into the trap she did with her views on gay marriage. That issue has since been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, and while it may still rile up some members of her party, it’s not an issue she should reintroduce.
That leaves abortion as the social issue that can draw the most space between her and some of her opponents.
Last Thursday a national anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List, announced its endorsement of Cheney for Congress. This was hardly a surprise, since Cheney is a member of the organization and has served as one of its major fund-raisers for several years. But any early endorsement in this race is going to be picked up by the state’s media. The SBA List’s endorsement came with a special punch in the form of the group’s criticism of one of Cheney’s opponents, Republican State Sen. Leland Christensen of Alta.
Christensen was singled out for what he did way back in 2011, when he chaired the Senate’s committee of the whole. A controversial abortion measure, House Bill 251, stood at a 14-14 tie which Christensen broke by voting against the bill and sending the state’s pro-lifers into a tizzy.
HB 251 was sponsored by then-Rep. Bob Brechtel, a Casper Republican who specialized in filing anti-abortion measures that were generally doomed before the ink was even dry. In 2011 the House rejected one of his bills that mandated a physician had to tell a patient seeking an abortion that an ultrasound was available, as well as a chance to hear her fetus’ heartbeat. Other options had to be explained, and a 24-hour waiting period would have been imposed before an abortion could be performed.
All of these conditions were unnecessary roadblocks to having access to a safe, legal abortion in Wyoming. The state didn’t even have a controversy over the procedure, since there was only one provider in Wyoming and most women had to go to nearby states to have an abortion. Brechtel’s bill was nothing more than a political statement by anti-abortion groups.
Naturally, Christensen was loudly rebuked by the far-right group WyWatch. Some of his other votes during the 2011 session also drew criticism, including his opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment bucking federal mandates related to health care and a ban on Wyoming recognizing gay marriages or civil unions performed in other states.
Last week Cheney jumped at the chance to use her SBA List endorsement to portray Christensen as a liberal while emphasizing her conservative beliefs. “I believe deeply in pro-life values, and as the mother of five terrific kids, I live these values every day,” she said.
Christensen issued a news release that explained why he voted against HB 251. While he is against abortion, Christensen saw the bill as government intrusion in the doctor-patient relationship. It’s a strong argument, and it carried the day in the Wyoming Senate. While there was some support for the ultrasound bill, the vast majority of his constituents were flooding Christensen with email and Facebook posts against HB 251.
Abortion is a divisive issue in the state that isn’t partisan. People generally vote their conscience on the issue based on their religious and moral beliefs; not all Republicans are right-to-life and not all Democrats are pro-choice. Being against government intrusion into a medical decision that should be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor is not a position at odds with conservative views.
Christensen compared the bill to the Affordable Care Act, which the candidate said has also interfered with doctor-patient relationships by mandating health care. He apparently felt the need to distance himself from the charge that he in any way supports President Barack Obama, who is still extremely unpopular in Wyoming.
“You simply can’t have it both ways,” Christensen told The Associated Press. “Either you are against government interfering in the doctor-patient relationship or you are not. And Liz Cheney needs to answer that question.”
It was a good counter-punch, but Cheney campaign manager Bill Novotny still managed to question Christensen’s conservative credentials. “No amount of false negative attacks will obscure Leland Christensen’s liberal pro-choice votes, or the fact that Planned Parenthood singled him out in their newsletter for partnering with Democrats to cast the deciding vote against a pro-life bill,” Novotny told The AP via email.
By singling out Christensen to attack first, Cheney may be signaling he’s the candidate she most needs to damage before the Aug. 16 GOP primary. Christensen and State Rep. Tim Stubson of Casper are the only candidates in the race who have held political office.
Christensen went back to the weapon of choice for all of Cheney’s opponents so far — her lack of experience and her disappearing act from Wyoming for much of her life. “It’s pretty easy to cast stones when you have never cast a single vote and weren’t even in the state for decades,” Christensen said.
I’m looking forward to the day — or at least hoping it even occurs — when the Republican congressional primary race becomes focused on economic, domestic and foreign policy problems instead of social wedge issues that the GOP has repeatedly used in past elections to distract the electorate and play on Americans’ fears.
Abortion is in the news after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a Texas law that mandated abortion clinics have the same health and safety features as surgical centers. The high court ruled that Texas tried to impede women’s right to an abortion and that the law did nothing to make women safer or healthier.
It’s a ruling that lines up with Christensen’s view that Wyoming’s ultrasound bill was also unnecessary and didn’t help women, and he deserves some points for being right. Cheney, though, showed some political savvy in bringing up her opponent’s controversial abortion vote. However you feel about the legitimacy of her Wyoming background, it appears she’s learned a few things about politics in the state since she took on Mike Enzi.
— CORRECTION: This column was updated July 6, 2016 to correct a reference to the Wyoming Liberty Group — it did not rebuke Sen. Leland Christensen’s support of HB 251. — Ed.
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