(Opinion) — I didn’t have a stopwatch handy, but I’d say it took me about 1.8 seconds to grasp the news that Rep. Cynthia Lummis is retiring before thinking that Liz Cheney is a sure bet to run for the seat.
The next few weeks will likely be filled with speculation by the media and political junkies about whether Cheney could win a congressional race in Wyoming. I’m going to walk out on a limb and say no.
I’m basing my prediction on two things: the disastrous six-month campaign she ran for the U.S. Senate in the second half of 2013, and the increasing unpopularity of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, with voters of all stripes. Believe it or not, there are more Republicans in the Equality State than you might think who are embarrassed that a neo-con who helped march us into war in Iraq and still advocates torturing prisoners of war reached the highest political office in Wyoming’s history.
Oh, and then there’s that important third factor: People from Wyoming like to vote for politicians who actually live here and want to represent them, and aren’t just looking for a way to get elected to Congress and carry on her daddy’s ultra-conservative political legacy.
I admit I was surprised by Lummis’ decision not to run for a fifth term, which has opened the door for Liz Cheney’s next foray into politics if she wants it. Although there’s been growing disenchantment among voters with some of her recent moves, particularly her alignment with the far-right House Freedom Caucus, as a Republican she still occupies one of the safest seats in Congress.
I can see why even with a GOP majority in the U.S. House the 61-year-old Lummis may want out of Washington, D.C., especially since she lost her deputy whip status in the Republican leadership after a confrontation with former Speaker John Boehner.
Lummis was clearly annoyed that any thought she had of succeeding Sen. Mike Enzi when he contemplated retirement two years ago was usurped by Cheney’s quick jump into the race. Lummis snidely suggested Cheney might want to run in Virginia instead, so it’s ironic her decision not to seek re-election now opens a path for Cheney.
There have long been rumors that Lummis would like to be governor. It’s unlikely incumbent Gov. Matt Mead will challenge state law by seeking a third term, so the office should be open in 2018. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Lummis in the political arena.
Meanwhile, Liz Cheney will have to make up her mind relatively soon if she’s going to get in next year’s House race. State Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper) announced his candidacy for the GOP House primary a few hours after Lummis made her decision public last Thursday. If Cheney wants to keep this race to a short list of hopefuls, she should ward off more competition as early as she can.
I don’t think Liz Cheney will be anywhere near as formidable a candidate as many initially considered her to be against Enzi. She made one big mistake right out of the gate by hinting at her intention to run before Enzi decided whether to seek a fourth Senate term. That didn’t sit well with Enzi or his supporters.
Looking back on her brief campaign, which ended when she dropped out due to family health issues, it was a series of mistakes that snowballed. All were seemingly avoidable, but Cheney ran into them head-on.
First was lying about her years of residency to illegally obtain an in-state fishing license. While political pundits back east couldn’t believe the misstep was even an issue, here in Wyoming people take their fishing privileges seriously. Cheney didn’t meet the requirement that a person must reside in Wyoming for a year to obtain an in-state fishing license. She tried to blame the poor guy who sold her a license for claiming on her application she was a 10-year resident. The violation cost her $220 and a ton of bad press.
An early poll showed Cheney 53 points behind Enzi. The gap may have narrowed, but her poor numbers created the impression Enzi was far too popular to lose.
In 2012 Liz Cheney bought a house in Jackson and called Wyoming her home, but that doesn’t change the fact she has spent most of her adult life in Virginia. She was born in Wisconsin, where her father was a congressional intern. The family moved to Wyoming and from age 12 Liz Cheney split time between Casper and McLean, Va., after her father was elected to Congress. She graduated from McLean High, Colorado College and the University of Chicago Law School.
The “carpetbagger” tag never went away and it will be back stronger than ever if she runs for the House. It’s an issue her primary opponents will surely exploit, but if she wins, the Democratic nominee would be crazy not to focus on such a weakness.
Dick Cheney held a major fundraiser for his daughter in D.C., which suggested her financial roots were planted far from Wyoming. It may have raised a lot of money, but she alienated voters who already questioned Liz Cheney’s commitment to Wyoming.
Then there was the fiasco at a reception in Cody. Lynne Cheney didn’t take kindly to the news that former Sen. Al Simpson was backing Enzi, his long-time friend, instead of her daughter. When she abruptly ended the conversation by telling Simpson to shut up, it made news coast-to-coast.
The conservative American Principles Fund ran TV commercials proclaiming Cheney “Wrong for Wyoming” because she supports same-sex marriage. She denied it, but previously she backed gay marriage. Her married lesbian sister Mary was not amused.
Shortly before she quit the contest there was a flap about her husband, Phil Perry, being registered to vote in both Virginia and Wyoming at the same time. Her campaign said it was an honest mistake, and that could be true, but it only reinforced the idea she isn’t one of us.
Last Friday I called Jim King, a University of Wyoming political science professor, to get his take on her chances.
King said Cheney would definitely have a better shot at winning an open congressional seat than she had against Enzi. Her biggest obstacle in 2014, he explained, was facing a popular incumbent who hadn’t lost touch with Wyoming and wasn’t embroiled in any kind of scandal that threatened his re-election. “She was always going to have an uphill battle,” he said.
But he acknowledged Cheney would still have to overcome the criticism that she’s only in Wyoming for her own political gain.
King said never holding elective office might also be a negative for Cheney. The Wyoming Legislature has been a fertile recruiting ground for congressional candidates in the past half-century, with one glaring exception: Dick Cheney, who won his initial try for public office when he ran for Congress in 1978.
Even though Wyoming Democrats are at a severe disadvantage with their low number of registered voters, King believes it’s possible for a member of the party to win if he or she runs a solid campaign. He noted other Democrats have come very close to knocking off GOP incumbents, including John Vinich against Sen. Malcolm Wallop in 1988 and Gary Trauner versus Rep. Barbara Cubin in 2006.
“But a Democrat will face significant challenges,” King said. “I doubt if the Democratic House Campaign Committee will think it’s worth putting any money into the race.”
Cheney might win a Republican primary whether it’s heavily contested or not, but she could face a tough time against someone who actually grew up in Wyoming and stayed. Folks here don’t believe in crowning political dynasties, and Liz Cheney’s problem would be compounded by her father, who left the vice presidency with the lowest approval rating for the office in history.
His daughter has co-written books with her dad that try to boost his political legacy, but the further removed the nation becomes from George W. Bush/Dick Cheney’s tattered administration, the lower he sinks in the public’s estimation.
If Liz Cheney is a candidate and she continues to be the political “clone” of her father that her sister Mary has called her, she does have a record to run on. It’s Dick Cheney’s, and it’s not a pretty sight.
— An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated where Liz Cheney resided while growing up. —Ed
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