Liz Cheney’s biggest challenge: The carpetbagger label

July 17, 2013

This much we know about the Wyoming Senate race: Liz Cheney will be accused of being a carpetbagger. Probably often.

What we don't know is whether or not it will sink her bid to unseat Sen. Mike Enzi in the Republican primary, or fade into the background. But it's already become a big part of her narrative, and one that she will have to overcome to win.


Republican Liz Cheney. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

"A challenge for Ms. Cheney will be countering charges that she isn’t really from Wyoming, given the many years living elsewhere before re-establishing residency last year," said University of Wyoming political scientist Jim King.

Cheney purchased a home in Jackson Hole in 2012. Before that, she lived in northern Virginia, where she graduated from high school. Cheney went to college in Colorado and law school in Illinois.

The Wyoming media and political world has taken notice. One paper offered a harsh assessment of the prospect of Cheney's candidacy before she announced her campaign.

"Hey, Liz Cheney: If you want to run for U.S. Senate, try it from Virginia or some other state," the Gillette News Record wrote in an editorial published Sunday. "We already have a U.S. senator -- one who has spent his life in Wyoming, one who took on the unenviable job of leading Gillette through the boom in the ’70s and ’80s."

And Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R) told reporters this on Tuesday: "It is a unique strategy to live your entire life elsewhere and then come to a state a year before you're going to announce you're going to run for that state's highest office."

Ouch.

Cheney is not going to leave questions about her allegiance to Wyoming floating in the wind. In her Tuesday announcement video, she noted that her family has deep roots in the state, first settling there in 1852 “in search of religious freedom.” She also sought to underscore that she is in touch with the state's issues. And remember that her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, represented Wyoming in the House for a decade.

"My sense is, as far the carpetbagger charge, is it's from people who don't want to talk about substance, don't want to talk about the issues," Cheney told the Associated Press.

The carpetbagger label doesn't necessarily have to be a deadly political blow. Hillary Clinton's successful 2000 New York Senate campaign is proof of this. So is Dan Coats's 2010 Indiana Senate bid. Going back further, Robert F. Kennedy's 1964 Senate campaign success is another example.

What makes Cheney's challenge different, though, is that Wyoming is a small state with a unique culture where retail politics matter and face time is worth its weight in gold.

What's more, Enzi's record wasn't exactly crying out for a primary challenge. He's received generally high marks from conservative groups. Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) likes the guy. So the argument that Cheney uprooted herself and stepped up to challenge an incumbent who was asking for it isn't likely to go very far.

The key for Cheney will be to steer the conversation away from the question of whether she is an opportunist and scrutiny about where she has spent most of her life. If she can do that, she'll have a decent chance. She is expected to raise a lot of money, after all.

But if she allows the carpetbagger question to linger in the campaign, it will be hard to hang in. Just ask Richard Lugar, whose bungled responses over several months to questions about his residency made it easy for his opponent to paint him as out of touch and ultimately defeat him last year.

The bottom line is that unless Cheney can find clear ways to cast the spotlight on Enzi's record (a generational contrast seems to be what she is chiefly going for at this point, and that's far from a surefire critique of Enzi), Cheney can expect her own past to come under just as much scrutiny.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Chris Cillizza | July 17, 2013