Why the Wyoming Senate race is like nothing you’ve seen before

October 7, 2013

The Wyoming Senate race may just be the most unique contest of the 2014 cycle.

It means nothing for control of the Senate. It means everything to the complex web of colliding Republican interests that have quickly turned it into one of the most spirited campaigns in the country.

Liz Cheney, shown in 2010. (Cliff Owen/AP)
Liz Cheney, shown in 2010. (Cliff Owen/AP)

On the surface, the GOP primary contest between Sen. Mike Enzi and challenger Liz Cheney looks like a familiar tale: A Republican incumbent draws a primary opponent and a heated race ensues. We've seen this story unfold in Utah, Indiana and Alaska the past two cycles.

But the Wyoming race doesn't fit the mold of the tea-party-challenger-vs.-incumbent--perceived-as-moderate campaign. Enzi has a pretty conservative record that doesn't exactly beg for a challenge. And Cheney isn't the product of a tea party uprising.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a tea party favorite, backs Enzi. Cheney is the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, a fixture of the GOP establishment for decades. Like her father, Cheney holds hawkish views on foreign policy.

Sen. Mike Enzi R-Wyo) (Ben Neary / AP Photo)
Sen. Mike Enzi R-Wyo) (Ben Neary / AP Photo)

No matter who wins, it's pretty safe to say that Wyoming's Senate seat will remain in GOP hands. Democrats wield little to no power in the ruby red state.

But that doesn't mean outside interests have not been eyeing the race.

On Sunday, a conservative super PAC called the American Principles Fund launched a TV ad casting Cheney as insufficiently conservative on gay marriage. The group is helmed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Hucakbee.

It wasn't the first time the issue of gay marriage has surfaced in the campaign. Cheney's declared opposition to gay marriage earned a public rebuke from her openly lesbian sister, Mary Cheney, who declared the Senate candidate's position "dead wrong."

But that's only part of the drama that has unfolded in the Cowboy State. For starters, Enzi seemed taken aback by Cheney's decision to run. Cheney said Enzi was "confused" if he thought she was not going to run.

Meanwhile, Cheney, who recently moved to Wyoming from northern Virginia, has been dealing with carpetbagging charges. And an argument between former senator Alan Simpson and Lynne Cheney, Liz Cheney's mother, has spilled into the public eye. Lynne Cheney said it had nothing to do with Enzi, but Simpson said it all began when the Cheneys overheard his wife saying he would back Enzi.

And it's only October of 2013. Wyoming's primary is in August of 2014. Buckle up.

The heated primary is a reminder that some of the most tense races don't have larger implications like a Senate majority or even the question of whether a seat will switch party hands.

It's also a reminder that not every primary can be easily put into a box and defined as one type of race or the other. Given all the different pieces of the puzzle in Wyoming, there is really no box to put it in or label to affix.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Scott Clement | October 7, 2013