Why Cheney vs Cheney matters

November 18, 2013

When it comes to the Cheney family, this much is clear by now: Sisters Liz and Mary don't see eye to eye on same-sex marriage.

Public fighting over the issue of gay marriage has splintered the Cheney family — pitting the daughters of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Liz and Mary, against each other. (The Washington Post)

What's less clear is precisely how their remarkably public spat will affect the Wyoming Senate race, in which Liz Cheney is trying to unseat Sen. Mike Enzi in the Republican primary. But it's safe to say Liz Cheney needs to find a way to end the dispute for her campaign's sake. At the least, it's an unwelcome distraction for her; at the most, it's a major obstacle that could severely strain her effort to convince voters she is genuine, which is already becoming a grind.

In case you're just now tuning in, here's what you need to know: Liz Cheney announced in July that she would challenge Enzi, drawing fresh attention to her positions on various issues, like gay marriage. Her assertion in August that she opposes gay marriage prompted younger sister Mary to publicly declare her "dead wrong" on the matter. When Liz Cheney reaffirmed her opposition to gay marriage on Sunday, Mary Cheney and her wife Heather Poe excoriated her. In public. In very, very personal terms.

Their choice of words was the most damning part for Liz Cheney.

"Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 - she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us," wrote Poe on Facebook. She later added, "I can't help but wonder how Liz would feel if as she moved from state to state, she discovered that her family was protected in one but not the other."

Ouch. Actually, double ouch. Here's why: Both remarks cut against the image Liz Cheney is trying to cultivate of a someone who is genuine, not a political opportunist, as some have claimed.

Poe's remark that Liz Cheney openly congratulated the the couple could stoke doubts in voters' minds about whether Liz Cheney is being forthright about her opposition to gay marriage. And her comment about moving from "state to state" didn't do Liz Cheney any favors when it comes to battling the perception that she is a carpetbagger who is more northern Virginia than Wyoming -- something she has been trying to fight for months. (Look no further than her first TV ad -- in which she emphasizes her Wyoming roots -- for proof of this.)

Whether or not the "opportunist" perception takes hold in Wyoming depends on how closely voters pay attention to the story that has grabbed the attention of the national media. Some strategists and observers don't think it will dominate the campaign conversation.

"Liz's position on marriage is similar to Enzi's so I don't see this dust-up being the deciding factor in the race," said Bill Novotny, a veteran Republican strategist with ties to both candidates who is neutral in the campaign. Novotny added that he sees it as "more of a distraction than a complication," for Liz Cheney's campaign, which he said is "losing valuable time trying to put this spat to rest when they should be articulating their reasons why Wyoming needs to give Mike Enzi a pink slip."

University of Wyoming political scientist James King said: "I really don't see this having a big impact on the primary election. Yes, there are people who believe Ms. Cheney has a hidden agenda on the issue but these probably aren't people who would [support] her anyway."

A spokeswoman for Liz Cheney's campaign didn't immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The problem for Liz Cheney is if the issue lingers, because any attention paid to the fight is attention that isn't paid to the issues she wants to talk about. The bad news for her is that there are signs the end is nowhere in sight.

A conservative super PAC has already taken to the airwaves to slam Cheney for being insufficiently conservative on gay marriage. And while her parents released a statement Monday that sought to sooth the tensions, Mary Cheney told the New York Times Sunday that she plans to continue to raise the matter.

So long as it all stays alive, it won't spell good news for Liz Cheney. Which is why she needs to find a way to put it all behind her sooner rather than later.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · November 18, 2013