CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Election Day is still about nine months away. But here in the Equality State, it seems as though everyone has started to form an opinion about the bitter Republican primary showdown between Sen. Mike Enzi and Liz Cheney.
Three days' worth of conversations this week with voters, GOP strategists and current and former elected officials yielded some hard realities about the race on several fronts. Here are the five biggest ones:
1. As an issue, gay marriage doesn't really matter in this election. Even as the public spat between Liz Cheney and Mary Cheney has dominated local and national coverage (it was all over the front pages of the state's leading newspapers), the issue of same-sex marriage isn't that big a deal here. Both Liz Cheney and Enzi oppose it, leaving little room for disagreement on the matter. Moreover, the state has a distinct libertarian streak. Residents are wary of government intrusion into people's personal lives.
"Who cares?" said Republican Rich Moore, 66, of Cheyenne, when asked about the marriage debate and Liz Cheney's dispute with her sister.
That's not to say the fact that Liz Cheney and her sister are engaged in a public quarrel doesn't matter. It does. It has distracted the candidate from talking about the issues she wants to discuss, and it threatens, as we've written, to feed the narrative that her opponents want to build, which is that she is an opportunist. In short, it's clearly not a good thing for her. But that's not because of same-sex marriage as a stand-alone issue.
2. The Cheney name still carries a lot of weight. But... There is no doubt that Republicans here know and respect the Cheney name. Dick Cheney represented the state in the U.S. House for a decade, years before he became vice president. And he's formed long-standing alliances and deep friendships here. Even Enzi supporters acknowledge he is a force. "It's very powerful. Dick was one of our political bigwigs, a big wheel, all of those things in the state, and still has a very large following in the state," said state Sen. John Schiffer, who supports Enzi.
All that said, there is a sense of the unknown when it comes to Liz Cheney. She's not her father, and she hasn't run here before. That's her challenge. Joe Milczewski, a veteran GOP strategist who managed Sen. John Barrasso’s 2008 campaign, put it like this: "He will always bring a crowd out, but she's the one who's got to close it."
3. The better retail politician will likely win. Wyoming is a vast state. But it is home to a tiny population and an even smaller universe of voters. Face time matters. A lot. And the candidate who can convince voters in personal settings that he or she represents the best bet in the Senate for the next six years will have a really good chance of winning. Enzi has already done it three times before.
4. They are both raising big bucks, but money only gets you so far here. Both candidates put up big money numbers last quarter. But in a state where buying airtime on TV -- typically a campaign's biggest expense -- is cheap and there are only so many residents to mail campaign literature to, it's simply not a state a candidate can buy. There's no doubt that having money helps. But posting big haul after big haul doesn't mean what it does in more populous states.
5. The race has ripped the GOP community apart. Enzi and Dick Cheney have never been seen as foes, which makes the heated rhetoric the latter has lobbed a bit surprising to observers here. The same goes for tension between former senator Alan Simpson and Lynne Cheney. All across the state, Republicans will be forced to choose in the coming months between two people who mean a a great deal to Wyoming. For many people here, that's a really tough position to be in.