Liz Cheney’s Wyoming strategy
By Richard Leiby,
Liz Cheney must have known what was coming. Carpetbagger, the critics would call her. How dare she run for a U.S. Senate seat from Wyoming, where she had never really lived?
But she bulled ahead anyway, a creature of Washington never before on any ballot, launching a first-time, difficult run for national office from Wyoming, the land of her forebears.
Just like her father did 35 years ago. And he won.
Anyone trying to tweeze out the strands of political DNA linking former vice president Dick Cheney and his first-born daughter Liz can start there — in 1978, in his rented Mustang playing a Carpenters tape that sorely annoyed young Liz and her sister Mary in the back seat, while dad rolled up the long miles in his campaign for Congress.
Elizabeth Cheney, 47, who spent her early years in the D.C. suburbs, worked in the State Department in the Bush administration and lived most of her adult life in McLean, relocated to Jackson Hole, Wyo., about a year ago. The mother of five and wife of a white-shoe Washington lawyer, she set out from the resort town in the Tetons to cover the same terrain her father did soon after he exited the White House as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff: the far-flung small-town diners, Kiwanis Clubs and Chambers of Commerce where he convinced voters he was one of them.
The going stands to be tougher for Liz Cheney, most recently known as co-founder of a neo-conservative advocacy group called Keep America Safe and as a Fox News talking head. She announced last month that she will run in the 2014 GOP Senate primary against three-term incumbent Mike Enzi, 69, who is well-regarded in the state (and has cast fly-fishing lines with Dick Cheney).
The challenge struck many establishment Republicans as more than puzzling. They consider it unseemly, uncharitable and unnecessary: Enzi, they said, is a solid conservative and good servant of Wyoming.
“Who doesn’t want more young, attractive Republican women elected to office? But she sort of picked the wrong opponent,” says Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist. “It’s just too much harsh ambition for people to swallow. Enzi doesn’t deserve execution.”
Reelection was probably a lock for Enzi. He seemed personally hurt by Liz Cheney’s announcement.
“I thought we were friends,” he told reporters.
People immediately wondered: Was Dick Cheney behind it? Still jerking political strings five years out of power? Grooming an electoral family heiress?
He did not respond to requests for comment, and Liz Cheney would not grant an interview.
Dick Scarlett, a longtime friend of Dick Cheney who speaks with him regularly, says she alone made the decision to run. “The vice president offers his support for whatever she wants to do. But she is her own person, absolutely,” Scarlett said. “She has been thinking about it for quite a while.”
It’s no secret that Dick Cheney has boosted his daughter as a good candidate for elected office. “I think she’s got a lot to offer,” he said on Fox News four years ago.
In her campaign-launch video, she says it is time for new blood in the Senate. “Instead of cutting deals with the president’s liberal allies, we should be opposing them every step of the way,” she says.
She didn’t mention Enzi by name but didn’t need to. His soft underbelly — reasonable, occasional bipartisanship — is waiting to be gutted like a trout snagged by Dick Cheney. Enzi belonged to the Gang of Six trying to find a compromise during the pitched health-care overhaul battles of 2009.
Some long-serving Republican senators, including Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Arizona’s John McCain, quickly endorsed Enzi. Wyoming Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis put in milder terms what others saw as rank carpetbagging.
“It’s a unique strategy to live your entire life elsewhere and then come to the state a year before you’re going to announce that you’re going to run for that state’s highest office,” she said to reporters.
“When I heard Liz Cheney was running for Senate I wondered if she was running in her home state of Virginia,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul of the tea party wing — and no fan of global interventionist Dick Cheney — said in Politico even before she officially announced.
“I think a lot of this is because she’s a Cheney and people’s hair stands on end because of that,” says Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor, another founder of Keep America Safe, and a friend of Liz Cheney. “Suddenly this is the Cheney family scheme to drive America into 10 wars.”
Her motivation is quite simple, according to Kristol and others who know Liz Cheney: She thinks she would be a better senator than Enzi. Yes, she is very close to her father. But the public — among them the 100,000-plus who would normally turn out for a primary in Wyoming, pop. 576,000 — will have a chance to hear what she has to say and evaluate her as a different Cheney.
“She is not just her father’s daughter,” Kristol says.
‘Cowgirl through and through’
In her girlhood, Liz Cheney absorbed certain simple lessons about electioneering from her father, who deployed both her and Mary as foot soldiers in his first campaign.
“Liz showed formidable political skills, pressing Cheney buttons and literature upon everyone in sight,” her father would later write.
After his stints in the Nixon and Ford administrations, Cheney said he wanted to see his own name on a ballot. So after a dozen years away, he returned to the state where he had attended high school and college. When a congressional seat fell open, he decided to take on two well-established rivals in the primary.
“I would have to be careful not to come across as some hotshot from Washington who thought he was entitled to a House seat,” Dick Cheney wrote in his 2011 autobiography, which Liz co-authored.
“I had to earn it by persuading Wyoming voters that I was really from Wyoming and the best man for the job.”
He ended up serving in Congress for the next 10 years.
Citizens of the Cowboy State are known for their squinty-eyed skepticism toward outsiders, and snap surveys show Enzi beating Liz Cheney handily. But political observers in Wyoming predict a large influx of cash for her campaign, via supporters of her father and former president George W. Bush.
She was galvanized to run, her backers say, by the policies of President Obama, whom she has called “the most radical man ever to occupy the Oval Office.” She often contends he is soft on Islamic terrorism. “Too bad President Obama isn’t as dedicated to disarming al-Qaeda as he is to disarming law-abiding Americans,” she said on Twitter.
While other Republicans think the party needs to tack to the center to survive, Liz Cheney stokes the fiery base that embraces broadcasters like Mark Levin (who has endorsed her) and Sean Hannity (whose show she has guest-hosted).
“She isn’t playing to anything: She is of the base,” says Mary Matalin, the Republican operative and a friend who speaks of Liz Cheney like family. “She was tea party before there was a tea party.”
Matalin, who is scheduled to stump for Liz Cheney this week in the cow town of Sheridan, Wyo., says the candidate did not move to Wyoming intending to run. “She had multiple options other than this.”
Of course, there’s a long tradition of high-profile people relocating to launch a Senate run — Hillary Clinton in New York, Robert F. Kennedy before her. And where critics detect a raw political calculus — it’s cheaper to aim for the Senate from Wyoming than Virginia — Liz Cheney and her backers talk of her deep yearning to reconnect to a woodsy, Western self.
“The bottom line is what are your roots, what are your values, what do you believe in and where is your heart?” she told the Wyoming news site WyoFile. “And my heart has always been in Wyoming.”
Says Matalin: “She really is a cowgirl through and through, and raised by accident in Washington. Babies don’t move wherever they want; they have to go with their parents.”
Liz Cheney’s Beltway pedigree may redound to her benefit, though. Some who have seen her campaigning for Republican presidential tickets and hopefuls say she knows how it’s done.
“Diner to diner, town hall to town hall,” as Steve Schmidt, the GOP campaign maestro, put it.
The primary is next August. “It doesn’t matter where the polls stand today,” he says. “Nobody should discount her. Mike Enzi is in for the fight of his life.”
Service to the state
In her campaign-launch video, Liz Cheney stands in the pasture of her new 2.4-acre homestead wearing a soft blue denim shirt, looking more like a relaxed mom on a family vacation than an intensely driven half of a D.C. political power couple.
She is married to Philip Perry, a partner in a Washington law firm who has held senior government posts (Homeland Security, Justice, Office of Management and Budget) and still practices in Washington when not with his family. Their children have attended McLean’s elite Country Day School as preschoolers and the costly private Potomac School. Their oldest daughter is in college and the others are enrolled in Wyoming public schools, according to her campaign.
Liz Cheney is a fan of Sarah Palin, and some pundits have reached for comparisons: the kids, the fresh face, the tough talk, someone worth considering for a presidential ticket.
“I was excited about Palin; I’m more excited about Liz,” Michael Goldfarb, a Keep America Safe adviser, said in a 2010 New York magazine piece that detailed her campaign-like activities. “There’s just something about her. You see that response across the activist portion of the party. It’s the response you saw to Palin.”
So far Liz Cheney hasn’t bragged of bagging moose, elk or antelope — plentiful in Wyoming – but there’s time. If she has logged 365 consecutive days of residence in the state, she can obtain a prized hunting license. (Meantime, she posted on Twitter a photo of a moose that shut down her bank’s drive-through one snowy day by taking a nap.)
Her backers shy away from comparisons to Palin — who was foisted on an unsuspecting national electorate by Kristol and Schmidt — and see Liz Cheney as far more qualified for the national stage than John McCain’s veep candidate.
But here’s a beef critics have with Liz Cheney: At least Palin paid her dues as governor of Alaska. What has Liz Cheney done for Wyoming?
“I think Wyoming people really do care about these things: Have you served or volunteered in Wyoming for years? Have you made a difference in the lives of people? Have you created jobs?” says Liz Brimmer, a Jackson-based public affairs strategist who worked on Enzi’s 2002 reelection campaign.
“I don’t think the State Department created many jobs in Wyoming,” Brimmer notes.
A University of Chicago law school graduate, Liz Cheney worked earlier in her career at the U.S. Agency for International Development and at a firm headed by Richard Armitage, who later became deputy secretary of state.
Her posts at State – first in 2002-03, then in 2005-07 – largely involved Middle East matters and included democracy promotion. Several of her colleagues, including two higher-ups who could assess her work, declined requests to comment for this article.
Some Democrats and even Republicans still regard her as a patronage pawn, inserted into the diplomatic ranks to help support the administration’s claims that the Iraq invasion would somehow transform the greater Middle East.
Was she qualified for the job?
“I don’t know of anybody who thinks she’s not qualified on the Middle East,” says Neal Patel, a long-serving adviser to Cheney during his vice presidency and a neighbor of Liz Cheney in Jackson Hole. “She is an expert.”
Racing through small towns
The Wyoming primary will be fought in towns like Rawlins, a four-hour drive from Jackson Hole. Rawlins boasts 9,200 people and a bowling alley named Memory Lanes, where games go for $3 and shoes for $1.50.
Patty Sue Schuler, a city council member and Memory Lanes’ proprietor, has invited Liz Cheney to hold a campaign event there if she’d like.
“I’m with Liz,” she says. “Mike Enzi might be upset, but Mike Enzi doesn’t own that office, the people do.”
Schuler, 60, can hardly be considered the average voter. She has a strong Washington connection. Her niece is Dana Perino, the former Bush White House spokeswoman.
Schuler, who also has served as Rawlins’s mayor, says elections everywhere are essentially the same. Somebody will win; somebody has to lose. She won her last race 828 votes to 235.
“I ran against a gal from high school who had filed; I got written in and won,” she says.
Any hard feelings from her friend?
“She bowls every Friday night. And we just got off the golf course. One thing you have to learn about politics: You can’t take it personal.”