Party Rock Anthem: Does the Enzi-Cheney showdown signify unrest in the GOP?

By on August 13, 2013

81413featureJACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Republican Party has a lot to prove heading into next year’s midterm elections. After failing in 2012 to field a viable presidential candidate – Gov. Rick Perry, who was in the race long enough to learn he had no knack for debate, called it the “weakest Republican field in history” – the rightwing guard stumbled down the stretch and blew a White House seat that was practically handed to them.

Cracks began to appear during the presidential primary and other undercard races for Senate and House seats. Islands of secession within Republican ranks – Tea Partiers, Libertarians, and Constitutionalists to name a few – began sprouting up, causing infighting and rifts within the party. Added to the internal strife was the party’s inability to campaign effectively in the digital age. The party that put the “old” in Grand Old Party was perceived as too rich, too white and too out-of-touch.

What is the party’s state of health currently? And more importantly to Wyomingites, is there party unrest here at home? The “Cindy Hill incident” bitterly divided Republican lawmakers last fall. Now a surprise challenge from a political newcomer for a seat held by a popular U.S. Senator threatens to further turn Wyoming Republicans against each other.

With Republican primary races already heating up nationwide in a crucial race to win back the Senate, JH Weekly decided to take a very early look at the Enzi-Cheney showdown. Why is it already the hottest topic in politics and what does it tell us about one of the reddest states in the Union?

We began by collecting a panel of local Republican Party leaders at the county, state, and national level. We invited Tammy Hooper (Wyoming GOP state chair), Marti Halverson (National Committeewoman), and T.R. Pierce (Teton County GOP chair) to share their thoughts. We added U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso (invitations to Liz Cheney’s camp went unanswered) regarding the upcoming primary race. Finally, we corralled a couple of pundits who make their living following the ins-and-outs of politics at a national level (Dr. Larry Sabato, Director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and nationally renowned author of more than 20 books) and state level (Dr. James King, professor of Political Science at University of Wyoming).

GOP = Grossly Over-Planked?

Our first order of business was to establish whether or not the Republican platform is so broad it fosters internal combustion.

“I’d like to think the Republican Party borders are pretty wide,” Sen. Mike Enzi admitted. “There’s room for almost everybody in there as long as you respect other people’s opinions and realize Republicans have a lot of original ideas and some of them might seem pretty radical.”

Enzi’s colleague, and fellow U.S. Senator John Barrasso, agreed. “The Republican Party, nationally, and certainly in Wyoming, is very strong,” he said. “There are lots of candidates, people very concerned about the direction of the country, who are stepping forward and wanting to run for office. I think that’s very healthy.”

And our experts agreed.

“Throughout American history, each party has been successful by having a broad-based coalition. There is nothing unusual about the current situation of the Republican Party,” Sabato said. “What is happening is constituent parts of the coalition are insisting on having it their own way and it’s difficult to preserve a coalition with absolutists.”

Focusing on Wyoming, King said, “When you’ve got a situation where one political party dominates you see more intra-party squabbling. No party is monolithic. Some of those disagreements are coming to light, but it doesn’t put the party on a downward spiral, necessarily.”

T.R. Pierce, who chairs the GOP in a county notorious for its healthy share of Democrats and liberal-to-moderate Republicans, said he believes his party’s broad scope helps win elections.

“I think you know that we are fairly moderate here. The great thing about Teton County is we have people that are very conservative and people that are very moderate,” Pierce said. “I think that if you have a narrow platform you are just narrowing the number of people that you can get to vote for your candidates. I think you need to have a broader platform. I don’t find it divisive. I’m in favor of that.”

Halverson, however, while agreeing that competition was healthy for the party, acknowledged the damage caused by the bill introduced into state legislature which effectively stripped Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of most of her power.

“Yes, there is a divide; definitely,” Halverson said. “It’s been bubbling up from the grassroots for several years now. I thought we were one big happy family and then I realize there is a big division, which has now manifested itself in several distinct groups. You’ve got Libertarian Conservatives, Conservative Libertarians, Tea Party, Constitution Party, Country Party, and the hardcore Republicans.

“There is that division and it erupted with Senate File 104. For the last four years there’s been rumblings like, ‘We send these people to Cheyenne and they don’t follow the platform but they’re better than a Democrat.’ [Voters] just kind of held their nose and voted for the ‘R.’ But now it’s become very polarized.”

Halverson is not the first party leader to suggest Republicans could tighten up their ship a little by pulling down a few sails.

“The platform probably needs to be reduced to one page from 400,” Halverson said. “If I were queen of the Republican Party I would take out all the social issues and have individuals run as they wish and not have that dictated to them by the party. I would just have it on the economy and national defense.”

Pierce added that Republicans might have lost their way since the 1960s, meandering off-course when it comes to an ever-growing abundance of social issue planks.

Pierce explained: “If I said to you, ‘Would you like to have a balanced budget?’ You would say, ‘Of course I do.’ If I asked, ‘Would you like to have less national government intervention and more local representation?’ You’d say, ‘Of course I would.’ If I said, ‘Do you believe in personal responsibility?’ You would say, ‘Of course I do.’ So those are all the core values of the Republican Party, and if we were to focus on those then I think there would be a lot more people agreeing with what the party represents and what we’re about.”

Race relations or RINO hunt?

Liz Cheney fired the opening salvo on July 16 when she announced via video release that she would challenge three-term incumbent Mike Enzi for his seat in the U.S. Senate. Insiders anticipated the move ever since Cheney stuck a “For Sale” sign on the lawn of her Virginia home to head west to Wyoming. Still, it took Enzi by surprise. The former mayor of Gillette and state legislator said he understood from Cheney that she would not run if he intended to.

Enzi, who is a close friend of Liz’s parents, Dick and Lynne Cheney, felt slighted by the announcement and the way he learned of it. “I thought we were friends,” he said.

When Enzi received word through certain channels that Cheney was set to announce, he stepped up his game. “My announcement, that I intend to run, was about 30 minutes before she released her video. I probably moved up whatever her schedule was,” he said. “I’ll do a formal announcement much later. I still have a job to do, and I’m going to be concentrating on that job and doing it just the way I’ve always been doing it.”

State party chair Tammy Hooper said while she wasn’t “in the loop,” it wasn’t unusual to hear of Cheney’s decision to run on CNN rather than a face-to-face declaration. “She had been around at some events. She told people she may run,” Hooper recalled.

Cheney, who can expect to face charges of carpetbagger, nepotism, and Wyoming outsider, has done little to sink roots in Wyoming very quickly. Making a national announcement without consulting local party leaders and her opponent, or at least extending the courtesy of notifying them of her intentions, could be construed as disrespect for longstanding Wyoming tradition regarding challenging an incumbent. The fishing license and property tax snafus didn’t help, either.

“There may be this tradition in Wyoming politics, but this one seems to be trending: challenging a long-term incumbent without a rationale,” Sabato said.

Sen. Barrasso, along with Rep. Cynthia Lummis, went on record almost immediately after Cheney’s declaration to support Enzi. “Mike Enzi is my friend. He’s my mentor,” Barrasso said. “I believe he does an outstanding job representing the people of Wyoming in the United States Senate. He has a very strong conservative voting record. I am supporting Mike Enzi in this race for the Senate. Just so we’re clear on that.

“But this is the United States of America. The land of the free, home of the brave. Anybody who is of the age of the office and is a citizen has the right to run, and I’m always encouraging people to run. I have great respect for the entire Cheney family – for the vice president, for Lynne, for the entire family – I just think it’s the wrong race at the wrong time.”

Others view the race as a pure positive and welcome the competition.

“I do not think it’s evidence of a further divide in the party,” Halverson said. “Of all the conversations I’ve had, I’ve heard no one express any worry on the state level. No one is worried about the Republican Party in the Cheney-Enzi race. We love competition. It’s fine. Anyone can run. Is this a great country or what?”

Pierce also is taking the high road in deference to what many are calling the hottest primary in the country to watch. “The seat doesn’t belong to Senator Enzi or to Liz Cheney. It belongs to the people of Wyoming. So let the people of Wyoming decide. I think what you’ll see is it will be an interesting race, good for Senator Enzi and good for Liz. It’ll be an exciting race, that’s for sure.”

 Campaign strategy

Cheney will have a hard time positioning herself right of Enzi. The 16-year senior Senate veteran has earned a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union and is ranked as the eighth most conservative U.S. Senator for 2012, according to National Journal.

In the early going, Cheney has made it clear she will likely make an issue of Enzi’s age and bipartisan cooperation, albeit an infrequent occurrence. Cheney’s video statement suggested she would bring a more parochial approach to the Senate floor, promising to oppose President Obama at every turn. It’s a stance that may play well with the staunch party loyalists that tend to turn out for primaries.

“In her announcement, Cheney stated a generational and style difference. Cheney also said there should be a stronger voice against the administration,” King said. “I think there may be some play there. Generally, in the primary, the electorate is more ideologically extreme. In this case, the electorate will probably be a bit more conservative and will reflect the ‘stand your ground’ type. But that only works if the people you are pitching it to are dissatisfied with their representative now.”

Sabato said unseating incumbents is a tough row to hoe, especially in Wyoming. But he agreed Cheney’s pedigree and name cachet would make it closer than it should be.

“It’s pretty obvious that Cheney is the longshot, or at least an underdog,” he said. “Her chances depend, in large part, on Enzi making mistakes. He will be casting hundreds of votes before the primary. For now, though, she is plying a message that gets some traction with Republican primary voters. Essentially, she is saying [regarding anti-Obama posturing], ‘Anything you can hate, I can hate better,’ to paraphrase an Annie Oakley line that should play well in Wyoming.”

King, too, sees Cheney’s advisors poring over Enzi’s voting record. “I would imagine that Cheney will likely try to pick out particular votes that people will disagree with – the ‘Internet tax’ [Marketplace Fairness Act] being one. There are a lot of votes to be cherry-picked in 16 years.”

If Cheney plays the age card, Enzi can always remind the challenger that it was he, as a Senate freshman in 1997, who petitioned the Senate Rules and Administration Committee to allow him to take notes with his laptop on the chamber floor. No one had ever tried it then or since. He was denied.

If attacks by Cheney come from the right, Enzi said he will stand on his voting record and isn’t about to feel guilty for reaching across the aisle on occasion.

“When I talk to the other side I am not compromising. I am finding the common ground. That’s a huge difference,” Enzi said. “If you are in the minority, and you can’t find people on the other side that agree with your opinions, you’re not going to get anything done. And making speeches is not my idea of what Congress is about. It’s really tedious work. But that’s how I’ve always worked back there.”

Barrasso agreed. “I’m willing to work with anybody of either party on something that I think is good for Wyoming and our future,” he said. “But I will oppose anybody of either party on something I think is not good for Wyoming. That’s a position I hear people in Wyoming continue to say they want me to take.”

King pointed out the tightrope lawmakers must walk, ever mindful of their party’s platform and their constituents and balanced with the ability to get things done. “The definition of an effective lawmaker is like art – it’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “There has to be a level of cooperation and compromise to put together a minimum of 51 votes in the Senate. If someone defines an effective Senator as one who never compromises then get ready for gridlock.”

Like many Congressional hopefuls, Cheney may use the public’s growing displeasure with a dysfunctional Congress to her advantage. Republican incumbents caved in an 11th-hour show of brinkmanship before the summer recess – passing farm, immigration and college loan bills. Sudden bipartisanship amongst incumbents up for midterm reelection may have been spurred by the latest polls that show, on average, a dismal 15 percent approval rating of Congress.

“Generally, people who look at Congress and blame them as dysfunctional don’t blame their own representative. You can’t look at the poll numbers regarding the disapproval of Congress,” King warned.

Halverson echoed the point. “I know that Congressional approval is in the single digits,” she said. “But you dig further into those polls and everyone loves their representative. No one says, ‘My guy is part of the problem.’”

Enzi said he will not let Cheney attack him for the Senate’s malfunction. And expect the incumbent to drive home his Wyoming roots at every opportunity.

“I won’t have to defend the Senate’s record as a whole. I can explain the Senate’s record as a whole and why it’s got the rating it has but I’m very pleased with my record,” Enzi said. “I’m not just going to stand on my voting record, either. I’m also standing on my history in Wyoming.”

Cheney is expected to be a strong campaigner with deep pockets. If Enzi has an Achilles heel, it’s campaigning. Insiders say he isn’t good at it, and he doesn’t like doing it. Cheney’s early announcement forces Enzi’s hand and puts him at an immediate disadvantage even though no incumbent Wyoming Republican Senator running for re-election has ever failed to win their party’s nomination.

“If you’re working in Washington all the days you are voting and you are [back in Wyoming] the rest of the time, that’s all you can do,” Enzi said. “And if everything looks like I am campaigning it isn’t going to work. You have to do the things you think are the right things to do. Some of the things I do are popular. Some of them probably aren’t. But I think they are the right things to do.”

King said, don’t sell Enzi short. He expects a ferocious challenge from Cheney – both long and costly – but believes incumbents like Enzi get going when the going gets tough.

“As a campaigner, Enzi proved very effective in his first race, in both the primary and general,” King said. “He hasn’t had to campaign as aggressively in the two reelection bids, but you rise to the challenge. He hasn’t had to raise a lot of money but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing it. Traditionally, incumbents raise the money they have to raise. You hear a lot of members of Congress say the fundraising is not something they like to do.”

Both Sabato and King called the Wyoming primary the highest profile race in the nation so far. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has already pledged their support for Enzi. Some Republican National Committee members also have informally backed the incumbent. Halverson said she will urge national party leaders to butt out of the state race.

“The national committee members of Florida backed Charlie Crisp against Rubio. We don’t want that mud on our face. The national committee people in Texas supported Dewhurst over Ted Cruz. And we don’t want that mud on our face,” Halverson said. “We are going to the RNC meeting in Boston on August 12 and we are going to grab a microphone and tell the RNC to stay out of this race. That’s been my problem with the RNC for years: picking sides in primaries, whether it’s at the Presidential level or U.S. Senate level or U.S. Congress level. The RNC has no business picking sides in Republican primaries. That’s our position and that’s what we’re going to tell them in Boston.”

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