Wyoming Senate race between Cheney, Enzi is new battle in GOP’s war

Liz Cheney has opened a new front in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party with her decision to challenge Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). The fight pits conservatives willing to work across the aisle with a newer breed that views compromise as defeat.

The conflict, which has raged over the past two election cycles, is often marked by differences of tone and style more than ideology.  

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Enzi, a three-term senator, is rated one of the most conservative members of the Senate. But he also has a long history of working with Democrats. 

Cheney, a former Fox News commentator and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, takes a far more unbending view of how the GOP should do business in Washington. 

“When you look at how conservative Sen. Enzi is, my fear is this won’t be an ideological campaign, which is the type of clash I welcome. It will be a personality-style campaign more than anything else,” Ari Fleischer, who served as White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush, told The Hill. “Races of that nature tend to become more harmful and divisive over time, and more uncomfortable for everyone involved.” 

Cheney has burnished her no-compromise credentials in dozens of appearances on Fox and in op-ed articles, hammering President Obama as an enemy of capitalism who has wrecked the economy and intentionally weakened the U.S. abroad. 

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in March, Cheney described Obama as “the most radical man ever to occupy the Oval Office.” 

Cheney made it clear in the opening days of her campaign that she does not believe Enzi has stood up to Obama enough.

“Everybody agrees on the importance of compromise for the good of the nation. But I believe there comes a moment where you have to tell the difference between compromise and capitulation,” Cheney told The Hill. 

“The code of the West is important — its last pillar is knowing where to draw the line.” 

Cheney’s rhetoric carries echoes of other hard-charging conservatives who have infused the Senate Republican caucus with a more uncompromising ethos in recent years.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) replaced the less-confrontational Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2013 after winning a primary fight against opponents more closely embraced by the Texas GOP establishment. 

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a Tea Party favorite, ousted fellow Republican Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah) in a 2010 primary.

Both senators won their contests in deep red states where any Republican who emerged from the primary was a lock to win the general election. Wyoming, too, is a safe GOP seat. 

But the internecine clash over the Republican Party’s direction has backfired elsewhere when the harder- line candidate has emerged. 

In 2012, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) had his career ended in the GOP primary by Richard Mourdock, who blasted compromise and lost the general election amid controversial remarks about rape. 

Cheney is not the perfect poster child for the new breed of Republican — she spent years as a Washington insider and has deep D.C. ties — but she is kindred in approach with conservatives like Cruz and Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a likely Senate candidate in 2014. 

Both are hard-charging Young Turks who see compromise as surrender. Cheney is of the same view. 

“Blocking this president’s policies isn’t obstruction, it’s patriotism,” Cheney told The Hill. 

Those who know Enzi hold little doubt about his conservative credentials, but they also view him as someone less interested in partisan sparring than getting things done. 

He sports a lifetime rating of 93 from the American Conservative Union. He also had a strong working relationship with former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) when the two were their parties’ leaders on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee. 

Enzi was one of the “Gang of Six” senators who worked early to find bipartisan compromise on overhauling the healthcare system in 2009. Last week, he touted his work with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on a pension reform bill. 

The new schism among Republicans is also partly generational.

The 69-year-old Enzi, like other longtime senators who have faced primary challenges, including Lugar and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), seeks a level of bipartisan accommodation and camaraderie rare in the Senate today. 

“It has to do with temperament and it has to do with age too,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, a columnist for The Hill. 

Feehery said he was rooting for Enzi because the Senate is supposed to be a chamber where lawmakers find common ground rather than engage in ideological warfare. 

“People like Mike Enzi are very valuable commodities in the Senate and should be treasured as opposed to pitched overboard,” he said. 

Longtime GOP strategist Ed Rollins said Cheney is “definitely a fighter” and very much “her father’s daughter.” 

“I’m sure she’d be a significant player on the hard right in the Senate,” said Rollins, who has known Dick Cheney since the 1970s.

Republicans from all points on the conservative spectrum see the Cheney-Enzi match as a potential bellwether of the longer-term direction the GOP will take. 

But other factors will also be crucial. 

One key question is whether Cheney can leverage a huge fundraising advantage and convince voters she’s one of them after living most of her life away from Wyoming.  

Fleischer said the Senate needs people like Cheney “who will stick the flag in the ground and never waver” and senators like Enzi who “at the end of the day can reach across and get things done.”