Liz Cheney Should Have Run for Senate in Virginia, Not Wyoming

Would she have been likely to beat incumbent Mark Warner? Maybe not. But at least she would have been running against a Democrat.
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Associated Press

Republican officials are grumbling that Liz Cheney passed up an opportunity to run in her adopted state of Virginia, leaving the party empty-handed as it searches for a challenger against Sen. Mark Warner. Instead of taking one for the Republican team, she's sparked an intra-party war in Wyoming. And, some strategists say, her prospects would be slightly better running in a battleground state than waging a long-shot primary battle against a popular sitting senator.

The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney grew up in Northern Virginia and lived there until last year. Her reputation as a hawk and stalwart supporter of the military would appeal to the state's significant population of veterans and its large defense industry, and her more-moderate positioning on divisive cultural topics such as gay marriage is tailor-made for swing voters in the Washington suburbs. Most Wyoming residents, according to one automated poll, think she'd be better off running in Virginia.

Instead of trying to translate her anti-Obama message against a Republican, the message would make more sense against Warner, who has been a reliable ally of the Obama Administration. Even if Warner looks unbeatable, Republicans could use a qualified candidate in Virginia. Few Republicans expect the party will recruit anyone stronger than a low-profile state legislator. Cheney, at the least, would have given the party a challenger who could have raised millions to make Warner work for a second term.  

But Cheney never seriously considered running in Virginia. Past and current officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee say they never spoke with her about a campaign there (or anywhere else) -- a sign they are fully aware of the baggage her last name carries throughout much of the country.

Still, a party that insists it plans to take the fight to Democratic senators in swing states such as Virginia is left wondering if it can find a credible candidate to carry its banner next year.  

"I think it's unfortunate that millions of dollars in Republican donor money are going to be spent in a divisive Republican primary in a Republican state," said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist and former communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It certainly would be far more beneficial to have that money be used against holding Mark Warner accountable.”

To be sure, Cheney would begin her hypothetical matchup with the state’s former governor as the race’s heavy underdog. A robust 61 percent of voters approve of the incumbent’s job performance, according to a mid-July poll from Quinnipiac University. Warner's unique popularity and the state’s rapidly changing demographics make the race an uphill climb for any Republican.

That she's choosing to wage an intraparty battle against Enzi instead is a telling indication of how Republicans feel about defeating Warner. Of the many battleground states featuring Senate elections next year -- Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Hampshire among them -- Virginia is seen as the least likely to fall into GOP hands.

But it's not as if her odds are much better against a popular Republican senator in Wyoming, either. Early polling of her looming battle with Enzi gives a pessimistic outlook for her chances. The Republican automated polling firm Harper Polling found the incumbent leading Cheney 55 percent to 21 percent. There's no ideological divide for Cheney to exploit, as successful conservative challengers have used against former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar and Utah Senator Robert Bennett. Enzi holds one of the most conservative voting records, according to National Journal's most-recent vote ratings. And Cheney hasn't yet received the support from outside conservative groups that often comes with insurgent primary campaigns.

"It's difficult to see her make the case to Republican primary voters that he should be replaced," Walsh said.

Cheney's decision to run in Wyoming has been met with equal parts scorn and bewilderment -- from her own party. The NRSC reiterated it was endorsing Enzi. Alan Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming, has said it will start a war within the party. Local editorial boards have mocked her campaign and suggested she run elsewhere. The Democratic automated polling firm Public Policy Polling found only one-third of Wyoming residents believe she is a true native of the state.  

Of course, Cheney had long focused on running for office in Wyoming, moving into the state last year. At the time, rumors were swirling that Enzi was poised to retire, which could explain why Cheney had called the senator a "friend" only months earlier. Her father, the former vice president, is still popular in Wyoming, having represented the state in Congress for a decade in the 1980s.

That's not the case in battleground Virginia, where Liz Cheney's promised confrontational tone could backfire. Cheney has pinned her campaign's rationale on offering more vigorous opposition to Obama's agenda than Enzi.

"I think it speaks volumes that she thinks a popular Republican incumbent in a red state is more beatable than a Democratic incumbent in a swing state," said Mo Elleithee, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist.

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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