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Duel in the Cowboy State: Liz Cheney Challenges Wyo. Republican Incumbent Enzi

July 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, announced her plans to challenge three-term incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., in the 2014 primary. Gwen Ifill talks to Jonathan Martin of The New York Times for more on the coming fight in the Cowboy State.

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the Republican Party’s civil war in Wyoming, where an incumbent senator is getting a challenge from a candidate with a familiar name.

LIZ CHENEY, R-Wyo., senatorial candidate: I’m running because I believe it is necessary for a new generation of leaders to step up to the plate.

GWEN IFILL: Liz Cheney announced her plans in a Web video yesterday. The conservative commentator and eldest daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney is challenging three-term incumbent Mike Enzi in next year’s Republican primary. Cheney calls herself a Tea Party sympathizer, and argues Enzi’s long stay in Washington is part of the problem.

LIZ CHENEY: We can no longer afford to simply go along to get along. We can’t continue business as usual in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Cheney actually spent much of her life in and around Washington, before moving back to her home state last fall. Her father was a longtime congressman and White House aide. Later, she worked at the State Department.

Her announcement came shortly after Enzi announced his own plans to run for reelection in a typically low profile written statement.

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“Working behind the scenes,” he said, “this is what I have been doing since I was elected, and this is what needs to be done.”

Senate Republican colleagues, including Wyoming’s other senator, John Barrasso, quickly declared support for Enzi. Because Republicans heavily outnumber Democrats in Wyoming, the candidate who wins the GOP primary will almost certainly go on to take the general election.

We get more on the duel in the Cowboy State from Jonathan Martin. He’s national political correspondent for The New York Times.

Jonathan, how unusual is it to have a sitting senator challenged by such a high-profile person at this time?

JONATHAN MARTIN, The New York Times: Right.

Well, it’s unique in this sense, because we have seen these challenges in primaries in recent years. It’s been with a senator who has crossed the party base in some fashion.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Either they had stopped going home, in the case of Dick Lugar from Indiana, or they took some really unpopular votes with their conservative base.

We don’t have that in this case. This is more of a matter of a small conservative state and somebody who has a famous last name in that state and somebody who is a very formidable figure in her own right who wants to have a Senate seat.

And I think there was an assumption — or a hope, at least — in the Cheney camp that Sen. Enzi was going to call it a career. He has served three terms. He’s up next year. He’s almost 70 years old. Well, that didn’t happen. And so I think Cheney decided to just go forward with it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask this. Wyoming is a big state in acreage.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Geographically, yes.

GWEN IFILL: But, politically, it’s small.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Very small.

GWEN IFILL: So, is there bad blood between the Cheneys and the Enzis?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Just the opposite.

In fact, Mike Enzi and Dick Cheney have been friends for 35 years. I was out there earlier this month. And I had a long chat with Sen. Enzi. He first got to know Dick Cheney when Cheney was in the U.S. House and Enzi was the mayor of a town called Gillette. They were fly-fishing friends. They go way, way back.

And it is a small political state, in the sense that everybody knows each other. I asked Sen. Enzi if he had heard from Dick Cheney. And he said, no, but he expected to if his daughter did in fact run. We learned yesterday that he still has not yet heard from his old friend.

GWEN IFILL: Or from her either.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Right. Well, she called him to say that he was thinking about running a few months ago.

GWEN IFILL: But not that she had decided.

JONATHAN MARTIN: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: What is Sen. Enzi’s reputation?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: You say — you mentioned that other challenged incumbents are people who were taken out by Tea Party or something like that.

JONATHAN MARTIN: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Does he have a reputation for being too what?

JONATHAN MARTIN: He’s a low-key senator.

The cliché in Washington, Gwen, as you know, is show horse or a workhorse, right? He’s a workhorse. He’s a behind-the-scenes, consensus-oriented senator who votes conservative down the line. You can’t find many votes that are not conservative.

The one area where he could be vulnerable is, he supported a measure to impose sales taxes on Internet sales. But, besides that, he’s a pretty conservative fellow.

The vulnerability — and we’re seeing this with Cheney’s comments here already — is that he worked with Democrats. He was very close to the late Senator Ted Kennedy on the Health and Education Committee. And so he is known as somebody that…

GWEN IFILL: Too accommodating.

JONATHAN MARTIN: … in the eyes of some conservatives is too accommodating.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

JONATHAN MARTIN: And the Obama era, and with Democrats in the majority in the Senate, they would need somebody in this way of thinking who is more pugnacious.

GWEN IFILL: And what is her reputation? She is pugnacious?

JONATHAN MARTIN: She is pugnacious, right. She is sort of a hard-charging, true-believing conservative, and on foreign policy especially, very hawkish.

That’s where she’s probably best known is on the foreign policy issues. And so I think she will run at him from a generational standpoint. He’s 69 right now. She’s 46. Time for new energy, those kind of …

GWEN IFILL: In fact, today, she said that she thought maybe he was kind of confused, didn’t think she wouldn’t run for his seat.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Confused was a word that I was struck by too.

So, I think she will run a generational campaign. And I think it will also be ideological, in the sense that, in her words, he’s a get-along/go-along person, and the party in the Obama era needs someone who is going to really take it to the Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: Now, this comparison may not hold up, but Hillary Clinton, when she went to New York, moved to New York and ran for Senate, was branded in some circles as a carpetbagger, and it didn’t stop her from getting re-elected.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Correct.

GWEN IFILL: Liz Cheney, even though her family goes way back in Wyoming, was raised and spent most of her formative years in Washington.

Does that hurt her?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Right. I think that’s going to be a challenge for her.

In fact, the clue that I got yesterday that she knows that is her biggest challenge is that video that she used to announce her campaign, the first minute or so was spent — was effectively a genealogy rundown of her family roots in Wyoming. That told me that she knows she has to overcome that issue.

She’s never lived there full-time until last year. People are going to be suspicious of the fact that she came back to the state to run. And I think that’s probably her biggest challenge right now.

GWEN IFILL: Why announce now? The deadline for announcing isn’t until next year. This is a 2014 race. Why are they getting into this now? Money?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, when I talked to Mike Enzi earlier this month, he tipped me off that she had called and said that she was thinking about running.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Once that was published, I think it probably fast-forwarded some of the thinking on this score.

It was very interesting last night the one after-the-other announcement. My sense is that Enzi heard footsteps, that he knew that she was moving towards an announcement, and he wanted to put out word that in fact he was in fact running for a fourth term.

GWEN IFILL: Does she get a lot of national money and support for a race like this?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, that’s going to be Enzi’s challenge, Gwen, is that he is not a good fund-raiser.

When I asked him out there how much he had raised in the previous quarter, he shrugged at me. He didn’t know the answer. Most senators would know to the penny how much they raised in a previous quarter. That is going to be his challenge, because she will raise a lot of national money, a lot of conservative money. And this is a campaign that Wyoming has not seen for a long, long time. And it’s going to be a really tough race, but fun for us to watch.

GWEN IFILL: Always fun for us to watch.

Jonathan Martin of The New York Times, thank you so much.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Thanks, Gwen.