Popular incumbent and policy mismatch hobble a campaign

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Liz Cheney during a campaign appearance in Casper, Wyo. in July.

Liz Cheney during a campaign appearance in Casper, Wyo. in July.

Liz Cheney’s short-lived Wyoming Senate campaign shows the perils of personal ambition outpacing a rationale for candidacy.

Ms. Cheney, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s elder daughter, on Monday morning cited family health reasons when she withdrew from her primary challenge of Senator Michael B. Enzi. But well before she dropped out, it was clear that her first bid for public office was off-key.

She ran in a state that she had not lived in for decades rather than in her longtime home state, Virginia, she targeted a genial and well-liked incumbent with no glaring ideological vulnerabilities, and she carried the banner of a hawkish foreign policy at a moment when a more restrained approach to national security is ascendant in the Republican Party. Further, she prompted an ugly and public split with her lesbian sister, Mary, by declaring her opposition to same-sex marriage — and was nevertheless attacked with television ads by a third-party conservative group over gay rights.

Most of all, though, Ms. Cheney miscalculated the degree to which her father’s popularity among conservatives was transferable to her own race. Hers was a campaign rooted primarily in legacy.

“Name recognition and dynasties — that just doesn’t fly in Wyoming,” said Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican. “I know firsthand it doesn’t work.” Mr. Mead’s mother, Mary Hansen Mead, the daughter of a longtime Republican governor and senator, Clifford P. Hansen, ran for governor and was soundly defeated by a popular Democrat in 1990.

Ms. Cheney’s exit from the race is also the latest example of the limitations of a candidate relying on a last name to vault him or her into office. For every George W. Bush or Edward M. Kennedy, who had their lineage to thank for their first victories, there are just as many children of political figures who lost their races.

For years her father’s closest adviser and a top-ranking official in the George W. Bush State Department, Ms. Cheney was no political novice, though her rocky run showed the gulf between adviser and front-line candidate. But her assessment that the race was winnable betrayed the cold-eyed realism of the strategist she is.

Ms. Cheney, who grew up working on her father’s House campaigns in a state so sparsely populated that it has only a single representative, should have recognized the difficulty of unseating Mr. Enzi, said veterans of the Wyoming political scene.

“He’s a guy who has never become Washington, and I think we’re fortunate to have him running again,” Senator John Barrasso said of Mr. Enzi.

Former Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, a longtime friend of the Cheney family whose relationship with them frayed over the race, predicted that Ms. Cheney would be “well-received in an open primary” with no incumbent. “But this just wasn’t her time,” Mr. Simpson said.

Voters of Wyoming are not entirely immune to the appeal of golden political names. Mr. Simpson’s father, Milward, served as a governor.

But, as Mr. Simpson put it, “politics in Wyoming is very personal,” and an individual candidate’s connection with the voters can often trump a last name. Both Mr. Simpson’s brother, Pete, and son, Colin, lost bids for governor. Mr. Simpson recalled the reaction his brother got when he called supporters of Senator Simpson in 1986 to ask for their support in his challenge against Gov. Mike Sullivan, a Democrat.

“They said, ‘I love you, Pete, but I’ve known Mike since we were in law school or we were A.T.O. brothers,’ that’s how it works here,” Mr. Simpson said.

Friends of Ms. Cheney, 47, acknowledge some of her early stumbles, but say that she would have made the race competitive as more voters began paying attention before the July primary.

“This race had just started,” said Mary Matalin, a Republican strategist and longtime friend of Ms. Cheney, noting that the first-time candidate had raised about $2 million.

But others in Wyoming are now questioning her political acumen, particularly given her target and timing.

“I always thought the Cheney name got her in the game here, but that she would have to close the deal herself,” said Joe Milczewski, a Republican strategist in Cheyenne who has run statewide campaigns. “But if nobody is mad at the incumbent, what was she going to hang her hat on?”

Unlike candidates in some recent Republican Senate primaries where incumbents have made themselves vulnerable and the state party had grown restive, Mr. Enzi had offered little in the way of fodder for a primary and was generally admired by Wyoming conservatives.

“This is not a Mitch McConnell situation where there’s a Tea Party fringe really upset with the incumbent, Mr. Milczewski said.

Mr. Enzi returns to the sprawling state most weekends, is well-known for his ice cream socials and for his habit of taking copious notes at town hall meetings, letting every attendee speak his or her mind before he takes the podium.

“Wyoming voters will reward people who do a good job and even if you have a lot of qualities like being a good speaker or being well-funded, if you’re challenging somebody with a track record it’s going to be a tough race,” Mr. Mead observed.

It is even more difficult to make the case when a challenger is confronting a string of distractions of her own. Whether it was residency issues related to her fishing license application — a rite of passage in the trout-crazy state, her husband’s voting records, her spat with her sister, or her mother’s confronting Mr. Simpson and telling him to “shut up,” Ms. Cheney nearly drowned in drama.

“It was just one thing after another,” one top Wyoming Republican said. “Given all the political expertise in that family, she made a lot of rookie mistakes.”

And Ms. Cheney’s forte, foreign policy, was ill-suited for the moment in part because her brand of interventionism is less popular than it was during her father’s vice-presidential years, and it is also not an animating topic among Republican primary voters.

“She has important things to say on Iran and the Middle East, but that’s not what people vote on out here,” Mr. Milczewski said.

In an overwhelmingly Republican state, whatever wounds there were from having to pick between two popular political brands will almost certainly be of little consequence in November. But at a time when money and celebrity can often seem determinative in politics, Ms. Cheney’s ill-fated campaign underlines the limits of those attributes when a candidate appears to pick the wrong race, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Courtesy of New York Times

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