The race comes at an interesting time for Senate Republicans, when some members are showing signs of tiring of the purity tests. “Are we here to just be part of a debating society where we argue all day?” Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tenn., said to me recently. “Or are we up here to accomplish something?” Alexander was among the 14 Republicans who voted with Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Members of this group, which President Obama has called “the common-sense caucus,” have also been working behind the scenes with the White House to find some kind of long-term budget deal since the spring.
On the other side of the GOP caucus is a new guard of younger members impatient with Senate niceties. Cheney seeks to join that gang, though that will be complicated. The first problem is that new guard member Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., isn’t a fan of Cheney (or her father, the former vice president) and supports Enzi. In particular, Cheney and Paul are on the opposite ends of the foreign-policy spectrum. She’s a hawk. He’s not.
The other challenge for Cheney is her father’s legacy on fiscal issues. The Bush administration is not well-regarded for its fiscal stewardship. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney famously told Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” The precise meaning of the quote is in dispute — Cheney may have been making a point about the political cost of deficits — but many budget hawks made the case to Cheney while he was in a position of power that the administration could do more to slow federal spending. Unlike on national security matters where Cheney gladly bucked the realists in the State Department and stood his ground during internal fights, he had no such reputation when it came to shrinking government. If Liz Cheney’s role is to be a fearless, clear-eyed warrior for smaller government, a good test of her purity would be her views on the Bush-Cheney budgets.
The usual worry for a party in a primary fight is that it will open up a spot for an eventual challenger from the other party. There’s little danger of that in Wyoming, which makes it a perfect place for this intramural scrimmage. It could be long and bloody; both candidates will be well-funded. Democrats hope that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has pledged to support Enzi, will have to spend millions against the sure-to-be-well-financed Cheney. They also hope that Cheney will be forced to make ever more extravagant claims about Washington Republicans to give voters a clear rationale for why the unobjectionable Enzi should be turned out. That Republican Washington establishment hopes to regain control of the Senate in 2014. To keep that from happening, Democrats hope Cheney and Enzi will be bloodying themselves for months to come.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.