Game On in Wyoming

Sen. Mike Enzi gave Liz Cheney just the opening she needs in Wyoming's senate race.

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Liz Cheney speaks during a campaign appearance in Casper, Wyoming, Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Cheney, the elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, announced on Tuesday her GOP primary challenge to Wyoming's senior U.S. incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi.

A couple of weeks ago, Liz Cheney announced that she is running as a Republican for U.S. Senate in Wyoming. This not only came as a surprise to both political observers and voters, who consider her more a Virginian than a daughter of the Cowboy State, but also to the long-serving incumbent senator, Republican Mike Enzi, who had no plans to retire.

Despite having extensive contacts in conservative media (as a former contributor on Fox News) and support from her father, Dick Cheney, former vice president and at-large U.S. House member from Wyoming, few think Liz has a chance to knock off Enzi in next year's primary. He's well-liked in Wyoming. He's got a solid conservative record. While Enzi is not young (69), by Senate standards (average age is 62 years), he's not that far past his prime.   

But if Enzi's got this race in the bag, then why isn't he acting like it? Why has his team been working so unabashedly to circle the wagons and showcase his Washington support?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Several Republican senators, including Rand Paul, Ky., and John McCain, Ariz., have already publicly taken sides in an election that's more than a year away. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also declared that its first loyalty is to Enzi's re-election.

Frankly, all of this frenzied activity is not only excessive for a purportedly "safe" incumbent, but also strategically foolish. Enzi's campaign gave Cheney the opening that she needed in order to mount a serious effort. He needed to dismiss her. Instead, he has engaged her.

And now, as a result of the substantial media coverage that flowed from these events, he's legitimated her candidacy, raised further her national profile and, almost unbelievingly, provided her with all the political ammunition she needs to turn the tables and make the claim that he's really the Washington elitist who has lost touch with his western roots.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Did his operatives forget that the phrase "support in Washington" is just one tiny attack ad away from the smear of "Beltway insider"? Did they fail to notice that "nearly the entire Senate establishment" that chose to back Enzi is mostly old, white men who typify the phrase "the power elite"? Way to make Liz a credible underdog.

If I were Cheney, I'd be ecstatic that a veteran politician like Enzi would make such an amateurish mistake. It would also leave me wondering whether I might be able to badger him into doing debates (Fox-style, sharp "talking point" matches with good lighting) around the Cowboy State. The optics would surely create priceless video and allow her campaign to craft a narrative echoing Democratic Sen. Patty Murray's 1992 "mother-in-tennis-shoes" contest, which began with Murray vowing to bring "new energy and new enthusiasm" to the Senate and included her besting the incumbent Democrat, Brock Adams.

Put simply, Enzi should have graciously welcomed Cheney to the race and issued a generic statement saying that he looked forward to the campaign, to having a chance to talk more about his legislative record and to Wyoming voters making the best choice for their state. Further, establishment Republicans should have coordinated to play down, not up, the "disaster" that her primary challenge is for the GOP in 2014.

But he didn't, nor did they. And now, it's game on. Wyoming just became a state to watch.    

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