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Ambition, not ideology drives Liz Cheney's Senate run

Bitter GOP Senate primaries have become almost the norm in recent elections, but Liz Cheney's challenge to Sen.
This Sept. 19, 2011 file photo shows Liz Cheney, in Chicago at the Union League Club of Chicago’s Authors Group. (Photo by M. Spencer Green/AP)
This Sept. 19, 2011 file photo shows Liz Cheney, in Chicago at the Union League Club of Chicago’s Authors Group.

Bitter GOP Senate primaries have become almost the norm in recent elections, but Liz Cheney's challenge to Sen. Mike Enzi in next August's GOP contest doesn't fit these molds.

Hers isn't a challenge over ideological purity, like when Mike Lee defeated Bob Bennett at Utah's 2010 GOP convention or Richard Mourdock, backed by the anti-tax Club for Growth, knocked off Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar last year.

Enzi has a lifetime rating of 93 from the American Conservative Union and 86% from the Club for Growth, and there were no rush of statements to support Cheney's bid on Tuesday. In fact, it's not just Enzi's Wyoming colleagues who said on Tuesday they'll have his back, but even Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky had said last week, after the New York Times first reported on Cheney's possible run, that he considered Enzi “a good conservative" and would support him in the primary.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter isn't claiming Enzi has lost touch with the Cowboy State--another sin of Lugar's, who didn't even own a home back in the Hoosier State. Instead, it's Cheney, who just moved back to Wyoming after decades in the D.C. suburbs, who's the most susceptible to carpetbagging charges over Enzi, 69, who still makes the cross country flight back to Wyoming most weekends.

Cheney, 46, may try to run as the Tea Party candidate against the three-term senator, but as a daughter of a former vice president who once represented the state in Congress, her ties to the state are from decades ago, and it could be an awkward sell.

Based on the six-minute video she released Tuesday, just minutes after Enzi said planned to run for re-election, Cheney is running as a hardline conservative. She mentioned how she'd work against President Obama without even mentioning Enzi's name once. She touted that she'd be part of a new generation of leaders, and told the Associated Press that experience wasn't necessarily an asset.

“I think that part of the problem in Washington today is seniority,” she told the AP. “I don’t see seniority as a plus, frankly.”

Instead, her campaign comes off as one of pure ambition as she tries to muscle out an aging lawmaker before he wants to go, raising shades of New Jersey when Newark Mayor Cory Booker's ambitions became obvious before the now-late Sen. Frank Lautenberg announced retirement. Even though the Democratic lawmaker had increasing health problems and eventually did choose retirement, the manner in which Booker irked many in the Garden State Democratic class, and his opponents are now trying, somewhat futilely, to use that against him against the heavy frontrunner in the August special primary.

If Cheney, too, had been patient she might have found an open seat to run for down the line. Enzi had been wavering on whether to run for another term even in 2008, but when Cheney moved back to Wyoming to clearly position herself for a political future, it seemed to give the lawmaker motivation to keep going. There had been chatter too that she could have run in Virginia, where the GOP is still in need of a challenger to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner next year. Of course that's a much harder swing state than solidly red Wyoming.

To be sure, the existence of only subtle ties to the state have never hurt candidates before -- remember former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton? But that won't stop this from being point No. 1 for Enzi and his allies' attack line.

"I don't know what the rationale for her candidacy is," said one national GOP strategist privately, echoing the sentiment of many others within the party. And for Republicans, it brings Cheney and the Bush presidency back into the spotlight, and could give Democrats more ammunition in midterm races next fall, too.

Enzi's biggest hurdle, though, will be running a real campaign for the first time in nearly two decades. Since he was first elected in 1996, he's had easy re-election runs. And the state's senior senator admitted on Tuesday that he has never been a prolific fundraiser, telling reporters that, “Money raising’s always been a problem for me.” In the last fundraising quarter, he raised just $171,000 and has under half a million dollars in the bank. One thing that won't be a problem for Cheney? Money.

From a pure partisan standpoint, the outcome in Wyoming is of little difference. No matter who emerges in the state where Obama got just 28%, the Senate seat will remain in GOP hands.