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4 Lessons From Liz Cheney's Ill-Fated Senate Run

Liz Cheney campaigns in Casper, Wyo., on July 17, one day after announcing her GOP primary challenge to Sen. Mike Enzi.
Matt Young
Liz Cheney campaigns in Casper, Wyo., on July 17, one day after announcing her GOP primary challenge to Sen. Mike Enzi.

Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, ended her Wyoming Senate primary challenge Monday, saying in a statement that a family health situation is responsible for her decision. (ABC News reports that sources close to Cheney said one of her daughters has diabetes.)

Even before family health issues arose, Cheney's apparently dimming prospects against GOP Sen. Mike Enzi would have been enough to give pause to many candidates.

A late October poll sponsored by a superPAC opposing her reported Cheney trailing Enzi by a wide margin, which was in keeping with other surveys that showed a comfortable lead for the incumbent.

So what can we learn from Cheney's now-ended effort to represent Wyoming?

  • A famous political name only gets you so far. The family name was enough to make Liz Cheney a viable candidate, but not enough to make her candidacy highly competitive — at least not to date. Let's face it, if her surname had been Jones, would she have been so keen on challenging Enzi? While her father was one of the most famous politicians ever produced by the Cowboy State and his name offered voters a reason to give her a look, that was only enough to make her campaign plausible. It was always going take much more to beat a popular incumbent.
  • Avoid family feuds. Liz Cheney found herself in the middle of a family squabble when she publicly and volubly opposed same-sex marriage. This set off a high-profile spat between the candidate and her sister Mary, a lesbian, as well as Mary's wife, Heather Poe. Wyoming is a conservative state, so Liz Cheney's anti-gay-marriage stance wasn't going to hurt her among primary voters. But publicly fighting with her sister? That's not a good way to introduce yourself to voters.
  • If you're going to move somewhere to run, pick your new state wisely. Senate candidates in some states can get away with parachuting onto the scene from elsewhere — Hillary Clinton and Robert Kennedy come to mind. But Wyoming isn't New York. Wyoming has a much smaller circle of political elites than many other places — and some aren't that friendly to relative newcomers. The conservative Cheney might have been ideologically simpatico with Wyoming, but she spent much of her adult life in Washington, D.C.'s Northern Virginia suburbs, only moving her family to Wyoming in 2012 before she announced her candidacy. That led some residents to treat her like a carpetbagger, though they may have been too polite to use that word.
  • Have a compelling reason for running. What made Cheney run? In her statement explaining her departure from the race, she said: "My children and their futures were the motivation for our campaign." Yet a frequent criticism of Cheney's effort was that she didn't make a strong enough case for why she, and not Enzi, should hold the Senate seat. Because her ideological views were similar to his, she attempted to define herself as a voice from outside the establishment. But being a former vice president's daughter made that a more difficult sales job, since it's harder to get more establishment than that.
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    Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.