I admire Liz Cheney as much as anyone, but I can’t claim to be pleased to learn that she has moved from Washington to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and has told Senator Mike Enzi that she may run against him in next year’s GOP primary. In my view, Republicans (and conservatives) spend much too much time and energy attacking each other, rather than going after the Democrats. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Republicans should never mount primary challenges.
But when do such challenges make sense? If an incumbent Republican is not a conservative (Susan Collins, say) and a more conservative challenger has a good chance of winning the general election, then a primary challenge is in order. But that isn’t the case here: Enzi is a solid conservative with a 93% lifetime American Conservative Union rating (92% in 2012). He recently voted against the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill. Cheney may well be a little more conservative than Enzi, but going after a 90+% conservative is fratricide.
Another situation where a primary challenge makes sense is when the incumbent Republican is a solid conservative, but for whatever reason, not a strong politician, and is likely to lose the general election. In that scenario, a primary challenge by an equally sound conservative with better general election prospects is also appropriate. But that scenario doesn’t apply here, either. Wyoming is a solidly Republican state, and either Enzi or Cheney would be the overwhelming favorite to win the seat next year.
A third possibility should also be considered: there may be situations where the incumbent is a good conservative as well as a good bet for re-election, but due to advancing years or ill health may no longer be an effective senator. (Think, on the other side of the aisle, Tim Johnson.) In that situation, it may make sense to try to nudge the incumbent off the stage and get the seat into the hands of someone younger and more vigorous. But that situation doesn’t obtain in Wyoming, either. Enzi is 69, by no means elderly for a senator, and to my knowledge his health is fine.
Perhaps, if Ms. Cheney decides to seek the Wyoming seat, she will be able to articulate a compelling rationale for her candidacy. But for now, this looks like exactly the kind of primary challenge that conservative Republicans should not be mounting. Cheney is neither significantly more conservative than Enzi nor significantly more electable; her real advantage as a primary candidate is that she is significantly more glamorous. That isn’t enough.