Many political observers expected it to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting — U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi will not seek another term in 2020 after four terms in Congress. With only three congressional seats in Wyoming, it’s always exciting when there’s an open race.
Enzi was a low-key personality in the Senate, focused more on his budgetary goals than speaking to reporters or making bombastic statements on Twitter. In contrast to Enzi’s below-the-radar-approach to representation, the 2020 election is sure to be full of interesting characters with a lot of attention-grabbing statements on deck. How that plays out is on hold, however, while we wait to see what U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming’s now-powerful GOP office holder decides to do.
Cheney briefly challenged Enzi for his seat during the 2014 primary before pulling out. So we know Cheney has shown interest in the Senate seat, and it’s an opportunity that only comes up a few times in any given person’s viable political career. It’s likely that whoever takes the seat will be there for 20 years or more as Enzi was, and as Sen. John Barrasso is also likely to do.
If Cheney chooses to run for another term in the House — which she may do, as she’s risen to the No. 3 GOP position in just two terms — that will surely mean an entertaining Republican primary to replace Enzi. On the other hand, if Cheney runs for Senate, she’ll probably win, but there’s also a fair chance there will be at least one other strong GOP contender hoping to seize the moment. In that scenario, the open House seat would lead to a lot of right-wing hyperbolic fun in the primary.
If we’ve learned anything from Cheney’s first run for House in 2016, it can be expected that an open congressional seat in Wyoming will lead to around 8-12 candidates vying for the Republican nod. Wyoming hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since Gale McGee (who served Wyoming out of Laramie), who left his Senate post in 1977. While it seems we’re in an age where it would seem wise to say “anything could happen,” Wyoming sending a Democrat to Capitol Hill seems like one of the most unlikely scenarios in U.S. politics. It is such an unlikely outcome that Republican statewide primaries in Wyoming have become the general election, as it’s practically a foregone conclusion that person will prevail in November. As such, an open statewide seat leads to an interesting situation in Republican primaries.
The Cheney family has firm Wyoming connections, but reasonable minds can argue that it seemed her move to Wyoming was one of convenience, having spent the bulk of her life living elsewhere, as she sought an easy path to Congress. It must seem tempting for potential candidates with name recognition and the ability to outspend Wyoming primary opponents to simply waltz into a race or races like we’ll have in 2020 and potentially end up with an easy route to the nation’s Capitol. And that’s what we’re concerned about.
There were rumors of Blackwater founder Erik Prince potentially challenging Barrasso in 2016, looking to use his vast fortunes to run a campaign where he stood a decent chance of upsetting the incumbent if he said the right things. To have even rumors of such a notorious character considering the move should be enough to scare us when it comes to these outsider political opportunists seeking office via the Cowboy State.
Given today’s environment, there’s a fair chance that very thing will happen. Wyoming’s statewide races are comparatively inexpensive, and national name recognition and vast resources have seen some success. Foster Friess, a virtual political unknown part-time Jackson resident, nearly took the 20108 gubernatorial primary with his national connections (including President Trump) and huge sums to spend on campaigning. It might be too good a chance for a savvy and wealthy outsider to pass up.
While our instinct is to say Wyoming voters should reject any outsider opportunists in these elections, you must admit that person might be the better pick if the homegrown leader is a quack. One might think you’d see level-headed primary contenders come out of the state Legislature, as we did with Republicans Leland Christensen and Tim Stubson in the 2016 House primary. But it’s possible a firebrand that doesn’t really accurately represent most Wyoming conservatives would be the best locally-sourced Republican candidate, seize momentum and wind up a top contender. In that case, if the outsider opportunist is really the better choice, the members of this board would have to defer to that person.
Much of this message is for voters, but we also have one for candidates: If there’s an undesirable in the race, make sure you don’t split your vote. In that 2016 U.S. House primary, there were nine Republican candidates (Rex Rammell dropped out before Election Day, though he still garnered 890 votes). While Cheney walked away with a convincing win, picking up 35,043 votes, the eight challengers picked up a combined 52,884. This is not to say necessarily that Cheney was an undesirable; just that she was the powerhouse. If a few of her challengers had dropped out before primary voting, the powerhouse could have been defeated.
In any case, that’s a lot of hypothetical, and there is at least one core principle people should look at when casting their 2020 ballots: Is this person here to carry water for the party or will this person do what’s right for Wyoming, regardless of political fallout in D.C.?
Whatever you think about President Donald Trump, it’s pretty clear Republicans have learned the safest thing for them to do is to find a way to line up with whatever he says. That’s not a good thing, no matter who the president is, because it shows congressmen and congresswomen making guesses about what they think will contribute to their successes, not holding true to their own values.
Former Republican U.S. Senator for Wyoming Al Simpson said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” Whoever is elected should be someone unafraid to stand up to party and power, taking positions that he or she believes to be right for Wyoming and the nation.
Congress in our system has a great deal of power when it comes to the other two branches. We’re now seeing attempts by the executive branch to make that oversight irrelevant, and that is a very dangerous path to go down. Wyoming’s next senator or representative in Congress should be unafraid to speak up when he or she doesn’t agree with colleagues or the administration, and stick to those guns when pressured to get in line. There are viable candidates in Wyoming who would fit that mold — it’s up to us as voters to support those men and women.