As with so much of Liz Cheney’s Senate campaign, its abrupt termination was unexpected, buzz-provoking, and laden with family drama.
CNN broke the news late Sunday night that Cheney was discontinuing her six-month-old Wyoming candidacy due to family health concerns. By early Monday, an official statement was making the rounds, with Cheney explaining: “Serious health issues have recently arisen in our family, and under the circumstances, I have decided to discontinue my campaign. My children and their futures were the motivation for our campaign and their health and well-being will always be my overriding priority.”
Talk about an announcement that raises more questions than it answers.
While the family has declined to elaborate, NBC is reporting that the well-being of the five Cheney moppets is the issue—which, if so, makes Liz seem significantly more appealing than at any point since her wild-and-woolly electoral odyssey began.
And what a ride it was. From the moment she announced, it was clear that, while she shares her dad’s taste for political combat, she lacks his gift for sneaky, quietly ruthless infighting. Despite her years of experience playing in the big leagues, damn near everything the woman said or did blew up into an unflattering public spat. Her campaign rollout was so awkward it left the distinct impression that not only was Liz rashly taking aim at a staunchly conservative member of her own party but that she was personally shivving an old family fishing buddy. “I thought we were friends!” Sen. Mike Enzi wailed to reporters. Leave it to Liz to turn one of the Senate’s most conservative members into an object of sympathy among moderates and even Democrats.
From there, things only got testier. When the Wyoming media reported that Liz had somehow acquired an in-state fishing license despite not having been a resident for the requisite year, her response was to trash the local papers. Newspapers are dying and “that’s not a bad thing,” she crowed to a gathering of Jackson Hole Tea Partiers. That did not go over well with Wyomingites, many of whom, however grimly they may view the national media, kinda like their local papers and, more to the point, saw License-gate as a newsworthy sign of Liz’s carpetbagger sense of entitlement. Pretty quickly, she found herself launching a make-nice tour with area journalists.
But forget squabbling with reporters. You know what really jacks up the entertainment value of a campaign? Having the candidate’s mom get into a verbal slap-fight with a retired senator from the same party who once represented the state the candidate is running in. So it was that in late September, former senator Alan Simpson accused Lynne Cheney of scolding him for not supporting Liz and, in the middle of a charity fundraiser, of ordering him to “shut up—just shut up—shut up!” When Lynne insisted the exchange never happened, Simpson went ballistic, penning a lengthy, detailed letter that ran in the September 27 edition of his local paper, charging that Lynne’s denial was “one damn bald-faced lie and I have had a belly full of it!” It was like a bad episode of Dance Moms, only with fewer sequins and less self-restraint.
For pure reality-TV melodrama, however, nothing came close to Liz’s public brawl with her younger sister, Mary, over same-sex marriage. The first skirmish erupted in late August, when Liz issued a campaign statement voicing her opposition to such unions. Mary, who wed her same-sex partner in 2012, pushed back on Facebook, prompting a brisk but relatively gentle round of my-oh-my media coverage. A couple of months later, Liz doubled down on her position during a November 17 appearance on Fox News Sunday. Mary hit back harder—as did her wife, Heather Poe. This time, the entire chattering class pounced with obvious glee and many juicy details. The New York Times’ report that the two sisters had not spoken in months and would not be spending the holidays together was precisely the sort of morsel that comes to define a campaign. Seeking to defuse the issue, the elder Cheneys waded in to defend Liz, but that only upped the pathos and the sense of desperation clinging to the whole enterprise. (Liz’s wretched November poll numbers vis-à-vis Enzi didn’t do much to help, either.)
Who’s to say how all this might have played out had Liz hung in there to the end? The Cheneys are a savvy political bunch. (Heck, Dick worked his dark mojo for decades before finally overplaying his hand.) And one cannot help but suspect that, despite the early bumps, the seemingly indomitable clan would have eventually found a way to bend the landscape to their will: The sisters would have made nice, Lynne would have curbed her tongue, and Liz would have figured out how not to come across like an angrier, scarier, more entitled version of her dad.
Instead, fate has moved to derail the Cheney clan’s dynastic dreams, leaving fans and critics alike with nothing to do but sift through the shards of Liz’s campaign, wondering “What if?”—and, perhaps more ominously, “What next?”
Liz seems happy to keep the door cracked. Her withdrawal statement concluded on a somewhat sinister note: “As a mother and a patriot, I know that the work of defending freedom and protecting liberty must continue for each generation. Though this campaign stops today, my commitment to keep fighting with you and your families for the fundamental values that have made this nation and Wyoming great will never stop.”
If I were Wyoming’s junior senator, John Barrasso—up for reelection in 2018—I’d start looking over my shoulder.