Rand Paul began his offensive against Liz Cheney as soon as a Senate seat opened up in May, reigniting a years-long feud between their families and warring wings of the Republican Party.
The Kentucky GOP senator quickly made contact with Cynthia Lummis, a former conservative House member, to encourage her to run for the Senate seat opening up in Wyoming now that Mike Enzi was retiring.
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Lummis soon jumped into the race, leaving Cheney, her successor in Congress, with a tough choice: Embark on a brutal primary against Lummis or take the safer route and seek her fortune in House leadership.
That was only the beginning of Paul’s slugfest with Cheney, one that included a fierce back and forth over Twitter on foreign policy, dueling Sunday show appearances and a highly unusual phone call from Paul into a Casper, Wyo., TV station to assert that Wyoming Republicans are “tired” of Cheney’s support for nation-building abroad.
Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican in just her second term, responded with her own show of strength. She said she was looking forward to having dinner with President Donald Trump that evening.
The assertion from Cheney that Paul has surrendered “to terrorists” and Paul’s response that Cheney is a “NeverTrump warmonger” was, in the words of Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), “weird, wild stuff.”
The bad blood between the Cheneys and Pauls goes way back. The fathers, former Rep. Ron Paul and former Vice President Dick Cheney were on opposite sides of the Iraq War. Dick Cheney backed Rand Paul’s primary opponent in 2010. Since Rand Paul was elected, he’s backed Liz Cheney’s challenger in each of her congressional races.
“Rand likes to pick a fight, that’s his way,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.), who serves in House leadership with Cheney but is neutral on the Wyoming Senate race.
But the battle is much more than personal beef. It’s a preview of a divisive Senate primary; a public display of the long-running effort to influence Trump’s loose policy views; and a test for how best to claim the Trump mantle in a party whose sharp divides have been papered over since winning the White House in 2016.
A safe red state is the perfect place for it all to play out, with Lummis as a proxy for Paul’s libertarian-inflected conservatism against Cheney’s sharp-edged ambition at home and abroad.
“Cynthia Lummis is going to be the next U.S. senator from Wyoming. If [Cheney] runs, it may be the most significant Republican primary in the country,” Paul said in an interview. “She’ll have to decide whether she wants to match conservative credentials with somebody who actually lives in Wyoming and has been there her whole life.”
Cheney’s allies scoff at Paul’s early intervention in the race and insist it won’t impact her decision making. In fact, they say his aggressive maneuvering could backfire in a state where GOP voters have hugged Trump tightly. Paul, they point out, once called Trump an “orange-faced windbag” and has only voted with Trump 69 percent of the time on key votes, compared to Cheney’s 96 percent, according to the website 538.
Early polling shows Cheney leading Lummis by over 20 points in a potential match-up, according to a survey conducted by the GOP firm The Tarrance Group.
Though she’s made no final decision and isn’t expected to do so for a couple months, Republicans believe she’s likely to run for the Senate, according to interviews with a dozen members of Congress and aides. For now, Cheney says only that she’s “going to do what’s best for Wyoming.” And even some of her closest allies don’t know where she will land.
“She and I have talked about it several times,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, a Cheney friend who is running for Senate in Alabama. “She’d be a terrific senator, she’d be a terrific speaker. I think that is the dilemma.”
Her decision will have an outsized effect on both the Senate, where she could one day mount a presidential run, and the House, where she’s viewed as a potential future speaker. Many are already taking sides.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is eager for Cheney to run, according to three sources familiar with his preference in the race. McConnell sees Cheney as a dynamic addition to his conference and a likely ally for his agenda. Lummis was often at odds with House leadership and served in the hard-line House Freedom Caucus.
Hawkish Republicans like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also back Cheney.
“I don’t know the other lady, I just know Liz,” Graham said. “She’d be an outstanding senator.”
Yet the “other lady” also has plenty of supporters in the Senate, and they are making a not-so-subtle effort to head Cheney off from running. In addition to Paul, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) all support Lummis. Plenty of Senate Republicans are also still peeved by Cheney’s aborted primary campaign against Enzi six years ago.
“Liz very well could be the first Republican woman speaker of the House,” Cramer said, adding that the state and party will be stronger without a divisive primary. “If I was in Wyoming I’d go, ‘gosh, we have an opportunity to have a couple superstars.’ And if Liz does [run for Senate], we don’t.”
Cheney has risen quickly in the House, and at times staked out more conservative territory than Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — moves that could better position herself to run for speaker one day.
If Cheney instead decides to challenge Lummis for the Senate, the contest would elevate the larger split in the Republican Party over foreign policy and the still simmering debate over whether Trump’s worldview is closer to Paul’s and Lummis’ or Cheney’s.
Lummis told POLITICO she “received encouragement from Senator Paul and a number of other fiscally conservative senators.” And despite Cheney’s leadership position, Lummis still has allies in the House, where she served for nearly a decade.
Conservative Rep. Mark Meadows, one of Trump’s closest confidants on Capitol Hill, has already contributed to Lummis’ campaign. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who leans libertarian like Paul, said it’s an “easy call” to back Lummis.
Some GOP lawmakers and aides interpreted the Cheney-Paul Twitter spat as an audition for an audience of one: Trump. If Cheney does jump into the race, there would undoubtedly be a battle for Trump’s endorsement. His supporters in Congress are unsure if Trump would weigh in.
Cheney’s allies, though, say she has a leg up, catching Trump’s eye on Fox News as a fierce champion of the military. At a White House event in July, the president heaped praise on Cheney, saying she has a “pretty unlimited future.”
Yet Lummis was also considered for Interior secretary, a sign the president has gotten over a disparaging comment she made during the 2016 campaign — that she was “holding my nose” to vote for Trump.
Regardless of who wins, the Senate will be far different with the departure of the low-key Enzi. Lummis might be a headache for GOP leaders if she resumes the same confrontational stance she had in the House and joins Paul as a thorn in McConnell’s side.
And if Cheney wins, well, those who sit between her and Paul at the weekly Republican lunches better look out.
“I don’t think anybody will stab anybody,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), not entirely convincingly.