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Liz Cheney's Choice: House Or Senate?

Alex Brandon

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Rep. Liz Cheney does not mince words, but when it comes to her own political ambitions, the Wyoming Republican has nothing to say right now.

"I don't have any announcements to make about that," a tight-lipped Cheney told reporters at a recent press conference dominated by questions about her political future.

The question Cheney is weighing is whether or not to run for the Senate, prompted by GOP Sen. Mike Enzi's decision to retire in 2020. Cheney's ambition for the seat is well-known. She unsuccessfully tried to primary Enzi in 2014, in a short-lived bid marked by acrimony that divided the GOP — and her own family.

But she stuck around, and her fortunes quickly rebounded. In 2016, she won Wyoming's only House seat. Just two years later — and days after losing the majority — House Republicans voted Cheney into party leadership as House Republican Conference chairwoman, the third-highest ranking job in the minority. "We're absolutely going to take back this majority," Cheney pledged in November 2018.

It's the same leadership job once held by her father, former vice president and Wyoming congressman, Dick Cheney. It's also the highest rank any Republican woman has ever reached in the House, and she'll walk away from a history-making chance to climb higher on the leadership ladder, potentially to speaker of the House, if she runs for the Senate.

That is exactly what Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., wants her to do. "Look, I personally believe she ought to go to the Senate," Cole told NPR, who said he has discussed her political future with her.

Republicans like Cole view Cheney as a possible national candidate one day — and the House has never been a great political launch pad for those ambitions. "Look, she's brilliant. She's incisive. She's really a deep thinker on national security issues. So she'd be an incredible asset wherever she's at, and I think that elevates her onto a national stage and actually positions her somewhere down the road to become a legitimate national candidate for the Republican Party."

The more rough-and-tumble nature of the lower chamber has suited Cheney, who has never shied from starting — or weighing in on — a controversy.

In her unsuccessful Senate bid, she picked a fight with her only sister, Mary Cheney, who is gay and married, by campaigning against same-sex marriage in the Republican primary. "I do believe it's an issue that needs to be left up to the states, I do believe in the traditional definition of marriage," she said on Fox in 2013. Her remarks publicly divided the generally private Cheney family.

In 2018, she picked a fight on Twitter over torture with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a former prison of war. Cheney has been one of the most forceful defenders of the interrogation tactics used on terror suspects during the George W. Bush era, which ended under former President Barack Obama. She remains an advocate for bringing them back. "We're very often capturing people, we have nothing to do with people when we do capture them," she said in 2017.

She has also shown a willingness to take on her own party. In January, she was the only House leader to call on Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King to resign over racist remarks, saying he should "find another line of work."

"The notion of white supremacy is offensive, absolutely abhorrent, it's racist, we do not support it or agree with it," she said.

As the leader in charge of party messaging, she has focused frequent attacks on the first two Muslim women in Congress, Democrats Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, for controversial comments they have made about Jews and U.S.-Israel foreign policy. "I'm sorry that there are so many anti-Semitic members of the House Democratic Caucus," she quipped on Fox.

This brand of red-meat messaging is a more natural fit in the House, which is one reason Republicans like Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack hopes she decides to stay. "I know kind of where her heart is, because it's in line I think with her father's, and that is, she's a House person. My hope is she'll follow that direction and stay with us, but if she doesn't, who can argue with trying to run for the Senate?" he told NPR.

If she decides to run, Cheney would be heavily favored to win Wyoming's open Senate seat, and that kind of opportunity doesn't come open very often. For now, the field in the state is frozen waiting to see what move she makes. If she decides against a glide path into the Senate, it would send up a flare within the party that her political ambitions lie in the House.

In the meantime, Republicans wait for Cheney to have something to say about it.

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