Tea Party debacle implodes: Liz Cheney quits Senate race

Yes, nepotism, carpetbagging and cruelty to her sister hurt -- but Cheney’s troubles show a movement near its end

Published January 6, 2014 3:35PM (EST)

Liz Cheney           (AP/Matt Young)
Liz Cheney (AP/Matt Young)

OK, Liz Cheney was a carpetbagger from Virginia who had little to sell in Wyoming besides her father’s connections. Still, Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter was not nearly as ludicrous a Senate candidate as Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, or Joe Miller of Alaska, or Sharron Angle of Nevada, or Joe Buck of Colorado, or ... well, you get the point – all of whom won their 2010 Tea Party primaries against respectable conservative mainstream Republicans.

That was 2010. On Sunday the 2014 midterm season began with Liz Cheney calling off her doomed Wyoming Senate primary campaign against conservative Mike Enzi, citing unspecified "serious health issues" in her family. We sincerely hope those issues are resolved soon.

But the Tea Party's health issues are also a problem. Despite Cheney’s high-profile campaign troubles, she had a lot of political assets that lesser 2010 challengers couldn’t rely on – and yet those candidates won anyway. Cheney is leaving the race trailing Enzi by more than 50 points. 2014 is going to be an unpredictable midterm election, but Cheney’s failure suggests it’s not going to be a cakewalk for come-from-nowhere Tea Party candidates -- or opportunists like Cheney who pretend to be Tea Party devotees.

Sure, Cheney only moved to Wyoming in 2012, and she had that embarrassing screw-up with her fishing license. Probably the biggest blow to her candidacy was her high-profile, classless row with her sister Mary over gay marriage. Liz took to Fox News to say she didn’t support gay marriage, even though she’d attended Mary’s to wife Heather Poe – and Mary and Heather took to Facebook to chide Liz for either cruelty or hypocrisy, depending on what she really believed, which ultimately no one seemed to know.

Early reports suggested it was that family dispute that led to Cheney leaving the race, but Cheney's statement said it was a health issue.

Either way, it’s worth noting that by 2010 standards, Liz Cheney was a stellar Tea Party primary challenger. (Yes, she was an unlikely Tea Party insurgent in light of her D.C. pedigree, but she clearly thought she was riding an irresistible anti-incumbent Tea Party wave.) Four years ago, Christine O’Donnell, a light-in-the-résumé Republican who had to make a commercial declaring “I am not a witch,” defeated respected Delaware Rep. Mike Castle in the  Republican primary. In Alaska, far-right Tea Party challenger and Sarah Palin friend Joe Miller bested Sen. Lisa Murkowski (though the incumbent came back to win her seat in a write-in campaign after Miller unraveled). Nevada’s Sharron Angle was a Patriot movement supporter who railed against Shariah law and told a group of Asian students she couldn’t tell them apart from Latinos. But she beat establishment candidate Sue Lowden.

All of them lost in November, of course, while somewhat more serious Tea Party standouts like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio won their Senate races.  But it’s hard not to imagine Liz Cheney as a star of the group, of general election winners as well as losers, had she run in 2010.

Cheney’s early 2014 struggles had a lot to do with the flaws of her own campaign, and now she says family concerns ultimately doomed her bid. But I think her already-flailing debacle of a campaign (before the family news came out) tells us something about the fizzling of the Tea Party as an oppositional force, especially when it comes to serious, entrenched conservatives like Wyoming's Mike Enzi. It bodes well for 2014 that she flamed out quickly. Nepotistic sister-betraying Cheneys and other Tea Party opportunists just may not find Republican primaries as easy as they were in 2010. And that’s good for both parties, and for the country.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2014 Elections Editor's Picks Liz Cheney Mike Enzi Republican Party Tea Party U.s. Senate Wyoming