Too Negative, Too Soon: Will the Liz Cheney Strategy Pay Off?

PHOTO: Liz Cheney and Mike Enzi
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This week Liz Cheney started her Wyoming Senate bid with what some might consider an insult. Cheney, a Republican, called her GOP rival, Sen. Mike Enzi, "just confused" at her very first campaign event.

She was referring to Enzi's contention that she had promised him not to run if he did.

An obviously surprised Enzi said after her announcement Tuesday, "I thought we were friends."

The dig is a clear hit at his age: Enzi is 69 while Cheney is 46. But in a Republican vs. Republican match-up, is it the right move to go mean at the starting line?

Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist with family ties in the state, says it's the wrong move.

"Going after him and tearing him down will actually splash mud back onto Liz Cheney," Bonjean said in an interview with ABC News. "It's bad form and it's bad politics in a state like Wyoming to go after a senator with high approval ratings in a way that is tearing him down."

Bonjean added, "You want to engage the hug-the-opposition strategy."

By that, Bonjean means Cheney should have employed what some have called the "gold watch strategy," praising your fellow Republican and hoping they get the hint and move on to greener pastures.

Bonjean says she should have said something more like this, "'We love Senator Enzi, he's done a great job, but it's time for a new chapter. We appreciate his leadership and thank him for it, but it's time for him to move along so that there can be new leadership for the new problems we are facing.'"

Cheney's opening salvo was a sudden departure from her announcement video in which she did not specifically mention Enzi at all. Instead her main focus was on the president and how she would be a strong voice of opposition. She did manage a veiled shot at Enzi and his reputation for negotiating, saying, "Instead of cutting deals with the president's liberal allies, we should be opposing them every step of the way."

James King, chairman of the political science department at the University of Wyoming, pointed out that since Cheney is not challenging someone who is an "unpopular incumbent," she does need to "do something to distinguish herself" and that's exactly what she's doing.

"She has to make a contrast somehow and obviously she has decided on age and thinking that Wyoming wants someone more confrontational with the Obama administration," King said.

Cheney's attempt to point out the generational differences is not without precedent. Newark mayor Cory Booker announced his decision to run for the U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey before the 89-year-old Frank Lautenberg had announced his own intentions.

The move didn't immediately push Lautenberg out, but it did anger him. He told reporters that Booker deserved a "spanking" for his behavior. Lautenberg did eventually announce plans to retire and then in June passed away. Those hard feelings didn't go away; his family backed Democratic rival Rep. Frank Pallone earlier this month.

Other candidates have found different ways to try and nudge older incumbents out of a race. In 1996, Slate reported that Strom Thurmond's Senate challenger in South Carolina, Democrat Elliot Close, aired an ad called "Legacy," praising the 95-year-old senator and aiming to give voters permission to vote Thurmond out in favor of a younger candidate. It didn't work, and Thurmond won.

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