POLITICS
07/19/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Enzi-Cheney Primary Suddenly Makes Wyoming -- And Its Disproportionate Power -- Interesting

A little over a week ago, incumbent Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi made sure that everyone knew that Liz Cheney was going to primary him. This was surprising news, mainly because what would have otherwise been a sleepy 2014 Senate contest could end up being something that the media could monetize for page views and whatnot. And last week, Cheney went ahead and confirmed that she was going to give it a shot. So here we are: The state of Wyoming is now suddenly interesting!

Back when Enzi first broke this news on Cheney's behalf, the whole thing seemed awfully perplexing. After all, Enzi isn't the sort of senator who has spent his recent days doing the sort of things to earn conservative ire. As I pointed out earlier, there was a brief period of time that some thought he might be a gettable Republican vote for the Affordable Care Act, but that was essentially an illusion. And Enzi hadn't gone so far as to actually work on a substantive alternative, as did 2010 primary victim Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah) -- who also committed the sin of working hand-in-hand with a Democrat.

I did a search through Wyoming-based media, looking for any reason why Enzi might have fallen out with the Cheneys, and couldn't find anything compelling. Then I read Mike Riggs' take on the matter, and learned that I should have been looking in my own back yard:

Here's a Politico headline from last week: "Rand Paul: I’ve got Mike Enzi’s back vs. Liz Cheney." Paul told the publication that Enzi's “a good conservative,” and that the two are friends. While that might come as a surprise to anyone who witnessed Paul's blitzkrieg against the Marketplace Fairness Act (which Enzi introduced), it makes plenty of sense if you go back to March 6 of this year, when Paul filibustered for 13 hours to block the confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan. Among Paul's supporters that night was Enzi, who released this statement the following day:

"Mr. President, I rise to speak in opposition to the nomination of John Brennan for CIA Director. This Administration hasn’t been forthcoming in answering a vitally important question of whether or not Americans could be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime or being found guilty in a court of law. This should have been a very simple answer. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated today that the Administration does not have the authority to kill Americans on American soil. That’s great news, however, it shouldn’t have taken a United States Senator 12 hours of non-stop-talking for the Administration to acknowledge the simple fact that it cannot kill American citizens on American soil without a trial.

I would like to applaud Senator Rand Paul’s courage and conviction last night as he stood on the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours defending our rights under the Constitution. Senator Paul deserves recognition for standing up for the American people and bringing this issue to light. And it’s an issue that I and many of my constituents in the State of Wyoming find very troubling."

So that's one reason why this Wyoming primary is going to be very compelling -- it's the venue for a hot proxy war between Rand Paul's libertarianish insurgency and the neo-con old guard. For that reason, the nut grafs of all those "Enzi is getting primaried" pieces -- featuring Alan Simpson's concern-trolling that a Cheney bid was going to divide the Republican Party asunder -- look awfully silly in retrospect. You can't dissuade Liz Cheney from running on the grounds that she'll divide the Republican Party if dividing the Republican Party is the target at which she's aiming!

Of course, the more immediate conversation that Cheney is starting has to do with her choice of Senate seats, and the way Wyoming and its teensy population is incredibly over-represented in the Senate. In fact, when it comes to the way representation in the Senate in terms of population has gotten hellaciously out of whack, Wyoming is basically the test case. A March 2013 article in The New York Times puts the state of Wyoming alongside the city of Fresno, Calif., and, as is their wont, a "portrait emerges":

Fresno, Calif., is a city of a half-million people with a long list of problems, including 14 percent unemployment, the aftermath of a foreclosure crisis, homeless encampments that dot the sun-blasted landscape and worries about the safety of the surrounding county’s drinking water.

A thousand miles away, a roughly comparable number of people inhabit the entire state of Wyoming. Like Fresno and its environs, Wyoming is rural, with an economy largely based on agriculture. It is also in much better shape than Fresno, with an unemployment rate around 5 percent.

Even so, Wyoming receives far more assistance from the federal government than Fresno does. The half-million residents of Wyoming also have much more sway over federal policy than the half-million residents of Fresno.

Alec MacGillis and Nate Cohn have also chronicled Wyoming's disproportionate power in the Senate at great length. Cohn offers numerous tasty statistical comparisons, such as "Rhode Island’s largest county has more people than Wyoming," and "There are almost as many Romney voters in wildly Democratic Brooklyn as there are in Wyoming."

Of course, Wyoming's tiny electorate is part of the reason that the state is so attractive to Cheney -- though the fact that her family has obvious roots in the state doesn't exactly hurt. Nevertheless, Enzi begins the contest with a gigantic lead -- Harper Polling has him up on Cheney by a 55 percent to 21 percent margin.

In the video above, I join The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn and Duke University law professor and founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics Guy-Uriel Charles in a discussion about Wyoming's disproportionate power, how it affects policy, and what, if anything, can be done about it. (Spoiler alert: not much, actually!)

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