By Eli Yokley
August 15, 2016 at 5:37 pm ET
When Wyoming Republicans head to the polls Tuesday to decide the party’s nominee for Congress, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul says they’ll help settle the question about the “direction of the Republican Party.”
Liz Cheney – a former Fox News commentator whose father, Vice President Dick Cheney, held the state’s sole seat in the U.S. House for 12 years – is the favorite of nine candidates to win the open contest, but Paul on Sunday endorsed a leading rival, state Sen. Leland Christensen.
“There were a bunch of candidates, and a bunch of good candidates, in opposition to Liz Cheney,” the Kentucky Republican said in a Monday afternoon interview with Morning Consult. “Leland Christensen has shown that he can raise money, he’s out there campaigning and he has the best chance to win on Election Day.”
Paul sought to tie Cheney to her father, a champion of the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and deficit spending – all things that have earned the ire of many Republicans who swept into Congress during the tea party wave just six years ago.
“For those of us who were elected as part of the tea party movement in 2010, we were concerned about Republicans and Democrats spending too much money. If we keep electing more establishment Republicans, not much is going to improve in Washington,” he said.
But in many Republican primaries this year – despite the outsider furor that rocked the Republican presidential race that Paul was initially a part of – the establishment has held the upper hand.
Most incumbents have kept their seats this cycle, many candidates backed by the party’s establishment groups have won open primaries, and in one of the few races where an incumbent was defeated in a primary, it was a Kansas Republican backed by the party’s leadership who ousted a tea party lawmaker, Rep. Tim Huelskamp.
Paul said his party’s establishment has been more involved in races and has had more money than the tea party, but said his own stature in Wyoming – a state where he thought he would have done well, had he managed to stay in the presidential race – could help earn Christensen some last-minute support he might not otherwise have received.
For voters in Wyoming, Paul said it’s a choice between a “big government” Republican, which is how he views Cheney, and a “constitutional conservative,” which is how he sees Christensen.
Cheney, who had been living in Northern Virginia, moved back to Wyoming in 2012 ahead of a brief candidacy in the Republican primary against Sen. Mike Enzi. She cited health issues in dropping out, but left the race lagging far behind the incumbent and with tensions high between her and other Wyoming Republicans.
Since then, those tensions seem to have thawed, with many of them embracing her as she seeks statewide office for a second time. Along with her father, who is still popular there, another member of the Wyoming political old guard is supporting her bid, former Sen. Al Simpson, known for his efforts to rein in the national debt.
Recent polling has shown Cheney with a lead, though many voters were still undecided. Republican operatives in Washington believe she will likely prevail when polls close on Tuesday for this safe Republican seat being vacated by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, the lone woman in the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Eli Yokley is a senior data reporter at Morning Consult covering politics and campaigns. @eyokley