Enzi the Conservative

by Katrina Trinko
He has some weaknesses, but not many.

It’s going to be tough — but not impossible — for Liz Cheney to attack Wyoming senator Mike Enzi from the right.

In the Senate, Enzi, whom Cheney announced on Tuesday that she would primary, is viewed as a consistent conservative. “While Senator Enzi hasn’t always sought the spotlight,” says a GOP Senate aide, “he’s been a consistent, principled, reliable conservative member who has done nothing to deserve a challenge from the right.” But his record isn’t perfect. Jason Whitman, a Wyoming Republican who is the digital-communications director for the Young Republican National Federation, says that there are two issues on which state Republicans may not be pleased with Enzi’s votes.

“One is the Marketplace Fairness Act, the Internet sales tax,” says Whitman, who is not backing either Cheney or Enzi. “That was pretty unpopular in Wyoming and it did raise the ire of a lot of folks here. The other somewhat questionable vote was back in 2010 with the food-safety-modernization act. There was a lot of concern that would cause undue burden on small, local farmers.”

Enzi was the lead sponsor of the Marketplace Fairness Act, which drew widespread criticism from conservative groups. The legislation would force businesses to collect taxes not from where they were located, but from where the buyer was located. The idea was to ensure that Internet purchases were also taxed. But conservatives objected to the burden the bill placed on businesses and questioned what the taxation procedure would mean for states’ rights. “The proposal would overturn a Supreme Court decision setting limits on a state’s ability to require out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes for them, turning every out-of-state retailer into a sales-tax collector for nearly 10,000 separate state, local, and municipal tax jurisdictions,” warned Heritage Action in a March statement announcing that the group would score the vote. “This would be a dangerous extension of state power into other states.”

Enzi pushed back against the conservative backlash. In an April statement, he urged people to read the legislation for themselves, and added, “Don’t take all the negative hype for granted.” Ultimately, Enzi succeeded: The Marketplace Fairness Act passed the Senate in May, 69–27. Its fate in the House remains undetermined.

Enzi has taken other votes that have hurt his standing with conservative groups. He voted for the Farm Bill (the Senate version that included food-stamp funding) last month, and voted against an amendment to the bill that would have reformed sugar subsidies. Currently, Enzi has a 67 percent rating on the Heritage Action scorecard. “He is right there with the average Senate Republican,” says Heritage Action communications director Dan Holler. (Heritage Action does not endorse candidates.) On the FreedomWorks scorecard, Enzi has a 75 percent score; on the Club for Growth’s 2012 scorecard, Enzi’s rating is 71 percent (his lifetime rating is 86 percent).

But it’s not clear which outside groups, if any, will become entangled in the Enzi-Cheney primary. The Club for Growth, which often plays in primaries, is only “watching the race,” according to spokesman Barney Keller. Crossroads has already announced the group will stay out of this primary.

For Cheney, it may be more profitable to attack Enzi’s low profile rather than his record. In recent years, Cheney has appeared regularly on TV, becoming a prominent figure on national-security issues. In contrast, Enzi — unlike Rand Paul or Ted Cruz — hasn’t used his Senate platform to appear regularly in the national media.

But Whitman is skeptical that Wyoming Republicans will be bothered by Enzi’s decision not to seek the media spotlight. Asked if there’s an appetite in the state for a more prominent conservative senator, Whitman is blunt. “If there is,” he says. “I haven’t seen it in this state.”

– Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

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