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Incumbent faces GOP purity test

In the video announcing her Senate candidacy, Liz Cheney wears a jean shirt and stands in front of a field and rail fence. It is meant to convey Wyoming, the state she would like to represent and where she has lived for only a year or so.

Her opponent, Sen. Mike Enzi, is a three-term incumbent and could achieve the same effect by standing alone in a room. He is a 40-year veteran of Wyoming politics who built a business there and whose lack of Beltway trappings would help him do well in a ranking of sitting senators least likely to be mistaken for one.

If this were a campaign based on geography, Cheney would be sunk. That is why – despite the tableau – the video announces not so much that she’s running from Wyoming but that she’s really running to become a senator from Conservitopia, an ideological place where mere garden-variety conservatism is not enough.

There is no obvious geographical or ideological rationale for her candidacy. Instead, it is built on age and aggression. The promise of Cheney’s candidacy is that she will go to Washington to be an energetic warrior for the conservative cause. By taking on a solid conservative, she will either clarify precisely what a constitutional conservative is or she will launch a high-profile, messy fight that will create a spectacle of GOP discord and acrimony for all to see.

Cheney argues that the conservative cause needs a “new generation of leaders” who “can’t just go along to get along.” She is making a version of the case used against former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar: It’s no longer enough to be a solid conservative.

Enzi hasn’t grown disconnected from his constituents the way Lugar had, which makes this a more pure form of the purity test. In 2010, Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett was bounced in a primary because he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and worked with Oregon’s Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden on a health care plan.

Enzi’s critics will try to make his vote in support of an Internet sales tax a key attack line, but that will be harder to do than exploiting TARP. (Enzi didn’t vote for immigration reform or background checks.)

“We need GOP senators to be willing to ‘beat up on their colleagues,’ ” says Kurt Schlichter at Townhall. “It’s not about collegiality in the cloakroom. We want you hated, despised and targeted because that will mean you are getting something conservative done.”

The usual worry for a party in a primary fight is that it will open up a spot for an eventual challenger from the other party. There’s little danger of that in Wyoming, which makes it a perfect place for this intramural scrimmage.

It could be long and bloody; both candidates will be well-funded. Democrats hope that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has pledged to support Enzi, will have to spend millions against the sure-to-be-well-financed Cheney.

The Republican Washington establishment hopes to regain control of the Senate in 2014. To keep that from happening, Democrats hope Cheney and Enzi will be bloodying themselves for months to come.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”

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