What happens in Wyoming won't stay in Wyoming

There's Tip O'Neill's famous line that "all politics is local." Nowadays, as a smart Republican pollster pointed out to me recently, for big-name candidates no politics - and no campaign stop - is ever local; every utterance will become a national story... Just something to keep in mind this week as Liz Cheney jumped in to the Wyoming GOP primary to challenge long-time Sen. Mike Enzi.

A famous name on a ballot draws national attention and that, in turn, puts Cheney in a prime position to help define Republicans' national message and brand next year, whether she tries to or not - even as she campaigns within state borders. This local-to-national dynamic can especially happen in midterms because there isn't a presidential candidate carrying the party banner. Attention can readily flow to state candidates who are able to command it, and Cheney is surely one of them.

Wyoming will stay in Republican hands in the end, but if (and that's if) this fight gets tough and heavily ideological, the question is how it might play with voters watching from other states where they may be weighing choices in tighter races, and evaluating the Republican Party as a whole. And that's atop the larger point, voiced by some Republicans on "CBS This Morning" this week, that any divisions are, in and of themselves, a distraction for a party that would rather put its resources into knocking off Democrats in the fall, or speak with a single message.

We've seen something like that dynamic lately in 2010, when primary fights in individual states defined much of the Republicans' overall narrative; at the time it was whether the tea party would make inroads, challenging erstwhile favorites in places like Colorado, Alaska, Utah and elsewhere, sometimes by debating who was more conservative and in which ideological direction the national party ought to go; sometimes the choice was framed as more of a loosely-defined "establishment" against outsiders. (This one at the outset seems like it'll be who'll more vocally and determinedly stand against the administration. It's hard to see how this becomes a purely ideological fight given Enzi's conservative bona fides, but we'll see.)

Some of those primary debates last cycle led to local and national wins for Republicans - and a few of today's most prominent national figures (think Rand Paul, Marco Rubio) emerged during that cycle, too, fueled in part out of those debates and desire for new leadership. But the tally sheet was also mixed, and some blamed the divisions and rightward push for the party not picking up as many Senate seats as it might have otherwise.

There's a larger point here, too, to keep in mind as we watch whatever arguments emerge in Wyoming, or in any other places with primary fights that the national party didn't necessarily ask for (we're watching places like Iowa, perhaps, or Georgia, too): For as much as we like to imagine sometimes that party "leaders" can try to brand or define a party message, at the end of the day it's the candidates that do it, and not a national apparatus. Outside of some concentrated fundraising and organizing help, a political party is mostly a collection of candidates and the struggle to define it always comes from the sum of what happens at the ballot box, from voters, and particularly in primaries.

Other items of note:

Virginia Governor: Democrat Terry McAuliffe leads a still-unsettled race, helped by a large gender gap. A Quinnipiac poll showed the ex-Democratic National Committee chairman leading Republican state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, 43-39 percent.

Montana Senate: We wrote recently that this state could be a pivotal in deciding who controls the Senate. Democrats lost their highest candidate when former Gov. Brian Schweitzer declined to run. Now the question is who will, but most others will have a hard time matching the name ID of a former governor. The Billings Gazette reported Democratic state education superintendent Denise Juneau said she'd think about it; the Associated Press reported a number of other names being floated as well.GOP lashes out after Liz Cheney announces Senate run

  • Anthony Salvanto On Twitter»

    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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