Former GOP Sen. Mike Enzi, the winner of Wyoming’s last competitive Senate race, dies at 77

Former GOP Sen. Mike Enzi, the winner of Wyoming’s last competitive Senate race, dies at 77

Former Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican who represented the state from 1997 until his retirement early this year, died Monday at the age of 77 days after being badly injured in a bike crash. Enzi, who rose to head the Senate Budget Committee, was a generally low-profile figure during his 24 years in D.C., though he rose to prominence during the 2009 health care battle. Enzi was part of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” involved in lengthy talks with the Obama administration, but the White House would eventually criticize him for negotiating in bad faith.

Enzi would recount that he got into politics when, after addressing an event in his capacity as president of the state chapter of the Jaycees civic organization, the then-29-year-old Enzi was encouraged to run for mayor of Gillette by a fellow speaker, state Rep. Alan Simpson. Enzi won that 1974 race and later was elected to the state House and Senate before he entered the 1996 U.S. Senate campaign to succeed the retiring Simpson.

Enzi’s main rival in the nine-way primary was physician John Barrasso, who was known for giving medical advice in his many appearances on local TV and radio. Both frontrunners were viewed as more conservative as the moderate Simpson, but like the outgoing incumbent, Barrasso supported abortion rights. Party activist Bill Maiers would later say, “The pro-life wing didn’t like John because he was pro-choice, at that time. So they went and got Enzi to run. And they worked hard for him.” Enzi ultimately pulled off a 32-30 victory over Barrasso, a margin of just over 2,100 votes.

Cowboy State Democrats hadn’t held a Senate seat since Gale McGee’s 1976 loss, but Team Blue hoped that Enzi’s conservative views would give their nominee, former Secretary of State Kathy Karpan, an opening. Karpan had badly lost the race for governor two years before, but even Republicans acknowledged she was a strong contender. Karpan stressed her own pro-choice views and support for access to public lands while also touting her A-rating from the NRA, and the race was competitive enough to attract outside spending from each side. 

Enzi and his allies worked to portray Karpan as too liberal for what was already one of the most Republican states in the nation and to tie her to Bill Clinton. Enzi at one point mocked Karpan for appearing in hunting gear in an ad, arguing, “She’s all in camouflage, but you can still see right through her.” Enzi ended up winning 54-42 as Bob Dole was carrying the state 50-37; since then, no GOP Senate nominee has failed to take at least 66% of the vote.

Enzi himself quickly became firmly entrenched in the Senate and faced no serious intraparty opposition during most of his tenure; he was even joined in the chamber in 2007 by his old rival Barrasso, who had long ago abandoned his old moderate profile. Enzi, though, became angry with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell around that time for twice passing him over for committee assignments, acknowledging at one point, “Sure. I’m pissed.” All of this led to months of speculation about the senator’s 2008 plans, and his staffers even admitted they had no idea whether he’d be on the ballot again until midway through what turned out to be his reelection announcement.

Enzi easily won that campaign, but for a time, it looked like his next race would be far more challenging. The incumbent drew a prominent primary foe in Liz Cheney in 2013, but she struggled from the beginning to make a case for why voters should fire their well-liked senator. Polls always gave Enzi a huge edge over Cheney, who spent the campaign trying and failing to demonstrate that she understood the state she had only recently moved to. Cheney ended up pulling the plug on her disastrous campaign in early 2014, and Enzi secured his final term with ease.

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