In Wyoming, likely end of Cheney dynasty will close a political era
By Jonathan Martin
At an event last month honoring the 14,000 Japanese Americans who were once held at the Heart Mountain internment camp near here, Rep. Liz Cheney was overcome with emotions, and a prolonged standing ovation wasn’t the only reason.
Her appearance — with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as former Sen. Alan Simpson and the children of Norman Mineta, a Democratic congressman turned transportation secretary who was sent to the camp when he was 10 — was part of a groundbreaking for the new Mineta-Simpson Institute. Liz Cheney was moved, she said, by the presence of the survivors and by their enduring commitment to the country that imprisoned them during World War II.
There was something else, though, that got to the congresswoman during the bipartisan ceremony with party elders she was raised to revere. “It was just a whole combination of emotion,” she recalled in a recent interview.
As Cheney faces a near-certain defeat today in her House primary, it is the likely end of the Cheneys’ two-generation dynasty as well as the passing of a less tribal and more clubby and substance-oriented brand of politics.
“We were a very powerful delegation, and we worked with the other side, that was key, because you couldn’t function if you didn’t,” recalled Simpson, now 90, fresh off being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and as tart-tongued as ever about his ancestral party. “My dad was senator and a governor, and if I ran again today as a Republican I’d get my ass beat — it’s not about heritage.”
He was elected to the Senate in 1978, the same year that Dick Cheney won Wyoming’s at-large House seat, and they worked closely together, two Republicans battling on behalf of the country’s least populated state in an era when Democrats always controlled at least one chamber of Congress.
It’s not mere clout, however, that traditional Wyoming Republicans are pining for as they consider their gilded past and ponder the state’s less certain political and economic future. Before Tuesday’s election, which is likely to propel Harriet Hageman, who is backed by former President Donald Trump, to the House, the nostalgia in the state is running deeper than the Buffalo Bill Reservoir.
Dick Cheney and Simpson were not only in the leadership of their respective chambers in the 1980s; they, along with Sen. Malcolm Wallop, a Yale-educated cold warrior whose grandfather served in both the British House of Lords and the Wyoming Legislature, got along well and often appeared together as a delegation in a sort of road show across the sprawling state (“A small town with long streets,” as the Wyoming saying goes).
Even headier was the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Cheney became defense secretary, and his wife, Lynne, served as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, while Simpson was both the second-ranking Senate Republican and one of the president’s closest friends. On top of that, the secretary of state at the time, James Baker, spent summers on his Wyoming ranch, meaning two of the country’s top national security officials could be found doing unofficial promotional work for the state’s tourism industry.
“You’d have Army choppers snatching Cheney and Baker from fishing holes,” recalled Rob Wallace, who was Wallop’s chief of staff.
As conservative as the state was on the national level — Lyndon B. Johnson is the only Democrat to carry Wyoming in the past 70 years — the Wyoming Republican delegation worked effectively with two well-regarded Democratic governors in that same period, Ed Herschler and Mike Sullivan.
Now, Liz Cheney hardly even speaks to the two other Wyomingites in Congress — Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, both Republicans — and has little contact with Gov. Mark Gordon. Lummis has endorsed Hageman. But Barrasso and Gordon, who are mainline Republicans in the Cheney tradition, have sought to maintain neutrality in hopes of avoiding Trump’s wrath.
Gordon, though, has surely not forgotten that when he ran for governor in 2018, in a primary that included Hageman, Cheney did not support him.
“Everything is political in Wyoming except politics, which is personal,” Simpson likes to say. What alarms some longtime Wyoming Republicans more than campaign season tensions is what the combination of Trump fear and fidelity will ultimately mean for the strength of the delegation — and for the state’s future. Wyoming has neither a state income tax nor a corporate tax, having long relied on severance levies on oil, natural gas and coal.
With growing national support for clean energy — and a large federal bill promoting climate-friendly power soon to become law — that pillar of Wyoming’s economy could face an uncertain future.
“Wyoming has to fight to redefine itself with the decline of fossil energy,” said Wallace, who also served as a senior official in the Interior Department under Trump. “We need a strategy at the state and federal level to figure out how Wyoming will grow and prosper for future generations.”
Liz Cheney’s detractors, though, believe her overwhelming focus on Trump and her detachment from other House Republicans, after she was ousted from party leadership, would render her ineffective, particularly should Republicans claim the House majority in November.
“She’s not a true Republican in the sense of our Republican values here in Wyoming,” said Gina Kron, who works in Casper for the federal Agriculture Department, arguing that Cheney should be less consumed with the former president and “all about fossil energy.”
To those with deep roots in Wyoming’s institutions, however, Cheney’s apparent demise symbolizes something just as troubling as any debates about the future of energy.
“There are a lot of good people with good intentions on both sides of the aisle who don’t want anything to do with politics today, and that’s a frightening fact,” said Marilyn Kite, a Laramie native who was Wyoming’s first female state Supreme Court justice.
This election is particularly poignant for Cheney admirers.
Dick and Lynne Cheney both grew up in Casper, high school sweethearts at Natrona County High, where the football stadium is now called Cheney Alumni Field. Living in a cook tent and reading Churchill’s history of World War II by a Coleman lantern, Dick Cheney worked for a power line crew across the state after being twice thrown out of Yale — and before claiming a pair of degrees at Wyoming’s flagship university.
That he’d rise to the vice presidency, the closest Wyoming has come to the Oval Office, and his daughter would eventually succeed him in the House is “a point of pride” for the whole state, Kite said.
The Simpsons, however, are not sure the Cheney story is quite complete.
After the ceremony in July at Heart Mountain — where the Cody-raised Simpson famously first struck up a friendship with Mineta, his fellow Boy Scout — Ann Simpson, the former senator’s wife, approached Dick Cheney. She said she thought Liz Cheney should run for president.
“Dick just nodded at that,” Simpson recalled his wife telling him later. “He just said, ‘I’m very proud of her.’”