CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Wyoming is a vast, beautifully rugged and sparsely populated state. Stick around long enough and you're bound to hear, more than once, its description as "a small town with really long streets."
The vintage is uncertain — the statement is variously credited to former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Democratic Gov. Mike Sullivan, among others — but the depiction helps explain the close-quarters discomfort caused by Liz Cheney's surprise bid for U.S. Senate.
Cheney's father, the former vice president and a six-term Wyoming congressman, is deeply revered in the state. The incumbent senator, fellow Republican Mike Enzi, is also quite popular. The last time he ran for reelection, in 2008, he won with 76% of the vote.
The result is an improbable wedge between the Cheneys, one of the royal families of the GOP, and much of Wyoming's ruling Republican establishment. Enzi's fellow U.S. senator, John Barrasso, and the state's sole House member, Cynthia Lummis, are among those who quickly lined up behind Enzi in his primary fight.
"It is a unique strategy to live your entire life elsewhere and then come to a state a year before you're going to announce you're going to run for that state's highest office," Lummis said the day Cheney declared her candidacy. "In my opinion, Liz Cheney cannot pull this off in Wyoming and I'm disappointed that she's decided to try. She should run from Virginia."
Cheney, 47, who worked in the second Bush administration and served as a Fox News commentator, lived in the Washington suburbs until she relocated to Wyoming.
Her candidacy has strained not just political allegiances but also personal relations, resulting in one of the more head-scratching accounts of recent intraparty tensions. (Here we resist any suggestion to dub the matter Shut Up-gate.) At a recent reception in Cody, Lynne Cheney, the mother of Liz, apparently told Simpson to hush his mouth.
That was widely interpreted as an attempt to muzzle the voluble, ever-quotable ex-senator, who has also thrown his support behind the incumbent. The two men go back decades; it was Simpson who urged Enzi, then a shoe salesman and president of the Wyoming Jaycees, to enter politics.
"I believe the direct quote was 'shut your mouth' regarding his support of Mike Enzi," Simpson's daughter-in-law wrote in a Facebook post.
Not so, said a spokeswoman for Liz Cheney, Kara Ahern. She released a statement in which Lynne Cheney professed her regard for Simpson and his wife and said the episode, as depicted on Facebook, "simply did not happen."
It was actually far more complicated, according to an account Simpson published in the Cody Enterprise, his hometown paper, involving one of Liz Cheney's daughters, a benefit dinner and a football she presented Simpson that he autographed then wished to unsign.
Simpson said he was concerned the ball might be auctioned to help Cheney's campaign, confusing people about which candidate he supported.
"First, this is not about Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney and I have known each other for over 45 years. He is a dear and loyal friend who I would protect and be loyal to the end of my days," Simpson wrote.
His daughter, however, not so much. The two had a "cordial" conversation before Liz Cheney's announcement, Simpson wrote, but he declined her request to keep his public comments about the contest limited to the neutral lines of, "It's going to be a spirited race."
"I said, 'I think you're headed into a really tough race, ' " Simpson wrote. "The people who care for you now do that because of the admiration for your parents and the high regard in which they, and your whole family, are held in Wyoming -- but when you get into the real fray, it will be a whole different ballgame.' "