History and Opinion
By Phil Roberts
Wyoming Legislators, 1981. (Left to right): William McIntosh, George Salisbury, Tom Trowbridge (all Carbon County), Rodger McDaniel (Laramie County).
Political Myth No. 3: Wyoming governors want to be senators
(The following commentary was broadcast on Wyoming Public Radio in June 2007).
Governors used to get restless in Cheyenne and want to move to Washington. It doesn’t happen any more.
Back when Wyoming became a state, we started with two vacancies and the legislature began by selecting former territorial delegate Joseph M. Carey as the state’s first U. S. Senator. But they were more divided on who ought to fill the second seat. Popular initial choice was the governor—Francis E. Warren, formerly territorial governor and then the state’s first governor. Would he want to go to the Senate? It turned out that he did and just a couple of weeks into his term as Wyoming’s first governor, F. E. Warren resigned to become U. S. Senator, a position he held for most of the next 40 years.
Over the next 75 years, a host of Wyoming governors followed Warren’s lead—resigning to “move up” to the U. S. Senate. John B. Kendrick, the third of historian T. A. Larson’s “grand old men of Wyoming politics,” started as governor and resigned to go on to the Senate. Robert Carey got there after losing reelection as governor. Hunt, Barrett, Hickey,, Milward Simpson and Hansen followed the same path.
Then, suddenly, it stopped in the late 1960s. Stan Hathaway served two full terms as governor. His successor, Ed Herschler, did him one better and went three terms. Mike Sullivan and Jim Geringer, two full terms each. Not one jumped to the Senate (although Sullivan tried unsuccessfully, but only after his second gubernatorial term expired).
And its pretty easy to see why this changed. Who wants to live in Washington now when you can live in Wyoming and be your own boss?
Washington and the Senate once had a certain allure—an escape from the dusty roads, precarious budgets, chronic demands for infrastructure, a fairly unimposing, drafty governor’s “mansion” back in Cheyenne.
It was hard to resist being part of America’s most exclusive club where you and some 100 colleagues deliberated the most important issues of the times.
But the city of Washington itself became more congested and more expensive. Some members of Congress “live” in their offices. And Congress ceded more of its power to the President and locked itself into meaningless partisan gridlock. The late Senator Craig Thomas once set off a ton of media speculation when he wistfully mentioned how nice it would be not to have to fly back and forth from Washington to Wyoming every week.
Little wonder running the state looks a lot more attractive. Who wants to take a “hardship post” when you can enjoy the outdoors a few minutes from home, breathe clean air, preside over a strong economy, and travel the most beautiful state in the nation—and its called “work”? Remarkable that 31 Republicans sought the job in Washington in the summer of 2007 following the death of Senator Thomas. And Governor Freudenthal seemed only too happy to send one off. Like his immediate predecessors, it’s easy to see why.
Political Myth No. 2: "Cowboy State" and "Equality State" are contradictory nicknames
By Phil Roberts
Cowboy State? Equality State?
The new Wyoming quarter, officially unveiled in September 2007, shows Wyoming’s license-plate bucking horse and next to it are three words: “The Equality State.”
It’s not the only place where the seemingly contradictory nicknames seem to joust for dominance. The legislature designated the state officially as “the Equality State” back in the early 1900s, but even Wyoming Public Radio refers to Wyoming with the more “tourist-friendly” nickname, “The Cowboy State.”
The cowboy is an image that has been with us for a very long time. The bucking horse went on the license plate in 1935—the first logo on any license plate in America.
If a state has a “self-image” (something I often question), are we more drawn to one than the other? “Cowboy State?” “Equality State?” Doesn’t one cancel out the other? Are these contradictions?
I say the two nicknames represent remarkably compatible concepts. In modern times, the image of the cowboy has taken a beating, becoming stereotyped, for good or bad, as a term denoting reckless foreign policy, for instance, or fiercely intolerant and destructive acts against the environment. Cowboys, in Hollywood film, have been gun-toting, fighting, hard-drinking white guys who showed educated sophistication when it came to dealing with women, the law and the community--the ones wearing white hats anyway.
But like all stereotypes, this one is mostly wrong when you look at history. Open-range cowboys in frontier Wyoming came from every racial and ethnic group. Most didn’t have anything except a saddle and a backpack—and sometimes, his own horse. Few had even rudimentary education. They were mostly the floating transient population of their day.
That is not to say they lacked understanding of their environment. Unlike farmers who tried to change the landscape by clearing land and digging irrigation ditches or miners that dug big ugly holes in the ground, the cowboy lived with the environment. He put on a slicker when it rained, tied his hat down tight with a bandanna to keep the winter winds at bay, and tried to protect his charges from thirst, snow-blindness, and wolves. He knew he couldn’t change the environment; he just had to live with what it dealt him.
And the equality part? Mostly, he judged other cowboys by how well he rode, whether he paid you back if you loaned him a quarter for cigarettes, how hard he worked, and whether you can count on him to watch your back in a fracas. Every man had to prove himself, regardless of race or ancestry. It didn’t matter how great one’s family was. It was what he was that counted. As my grandmother used to say, “Every tub sits on its own bottom.”
But there are awful lapses in how Wyomingites have dealt with “equality.” From the Rock Springs massacre to the Black 14 and Mathew Shepard, some would say “equality” isn’t a nickname Wyoming deserves. I disagree.
“The cowboy state” ought to reflect the non-stereotypical past—when being a cowboy meant honor, capacity for hard work, and respect for the individual. In some ways, it is “historical”—a touchstone to look back to for inspiration. It is retrospective—even a mythical way for us to identify with the past.
And the “equality state”—that nickname is aspirational—a goal toward which we ought to be striving. While we likely will continue to come up short, being mindful of striving for equality ought to continue to make us not only a more humane society, but conscious of our state’s reputation for friendliness to visitors, for dedication to community, for tolerance of other’s views—and for valuing individual differences.
And the two nicknames aren’t contradictory. As we aspire to greater equality, we need to remain true to the “cowboy” way that brought us this to this point—not just the Hollywood version, but what came from the reality of the Wyoming cowboy of the open-range days.
After all, they are both on the same coin.
Political Myth #1: "Wyoming Always Has Been a Red State"
Wyoming has gained a reputation in recent years for being a "red" state politically--indeed, even a "deep red" state. This is a dramatic departure from the state's history. In fact, for more than half of the state's history, the governor has been a Democrat. Until 1977, it was common for U. S. Senators to be from opposite parties. But it wasn't until the "Clinton era" (1993-2001) that Wyoming went longer than six years without having a Democrat represent the state in national office or in at least one of the five statewide offices. What happened that turned Wyoming so politically one-party "red"?
Part of the answer comes from historical factors that diminished the large numbers of railroad employees and coal miners who made up an essential element in the pre-World War II state Democratic Party. Historically, political scientists referred to the five counties along the south as "the Union Pacific counties" (Laramie, Albany, Carbon, Sweetwater, Uinta). It was the Democratic Party heartland. Meanwhile, counties in the Big Horn Basin and along the eastern border, settled by small ranchers and farmers, were the dependable Republican base. A North-South split developed in the state's politics with elections often determined by the counties in the center of the state--Fremont and Natrona, particularly. By 1976, this division was diminishing in significance although to the present, Sweetwater County remains the most solidly Democratic while Park County in the Big Horn Basin, and Crook and Niobrara along the eastern edge of the state are the most Republican.
Changing demographics are not the sole answer, however. Statewide, ranching and agriculture are not significant in modern Wyoming and, indeed, have not been since territorial days. The industry represents less than 2 percent of state domestic product and even a lower percentage of residents are engaged in it. Yet the Republican Party properly recognized the power of the agricultural myths in the state--the image of the cowboy, the ideology of individualism and hatred of big government. In 1976, patrician rancher Malcolm Wallop, a distant relative of the Queen of England, nonetheless, was able to position Gale McGee as the "outsider."
In the 1970s, national Republicans poured money into Western states to assist with party building. Another reason for McGee's loss came with this new Republican strategy. Two years later, Teno Roncalio retired and the Democrats lost that seat to Ford administration refugee Dick Cheney, a man who had not lived in Wyoming for a decade. Roncalio held the state's only House seat for five terms. Had he not voluntarily retired in 1979 (citing advancing age), the common view was that the decorated World War II hero could have stayed in Congress for another five terms. As it was, Cheney, thrown out of work when Ford lost the Presidency to Carter, learned of Roncalio's retirement and returned to Wyoming, after more than a decade living in Washington (working for members of Congress from Wisconsin and Illinois--Rumsfeld--and the Ford White House), to win his first House race.
During those same years, Democratic Gov. Ed Herschler, a Kemmerer attorney/rancher, did what no previous Wyoming governor of either party had ever done--he won three four-year terms (1974, 1978, 1982. )Wyoming voters embraced the taciturn governor's philosophy of handling the energy resource boom of the late 1970s --"growth, but on our terms." The connections with keeping Wyoming wild ought to have been the Democrats' sole domain. But, oddly, at a time when "tree-huggers" were being lambasted by the GOP, some of the state's foremost environmentalists were Republicans. For many knowing the national party's attitudes in recent years, this fact was almost unthinkable.
In 1979, for the first time since the early 20th century, a Democrat did not represent Wyoming in the Congress. Despite the loss, Democrats still held statewide offices, including the governorship with Herschler. He was followed, in 1986, by Democrat Mike Sullivan who upset Dr. Pete Simpson, the popular son of former governor Milward Simpson and brother of Sen. Al Simpson. (By almost all measures, Simpson was more progressive in his political views than Sullivan, but that is a subject for a later essay).
For the decade of the 1980s, it seemed that Republicans would represent the state in Washington, but Wyoming voters preferred Democrats in the governor's office. But that all changed in 1994. Sullivan, not term-limited, decided not to seek reelection, but ran against the state's sole U. S. Representative, Craig Thomas, for the U. S. Senate seat. Secretary of State Kathy Karpan ran for governor. Both Democrats, and State Supt. of Public Instruction Lynn Simons, were swept out in the Republican tide of '94. Sullivan lost even though he had been the first sitting governor to endorse Bill Clinton two years earlier in the 1992 Presidential primary race. Some observers believed, in fact, that his close affiliations with the President, unpopular in Wyoming, contributed to his Senate loss in '94. Late in Clinton's presidency, Sullivan finally gained a reward for his support of Clinton. He was appointed the U. S. ambassador to Ireland. Karpan won appointment to an Interior Department post and Simons, to a job with the U. S. Department of Education's regional office.
The Republican strategy seemed to be working--spend freely on elections in the West, always field candidates for every slot, and paint Democrats as somehow foreign to the state. But some of the blame for what followed in the next eight years has to fall on Democrats, too. Even though many of the party's candidates had good ideas and solid credentials, they often failed to connect with Wyoming voters by ignoring state history and disregarding important cultural symbols. Defining what those symbols mean politically is an important part of the game of electoral politics and the Republicans did it very effectively in the 1990s.
At the same time, during the Clinton years, the national Democrats essentially wrote off Wyoming to the GOP. Assertive Republicans falsely claimed Wyoming as their one-party state. National Democrats seemed as taken in by rhetoric that Democrats and party positions were alien to Wyoming. This was stated by such Republicans as Texan Dick Cheney (after 1992 when he abandoned Wyoming physically as he had largely done politically a dozen years earlier).
Within the state, Democrats dismissed the cynical pigeon-holing without confronting the obvious flaws in it. Republicans, well-financed from national sources and embracing the symbols that continue to resonate with Wyoming voters, won elections. This confirmed for national pundits the false story that this was entirely predictable because the state had been "one-party Republican" throughout its political history. National Democrats bought in to the myth and even a few state Democrats and local media seemed to go along with the false narrative.
Because the GOP had so consistently re-defined many of those Wyoming symbols, DC consultants and pundits started believing the state contained mostly red-neck cowboys. The consultants, apparently ignorant of the state's Democratic Party history, told Wyoming candidates to pose in city parks wearing khakis and toting shotguns. The silly misuse of stereotypes didn't work. Instead, Democrats should have been correcting the historical record. Rugged individualism, in a Wyoming sense, has always implied a sense of equality. It is what a cowboy supposedly told a wealthy English aristocrat visiting his newly purchased manor-ranch in the 1880s. "I'm your new lord," the Englishman is said to have announced to his new employee, as he sat on his English riding saddle looking down at the cowboy standing next to the horse. He was surprised when the cowboy demurred. "Nope," the cowboy replied, "That man ain't been born yet."
Outside consultants, many of the Democratic stripe, underestimated the Wyoming voter. They failed to recognize that Wyomingites of all stripes value the state's individualistic image. They despise government regimentation, even when it comes from delusional leaders obsessed with fears about security. But this doesn't mean that Wyomingites aren't equally concerned with community. Because the Wyoming population is so small, people actually do vote for the person in all elections--statewide as well as local--who they believe is most responsive to the community's needs, but who also seem to value similar symbols and beliefs (non-religious). When campaigns are run for state offices, this fact is always foremost. Who best knows us and our communities? When national fundraisers and operatives get involved, however, it is a different story. Media buys trump personal contact.
With the national Republican Party's new alliances with the most extreme of evangelical Christians, some may be misled into thinking that fundamentalist religion gave the GOP a leg up in Wyoming in the 1990s. Such an assumption would be false. Religion plays almost no role in the politics of Wyoming and this has been true throughout the state's history. Examples are numerous. Many pioneer LDS (Mormon) families are Democrats. One not so insignficiant reason, articulated by a descendant on a recent TV documentary on Wyoming history attributed it to an act by President Grover Cleveland restoring voting rights to former polygamists. More important is that church/state separation always has stayed strong in Wyoming. Like all Wyomingites suffering from the economic dislocations of the Great Depression, many Mormons embraced the New Deal programs.
Fanatics of all political stripes never have been welcome in the state. Take, for instance, the Ku Klux Klan, organizing in neighboring states in the 1920s and 1930s. In many of those places, the Klan represented opposition to Catholics, particularly those seeking public office, Wyoming voters continue to elect Catholics from both parties and the few Klan adherents in Wyoming were locally discredited.
In an earlier era, when William Jennings Bryan was evangelizing for Democrats, the Southern evangelical organizations never had influence in the state. Any authoritarian-based ideology loses out to the libertarian/liberal individualism of Wyomingites who refuse to be told how to think on social or religious issues. The state has elected ranchers, lawyers, businessmen, doctors, even a rocket scientist and a history professor to statewide office, but not once in its long history has it elected a minister or a priest. The Wyoming Constitution still makes clear the separation of church and state. The ban on a religious test for holding office is still respected by both parties.
Unlike the Republican party nationally, Wyoming Republicans, historically, have been economic conservatives and, until very recently, social progressives--at least, to a degree. While the recent Republican office holders haven't been above using divisive social issues for electoral gain, past GOP office holders have been pro-choice (former Sen. Al Simpson), anti-death penalty (Simpson's father, Milward Simpson who served as governor from 1955-59), and supportive of spending for higher education and health care (State Sen. Thomas Stroock, a Casper oil man and ambassador under the first George Bush who was a long-time appropriations chair in the state legislature).
The state remains the least populated in the country. Consequently, nearly everyone is personally acquainted with a member of Congress or a statewide office holder. Politics is still personal in the state. In 2002, when Democrat Dave Freudenthal defeated the Republican candidate (and won re-election four years later), it wasn't the first time that national pundits were proven wrong--that a Democrat COULD be elected in a state where more than half of the voters had become registered Republicans, largely through Republican recruitment, but also from Democratic mis-steps. Freudenthal's win was hardly unprecedented. Two-term governor Mike Sullivan (1987-1995) accomplished a similar feat. Nonetheless, it represents a resurgence of sorts.
If history is any indicator, Wyoming will continue to move away from "deep red" and elect Democrats but only if the party does not allow outside consultants to try to mold its image. As long as personal politics continues to have a resonance in the sparsely populated state, Republicans hewing too close to the Bush or national party line likely will find themselves in political jeopardy. Pundits who understand Wyoming will not be surprised.
You can use this area to showcase additional text or photos. Try to reinforce the message on the rest of this page, or simply ask your visitors to contact you, as in the sample below.
Still have questions? Please contact us anytime! We look forward to hearing from you.
Hint: Be sure to include a link to your contact page!