By Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile
On Aug. 18, as the country commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, voters in Wyoming — which granted women the right to vote a full 50 years before the rest of the country — cast their ballots in the state’s primary election.
Considering the date and the state’s history of male-dominated politics, the results were remarkable: All four major-party nominees for Wyoming’s U.S. congressional seats were women.
It’s the first time that has occurred in the state. And it’s not the only first in Wyoming’s 2020 delegation races, which will determine the state’s next U.S. senator and U.S. representative on Nov. 3. One Democratic challenger is Indigenous, and the other is a climate scientist and immigrant.
While the candidates share the same gender, however, their similarities end there. In biographies, political experience and platforms, the two Republicans — incumbent U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and Wyoming political stalwart Cynthis Lummis — and their Democratic challengers — Northern Arapaho social justice advocate Lynnette Grey Bull and Israli-born university professor Merav Ben-David — couldn’t be more different.
Two are seasoned politicians, household names and formidable fundraising machines. The other two are entering the GOP-dominated landscape of Wyoming politics for the first time, against long odds and vowing to make change.
A climate scientist challenges a career politician
Lummis and Ben-David vie for the seat of outgoing U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi.
Lummis is a heavyweight of Wyoming politics. The Cheyenne native was first elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1979 at the age of 24, becoming the youngest woman in the state’s history to serve in the Legislature. She then spent decades climbing the political ladder as a conservative, including serving as Wyoming’s treasurer, before moving on to the U.S. House of Representatives. She served there from 2009-2016 before retiring. Concurrently, she also found enormous financial success as a lawyer and business woman.
When she heard Enzi was not running for re-election in 2020, she told WyoFile, she began to rethink retirement. She had been serving on a think tank called The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, “and I continue to be alarmed at how much money we were spending and how our debt and deficit continue to grow,” she said.
With the goal of reducing the national debt — along with championing Wyoming as an energy state and supporting President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda — Lummis threw her hat in the ring. She is glad she did, she said. “I’m reenergized.”
Lummis is staunchly conservative, with a campaign website touting her bona fides: She committed to the “No New Tax Pledge,” garnered an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and a 100% voting record with Right to Life. Her record in Congress, meanwhile, earned her recognition as the legislator who opposed President Barack Obama’s agenda more often than any other senator or representative. She has Trump’s endorsement.
Challenging her is 61-year-old University of Wyoming professor and climate scientist Merav Ben-David, who mounted her campaign with zero political experience and no name recognition. What she did have was zeal for change.
Ben-David grew up on a farm in Israel. She moved to the U.S. in the ’90s, where she earned her PhD in wildlife management from the University of Alaska. She relocated to Laramie in 2000 to teach at UW. In her wildlife ecology career, she has studied the effects of invasive species, pollution and climate change on various animals, and trained many young Wyoming students in science. She became a U.S. citizen in 2009.
Many politicians have an origin story, an inflection point that tipped their life in one irreversible direction. Ben-David’s took place on a boat in the Arctic Ocean in 2009, where she was leading an expedition to study polar bears.
“The entire ocean should have been frozen, and we were cruising in open water at full speed,” Ben-David said. “And I was sitting on the bow and I didn’t even need to put my hat on.” The urgency of climate change — and how quickly it has accelerated — moved her.
“I realized I needed to do more, that just collecting the data and disseminating it and talking about it … is not enough,” Ben-David said. She decided to run for office.
As many political newcomers do, she frames her inexperience as an advantage.
“I don’t have a commitment to anybody else except the people of Wyoming,” Ben-David said. “I’m not in the pocket of anybody, I’m not influenced by anybody.”
With a campaign built on climate legislation, promoting universal healthcare and using innovation to transition away from fossil fuels, she has earned big-name Democratic endorsements, including from presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
An Indigenous activist and an incumbent
In the other congressional race, Grey Bull and incumbent Cheney are vying for Wyoming’s sole U.S. representative seat.
Cheney is another well-known political figure — with name recognition that goes well beyond Wyoming.
The eldest daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney who spent parts of her childhood in Casper, Cheney has worked as a State Department lawyer and Fox News commentator. She mounted a brief primary challenge to Enzi in 2014 before bowing out. She ran for the House seat vacated by Lummis in 2016.
After being elected in 2016, her star rose quickly. Cheney is the House Republican Conference Chair, the third-highest position in GOP House leadership.
Cheney’s team did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Political analysts speculated in the run-up to the 2020 election cycle that Cheney would again run for the Senate, but she told Wyoming Public Radio in January her place is in the House.
“I think I can have a bigger impact for Wyoming in the House,” Cheney told a reporter.
During a Wyoming PBS debate Oct. 9, Cheney said she is running “to represent Wyoming so that I can continue fighting on behalf of our freedom, on behalf of Wyoming values to ensure that we do uphold and defend the Constitution, our constitutional rights.”
Cheney’s campaign website also lists ending federal overreach, cutting taxes, creating jobs, supporting veterans and fighting illegal immigration as priorities.
She too faces a political newcomer.
Grey Bull was born in Los Angeles, but spent her childhood summers on the powwow circuit as a fancy dancer and visiting relatives on the Wind River Indian Reservation and Standing Rock Indian Reservation. She is Northern Arapaho and Hunkpapa Lakota.
Grey Bull moved to Wyoming in 2017 after her uncles, some of whom are ceremonial elders on the reservation, asked her to help with initiatives to aid the reservation community, she said.
“In our traditional way, when one of our elders asks something of us, we can’t really say no,” she said.
Grey Bull, a 43-year-old single mother of three, has spent much of her career advocating for tribes. This includes working for the homeless in LA, serving as chair of the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs, fighting human trafficking and founding Not Our Native Daughters, a nonprofit dedicated to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Testifying before Congress on Indigenous suicide rates, sitting on Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force and working to build consensus naturally overlapped with politics, she said.
But “talking to people at the table, versus being at the table, are two separate things,” she said. She decided to try to secure a seat at the table.
Part of her motivation, she said, comes from wanting to be in Washington, D.C. to represent the poor and working class, a demographic she says Congress is sorely lacking.
She is also deeply motivated by a desire to address critical issues facing Native Americans. One of her trademark messages, shared at every speech, goes something like this:
“I stand before you a full-blooded Native American woman, and the statistics that hang over my head are that I’m the most stalked, raped, sexually assaulted and murdered [demographic] … and I suffer domestic violence 50 times higher than the national average.
“I have dedicated my life to try to change those numbers,” Grey Bull said. “Not only because I’m a Native American woman, but because I have a daughter. … That would always be a filter and a measure for me on making decisions or even proposing and sponsoring new legislation that addressed these issues.”
In policy, Grey Bull also leans progressive, advocating for dismantling inequity, calling health care a “human right” and advocating for a transition to renewable energy. She also emphasizes peaceful discourse.
If elected, she would be the first Indigenous person to represent Wyoming in the U.S. House.
The candidates have had little trouble distinguishing themselves. Cheney and Lummis lean hard right, while Grey Bull and Ben-David embrace ideas espoused by the far left.
Ben-David favors universal health care, and Lummis adamantly opposes the idea.
They also diverge on local-versus-federal control of state lands. Ben-David is wary of the transfer of public lands to state control, telling the League of Women Voters it “carries the risk of their expedited privatization. Most Wyomingites wish to keep public lands in public hands.”
Lummis, meanwhile, is staunchly in favor of local control — of lands, along with many other decision points, including COVID-19 responses.
“I firmly believe that the government that governs closest, governs best,” Lummis said.
When Ben-David referred to the problems caused by systemic racism during the Wyoming PBS debate, Lummis said she doesn’t “believe that racism is actually systemic. I think there are pockets of racism that we need to continue to ferret out and work on and solve problems that are inherent in the differences of race.”
And Lummis supports an energy strategy that encompasses coal, oil, gas and uranium, she said, along with carbon-capture research. “I want to push back on people who are trying to force Wyoming to keep hydrocarbons in the ground,” she said. “We can produce them responsibly in an environmentally sound manner and we’re learning how to use them in a much more carbon-neutral way.”
Ben-David, meanwhile, wants Wyoming to double down on high-tech innovation like robotics to attract skilled workers and look at ways to capitalize on different resource deposits, such as helium.
Grey Bull supports the goals of the Green New Deal, a sprawling plan for dealing with climate change. During the Wyoming PBS debate, Cheney blamed the recent massive wildfires on federal mismanagement but did not mention climate change — a factor many people believe contributed.
When asked during the debate about long-simmering racial issues coming to a boiling point in the U.S., Cheney focused on riots whereas Grey Bull spoke of people desperate for change.
“I think that the riots that we’ve seen across the country and the violence that we’ve seen … in too many instances overtook peaceful protests,” Cheney said.
Grey Bull countered. “I think we should be more concerned about why are they peacefully protesting, why are they rioting, why are they crying, why?” she said. “So we can begin to understand and the leaders can begin to offer solutions to their heartaches.”
There is one point all four seem to agree on, though the fine points are fuzzy: COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to the United States and relief is in order.
“I think we’ll come out of this and literally return to normal and pick up where we left off, but I do not think it’s going to happen without some additional lifelines going to individuals, small businesses and to hospitals and health care workers,” Lummis said.
Countdown to Nov. 3
The last time a Democrat represented Wyoming in Washington was 1978, and Lummis and Cheney have previously beaten Democratic opponents handily.
Both challengers acknowledge their long-shot odds, but neither is daunted.
Grey Bull is humbled by the support she’s received, she said. Just being able to share the debate stage with Cheney, she said, was an enormous opportunity.
“It was like wow, I can’t believe I’ve made it this far and I’m doing this,” Grey Bull said. If nothing else, she said, it’s allowed her to amplify her messages.
“Even if I’m just able to open one person’s eyes to these issues … it’s a win,” Grey Bull said.
Ben-David promised that, win or lose, she won’t won’t disappear.
Even if she is defeated, Ben-David said, “I’m not going to drop out of the political scene. My plan is also to use the recognition I’ve received nationally to push for climate legislation while making sure Wyoming is not left behind.”