By Cameron Joseph - 10/03/13 10:00 AM EDT
Cheney’s surprise decision in July to enter the primary election has tested decades-old alliances among those with shared loyalties to Enzi and Cheney’s father, Dick, the former vice president and the state’s best-known Republican.
Private disagreements over who to support burst into public view last week when former Sen. Alan Simpson (R), an Enzi backer, aired his account of an argument with Lynne Cheney, the candidate’s mother and former second lady.
Lynne Cheney later disputed an account by Simpson’s daughter-in-law of the incident at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Patrons Ball, saying it “simply did not happen.”
Lynne Cheney’s denial prompted Simpson, who was known as one of the Senate’s most colorful lawmakers during his 18 years in the chamber, to fire off a lengthy written response.
Published last week in the Cody Enterprise, Simpson accused Lynne Cheney of fabricating a “bald-faced lie.”
The fight has exposed the deep fissure Liz Cheney’s campaign has caused between the Simpson and Cheney families in spite of more than 40 years of close friendship. Simpson served for a decade in Congress alongside Dick Cheney, who was Wyoming’s at-large representative from 1979-89.
“It has created some real tension. You have these two powerful and beloved Republicans, Dick Cheney and Al Simpson, and they are the best of friends; they’re as close as brothers going back four decades,” said Bruce McCormack, the editor and publisher of the Cody Enterprise.
“There’s some tension in the community as people start to take sides, especially this early. The primary isn’t until next August, so it’s really setting up a long, taut period of campaigning.”
Simpson, in his written explanation of the argument, said he had warned Liz Cheney prior to entering the race that she’d face a tough slog in Wyoming if she challenged Enzi, who is seeking a fourth Senate term.
“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,” Simpson said he told Liz Cheney. “But when you get into the real fray, it will be a whole different ballgame. Believe it.”
According to Simpson, Lynne Cheney challenged him at the Sept. 21 event over his decision to back Enzi and accused him of embarrassing Liz Cheney at a separate event earlier in the month.
“How could you forget the little 8-year-old girl [Liz] who campaigned with us and for you in 1978? How could you not support her?” Simpson quoted Lynne Cheney as saying.
“You don’t understand. I’ve known Mike Enzi for over 35 years,” Simpson said he replied.
Simpson wrote that Lynne Cheney then cut him off: “Shut up — just shut up. Shut up.”
Lynne Cheney’s denial the incident happened was “one damn bald-faced lie, and I have had a belly full of it!” wrote Simpson, who described Dick Cheney as a “dear and loyal friend.”
Neither Liz Cheney’s campaign nor Enzi’s wants to weigh in on the public spat.
Enzi grew impatient when approached this week to comment.
“I hope you noticed that I didn’t say anything about it,” Enzi told The Hill.
The usually amiable senator snapped when asked a follow-up question about whether the race was straining friendships.
“Did you hear what I said? I haven’t said anything about that controversy. Put a period at the end of that,” he said.
Cheney’s campaign also declined to discuss the fight.
“Our campaign is focused on the issues and challenges that matter most to the voters of Wyoming,” Cheney campaign spokeswoman Kara Ahern says in a statement.
While Simpson’s decision to back Enzi has drawn the most notice, several other prominent Wyoming Republicans have also spurned the former vice president’s daughter.
Both Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) endorsed Enzi soon after Liz Cheney jumped into the race.
Lummis said Cheney “should run from Virginia,” where she had a home prior to returning to Wyoming.
The Simpson-Cheney fight might pay dividends for Enzi’s campaign.
Simpson remains a popular and well-known figure in the state. Liz Cheney, who moved back to Wyoming in recent years after decades living on the East Coast, is still getting to know voters who might be turned off by the tensions her campaign has caused.
“Emotions are running really high, and that has a tendency to backfire with voters who are used to much more of a family-friendly, polite atmosphere when it comes to state politics in the Wyoming Republican Party,” said Ron Bonjean, a national GOP strategist with Wyoming ties.
“If you’re new to the state, and there’s a lot of drama around your campaign, then there has to be a propelling reason to change leadership, from Enzi to Cheney. There’s just not enough daylight on their positions.”
A Public Policy Polling survey in July, just after Cheney announced her campaign, showed Enzi leading 54 percent to 26 percent.
Enzi’s job approval rating was 73 percent, according to GOP firm Harper Polling.