WYOMING – No matter who wins the U.S. Senate election in Wyoming, the state is set to send its first female Senator to Washington D.C. in 2021.
The general election Nov. 3 to replace retiring Republican Senator Mike Enzi has come down to former Republican Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis and her Democratic opponent, climate scientist Dr. Merav Ben-David. Both candidates emerged from crowded fields in the primary: Ben-David beat out five Democrats and secured 40.6% of the vote, and Lummis garnered 60% of the vote to rise to the top of a field of nine Republicans.
Ben-David won the Democratic primary in every county and Lummis won the Republican primary race in every county but Converse, where Republican Robert Short won 54.6%. The difference is, the number of Republican primary voters vastly outweighed the number of Democrats: Lummis had 62,971 votes and Ben-David had 9,564 on Aug. 18.
The Cowboy State, traditionally a red state through and through, hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1961. But Ben-David and the Wyoming Democratic Party seek to change that. And it’s not impossible; voters elected Democrat Dave Freudenthal to the office of Governor in 2002 and 2006.
Meanwhile, the Lummis For Wyoming campaign seeks to maintain the Republican majority in the Senate, which will only flip if the Democrats have a net gain of four seats in the upcoming election.
The campaign video on the Lummis’ homepage touts the idea of bringing manufacturing back from China and creating more American jobs. On the Ben-David 2020 website, her campaign video advocates for bringing science to the Senate.
The Herald interviewed both Lummis and Ben-David about their respective platforms and goals if elected to office.
Ben-David grew up on a family farm in Israel, according to her campaign website. She served in the military there, including in the Lebanon War, and went on to study biology and zoology, setting her up for a career as a wildlife ecologist.
After research projects took her across the globe and back, Ben-David moved to Laramie in 2000 to work as an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming. She’s been a full professor since 2010 and has won awards for her research. Ben-David became a U.S. citizen in 2009 in a ceremony at the federal courthouse in Cheyenne.
The 2020 Senate race is Ben-David’s first foray into politics. She said she’s running because she sees climate change as a threat to Wyoming and the United States, and with science, she seeks to diversify an economy that relies on a “rapidly waning” fossil fuel industry.
Lummis, according to her campaign website, was born on a cattle ranch in Laramie County. Lummis is best known for her eight years in Congress, 2009-2017, which included time serving on the following committees: Agriculture, Appropriations, Budget, Natural Resources, Oversight and Government Reform and Science, Space and Technology.
She has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, which advocates for second amendment rights and a 100% Right to Life voting record, the nationwide anti-abortion movement. In Congress, she worked to reduce spending as a fiscal conservative and elevate Western issues as the Western Caucus chair.
Ben-David: ‘But I am a scientist’
The Herald spoke with Ben-David over the phone on Sept. 8, a day snow fell in eastern Wyoming on what was technically still a summer day and wildfires continued to kindle in nearby Colorado and California.
Her campaign, like much of American life, came to a screeching halt in March 2020 due to the spread of the coronavirus. Events from then on have been virtual and they’ve relied on social media and online outreach.
“You can see that our level of activity really, really dropped,” Ben-David said. “Then June came around and we started reopening, and we started picking up, but it’s like we started the campaign all over again. So, it was very difficult.”
Ben-David’s campaign appears to have taken the virus seriously, but to the question of whether she would support a statewide or federal mask mandate – a contentious topic throughout the county and state – she said the issue is not something she wants to start legislating.
“Wyoming should have rallied around this idea” of wearing masks to protect one another, she said, not “split across partisan lines.”
“The 21 years I’ve lived here, it didn’t matter if I was interacting with a Democrat, Republican or Independent, personal interactions are such that we really care about each other,” Ben-David said. “It was really surprising to see that it came to such a divide because here is a case where you can do something to help your neighbor.”
The Senate chamber located 1,600 miles away from Wyoming does not tend to represent the interests of Wyomingites and other Western states where energy, agriculture and public lands are king, a sentiment held by both Democrat Ben-David and Republican Lummis.
“How many decades did we have Republican representation in Washington D.C.?” Ben-David said. “You’d expect that by now, if they were hearing about Wyoming, that people in Washington, D.C., would understand Wyoming.”
The difference between rural and urban and suburban environments is exacerbated when it comes to health care, as facilities and specialized care aren’t readily available for everyone. Goshen County residents may need to travel 30 miles to Scottsbluff, Neb., 85 miles to Cheyenne or even 125 miles to Fort Collins, Colo. for certain care.
“When you look at proposals for health care, whether it is improving the Affordable Care Act or proposals for a universal system, I don’t see Wyoming in it,” Ben-David said. “Not just Wyoming but South Dakota and North Dakota and Montana.”
In an era of increased political polarization, Ben-David insists Wyoming Democrats and Republicans alike believe in “public lands in public hands,” enjoying the outdoors and lament losing young people to other states due to a lack of jobs.
“As a people with a lot of common ground, we need to sit down and say, how can we agree and how can we disagree with civility,” she said.
One area she won’t seek compromise in is her specialty: climate science. If elected, Ben-David’s goal is to bring science to the Senate floor.
Politicians have brought secondhand information from informed scientists in the past, she said, but “the impact of scientists showing what they have found themselves, with a conviction that comes with that, is much, much more powerful.”
Not only will she address the effects of climate change, she said, but she will also work to diversify Wyoming’s economy that largely relies on fossil fuels as other states move ahead to alternative energy sources.
Notable politicians cite the fact they aren’t scientists in numerous situations, from coronavirus to climate change. Ben-David’s plea to voters is clear in her campaign video, where she juxtaposes herself with these figures and says, “but I am a scientist.”
Lummis: ‘committed to
Supporters of President Donald Trump have an ally in Lummis, a self-described “conservative Republican.” At a campaign event in LaGrange on Sept. 25, Lummis For Wyoming signs flanked Trump 2020 signs and attendees donned the recognizable red Make America Great Again hats and Trump t-shirts.
It’s no secret the former Congresswoman backs Trump, and Trump backs her as well. Lummis told The Herald she received a phone call from the President notifying her of his endorsement as she stood in a Walmart parking lot in August, followed by a Tweet sent out himself: “(Lummis) is a friend of mine and a great woman. She is running for Senate in the very Special State of Wyoming. Cynthia is Strongly for our Military, our Vets, and protection of the Second Amendment......She will be a great Senator, and has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
“We had an enthusiastic conversation. I told him I want to come to Washington to help him with his pro-America agenda,” Lummis said. “Up until coronavirus closed things down this economy was stronger than it had ever been. I want to help reopen the country and continue that strong streak with him. It was a great visit, he’s very genuine and warm and I’m just absolutely delighted to have his support.”
As a fiscal conservative, she said it is important to address the growing national debt once the pandemic subsides enough to allow for it.
Lummis sticks to party lines in terms of issues at the forefront of mainstream media, including the newly vacant Supreme Court seat she said should be filled by Trump prior to the election. But there are other issues that are more central to everyday life in Wyoming.
“I went to school here, I went to college here, I’ve worked here my whole life,” Lummis said. “The people of this state are my very closest friends, the ones that I want to live with, die with and work for.”
Lummis said health care is a tremendous issue across the state.
“Two components that I really want to address are transparency and cash pricing of health care goods and services, and the ability to buy insurance across state lines,” she said.
During her visit to Niobrara County, Lummis said she talked with voters about different issues, including rural broadband, country of origin labeling, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and catering to producers’ interests, and social media censorship of conservative viewpoints.
Rural broadband is of especially high priority for Wyomingites and therefore her campaign, she said. If she’s elected, Lummis said she will lobby for a seat on the Commerce Committee that oversees it.
“The U.S. Senate is a great leveling field for small states, because we have two senators just like California,” Lummis said.
It’s because of this “leveling field” Lummis is using her financial and human resources to not only run her own race against Ben-David, but also to help Republican “friends” in neighboring states, Republican Senators Cory Gardener in Colorado and Steve Daines, who represents Montana. She said she’ll send staffers to these states and will visit herself after her tour of Wyoming.
Her efforts are to keep the Senate red and to maintain Republican representation in these states, she said.
“We want the interests of the Rocky Mountain states to be more solidly represented by people who share our values and not by people who think more liberal,” Lummis said.
Despite the vitriolic politics of today, Lummis said if elected, she will represent the interests of everybody in Wyoming, regardless of whether or not they voted for her.
Despite the widespread division across political lines, issues remain in Wyoming on which liberal and conservative residents can both agree, she said: loss of revenue in the state and job loss needs to be rectified, a sentiment echoed by Ben-David.
“The way we can be most helpful to people who just don’t support our philosophy on issues is to help with the individual issues they’re having in the state,” Lummis said. “Whether it’s getting them veterans benefits they deserve, needs with passports and visas to visit other countries, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, making sure that we understand the transportation dollars that come from the federal government are getting to communities, regardless of partisan affiliation.”
Lummis’ ultimate argument is she represented Wyoming’s interests in the House and she’ll do it in the Senate, too.
A milestone no matter the outcome
The year 2020 is characterized by the pandemic, calls for racial justice, wildfires and more, but it is also the hundredth anniversary of the 19th amendment that granted women the right to vote. The state of Wyoming, however, celebrated their 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage last year.
Therefore, it’s fitting the Equality state, a trailblazer in women’s rights, will send its first female Senator to Washington this year. In fact, all four major party candidates for congress – Lummis, Ben-David, and Republican Rep. Liz Cheney and the Democrat looking to unseat her, Lynette Grey Bull – are women.
“What that shows is Wyoming people are receptive to different messengers and are really more concerned about the values you carry than the gender of the person who carries them,” Lummis said. “And that makes me really proud.”
Ben-David agreed: “Wyoming was a pilot and a leader in historical events (around women’s suffrage). I think this is the time to do it again.”
For a more in-depth look at each candidate’s platform, visit their websites: LummisForWyoming.com and BenDavid2020.com. Wyoming PBS is hosting a debate between candidates for both the Senate and House of Representatives at Eastern Wyoming College to be broadcast on the channel on Oct. 8 starting at 7 p.m.