Alan Simpson has reappropriated “RINO” – a disparaging term deployed by Republicans to describe party members they deem insufficiently conservative.
Simpson, a 91-year-old former U.S. Senator for Wyoming, flipped the “Republican-in-name-only” acronym back on those who use it.
“I call them Republicans ignorantly needling others,” he said.
Simpson’s proudly on the outs with the Wyoming Republican Party, which has embraced a far-right, Trump-influenced brand of politics that overtly discludes those they brand RINOs.
“They’re based upon fear, lack of trust, lack of any kind of comity, and they think compromise is a dirty word,” Simpson said of the newer faction, which is fast gaining power in the Wyoming Legislature. “There’s no way to describe people like that in one word.”
In the months leading up to the 2022 primary and general elections, Wyoming Republicans, both elected and not, used all types of terms to describe themselves and each other, from “true conservatives” to “traditional Republicans.”
There are no agreed-upon standards for the terminology that best describes the old-school branch of the Wyoming GOP that’s traditionally held power in the Legislature or the newcomers, who’ve coalesced around constructs like the House Freedom Caucus.
So WyoFile asked party members along the spectrum: What do you call yourself, and why? And what about them?
In the nuance of political language in GOP-dominated Wyoming, seemingly small differences in word choice may signal wide gaps in policy approach, such as how, and in some areas if, to fund state government, Medicaid expansion, LGBTQ+ rights, public health regulations and what should be taught in schools. But a synthesis of what eight politicians and politicos – four from each faction – said about their terminology preferences reveals that none believe in the wisdom of attempting to put blanket definitions on a multifaceted party.
For now, most leading figures remain neutral, declining to explicitly label their legislative colleagues – though a few draw lines between “us and them.”
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, who will lead the Wyoming House of Representatives as speaker in the Legislature’s 2023 general session, declined to play the name game, arguing it is for the good of governance.
“If we can avoid labels, then we cause less animosity on both sides, and we have the ability to get more done,” Sommers said. “I think, ultimately, we can do more good for the state as a body if we can stay away from labeling each other.”
Leading up to his re-election, however, the incoming House speaker was less of a bridge-builder in tongue. Sommers referred to his challenger in the primary, La Barge oilman Mike Schmid, as part of a group that’s “extreme far right.”
Schmid dished it, too, calling Sommers and his ilk in the GOP “part-time” conservatives and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Below Sommers in House hierarchy for the coming legislative session is Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett. He’s the incoming majority floor leader, a role that allows him to pick the order bills get heard on the House floor. Neiman, a Freedom Caucus member who’s in the good graces of the GOP’s central committee, described himself as a straight Republican – no more, no less – because he embraces the state party’s platform.
“I agree with what they stand for: I believe in accountability and responsibility and self-reliance,” he said.
Neiman will have to work together with Sommers. He also refrained from labeling his competing cohort, suggesting instead that adherence to party-leadership-defined positions is a more useful yardstick.
“If they’re truly Republican and believe in what the Republican Party platform stands for,” he said, “then there’s not an issue.”
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, the incoming Senate president, also wanted to stick to straight talk.
“I consider myself an actual Republican,” Driskill said. “If we’re going to put a term with it, I would call myself a Ronald Reagan Republican.”
Driskill, who newer lawmakers perceive as a member of the establishment, is another sitting lawmaker who declined to define “the other end.”
“I call myself a mainstream Republican, they call me a moderate Republican,” he said. “Part of the problem, I think, is we have a faction that’s trying to define what a Republican is.”
Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, said it’s a “tough deal” to fit dozens of lawmakers with a single label. That being said, he thinks it’s fair to describe his faction as “far right” – but it’s not his preferred term.
“The terms that I use are the true conservatives and the insiders,” Bear said. “I’ve used, in a derogatory way, blue-blooded Republicans at times.”
Lincoln County Republican Party Chair Marti Halverson has been thinking about terminologies for the GOP’s factions ever since she responded to a poll ahead of the primary election.
“The very last question was, ‘Do you consider yourself a traditional Republican or a Trump Republican?’” Halverson said. “I thought, ‘OK, it’s a Cheney poll.’ That got me thinking.”
A former state representative, Halverson prefers to use a pair of lesser-used terms.
“One of them is a ‘national conservative,’ and the other is a ‘new conservative,’” she said. “These terms are meant to distinguish us [‘new’] from the go-along-to-get-along traditional Republicans that we’re trying to wrest the party away from.”
Meantime, Rep. Bob Wharff, R-Evanston, who’s on his way out of the Legislature, favors the phrase “Biden Republican” to describe the type of GOP lawmaker who’s had a grip on power in Cheyenne.
“To me, that’s more descriptive than RINO,” Wharff said. “RINO has been used to the point that it doesn’t mean anything. Everybody just automatically dismisses it if you call somebody a RINO, and I don’t like calling people names.”
But Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, himself a target of the RINO label, says he’s “old and gray-haired enough” that he doesn’t mind it. He even empathized with the name-callers.
“If somebody does call you something, it doesn’t mean they’re doing it to be offensive,” Larsen said. “I think you have to have a little thick skin. … They’re just having a philosophical conversation about where they think you are at.”
Larsen himself bowed out of the name-labeling game. He’s a Republican, and has been for “longer than you’ve been alive.”
“To publicly go out and scorn or label somebody,” Larsen said, “I don’t think it gains anything.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.