By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Denton Knapp might be the most misunderstood person running for Congress.
Since throwing his hat into the race for the U.S. House seat held by Liz Cheney just under a year ago, Knapp has been accused of being a California carpetbagger, Trump demagogue, Frontier Republican, and betrayer to the Wyoming Republican Party because he didn’t give up on his campaign when former President Donald Trump endorsed fellow candidate Harriet Hageman.
He’s none of those things, he told Cowboy State Daily, and he’s eager for Wyoming voters to learn that.
In the days following the Republican National Committee’s decision last week to endorse Hageman with the support of the Wyoming GOP, Knapp has gotten a lot of calls from reporters from both state and national media.
“They all want to know if I’m still out there and still running,” he said.
They seem genuinely bewildered, he said, that a largely unknown guy who most recently lived in California would remain in a race that seems to be spotlighting only two contenders – Cheney and Hageman.
But Knapp doesn’t buy that narrative and believes that the Wyoming voters deserve a choice when it comes to selecting the state’s lone U.S. representative.
He further believes he has a fighting chance for victory once the residents of Wyoming get to meet him.
“It’s fighting season,” he said, referencing the spring season in Afghanistan when military activity would resume after the long, cold winter, a reminder of his 30 years in active military service in the U.S. Army with tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this case, the fight is getting out to meet the voters of Wyoming and showing residents there are more than two candidates in the race.
Despite the odds being stacked against him, Knapp is unflappably optimistic when he talks about the race and his plan to step up for the people in Wyoming when he gets to Washington, D.C.
A recent straw poll at the central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party showed one person voting for Knapp compared to 59 for Hageman, six for Cheney and two for state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne.
But Knapp puts no stock in straw polls, endorsements or fundraising, though admittedly more money means more ad dollars, he said.
“Money matters for marketing,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter for votes.”
To date, Knapp has raised a total of $10,925, $5,400 from which came from donors in California with the other $3,600 coming from Wyoming residents. Since the beginning of 2021, Cheney has raised almost $7.2 million and Hageman has earned about $745,000.
But Knapp describes the funds he’s raised as hard-earned money sent to him by voters in the state, which means more to him than the millions of dollars coming in for Cheney and Hageman from out-of-state.
Who is Denton Knapp?
Sitting at the dining room table in his home Gillette on Friday, Knapp talked about his childhood and growing up in Campbell County. Beside him at the table were his mother Waruny, a Japanese immigrant, and younger brother, Chris Knapp, a businessman and Republican state legislator from Gillette. Across the table was Knapp’s wife of 35 years, Heather, who he calls his rock.
Though some have questioned Knapp’s motivations for jumping into the race with no prior political experience, his family was not surprised.
In fact, Chris – who was a three-term county commissioner before being appointed to the Legislature – credits his brother’s service in the military for inspiring him to enter politics in his early 20s.
“Dent (as his friends and family call him) chose the military,” Chris said, “so I went into politics.”
Chris found his brother’s decision noble, he said, as he extolled his character and years of active military service as a colonel in the Army, beginning with an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Knapp had been nominated for the school by Wyoming’s congressional delegation at the time — U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney and U.S. Sens. Al Simpson and Malcolm Wallop. He had applied to and been accepted by all three military academies, and initially dreamed of becoming a pilot in the Air Force, but his color blindness kept him out. Instead, he went into the Army.
During his military career, Knapp served in several roles, including as a director of the Tierney Center for Veteran Services, developing protocols for special operations forces and, after finally retiring, serving as a brigadier general in the California State Guard, where he lived with is wife for three years before returning to Wyoming.
Since moving back to Gillette more than a year ago, Knapp launched his own company, Valor Made, LLC, in which he hires veterans for a variety of odd jobs in the oil field and elsewhere.
Fourth-Generation Wyoming Guy
Even though Knapp has spent the past 30 years living outside of the state, he considers the Cowboy State his home, identifying himself as a fourth-generation Wyoming guy whose great-grandfather Denton Floyd homesteaded along the Powder River.
As for claims of him being a California carpetbagger, Knapp’s wife Heather, who is also a Gillette native, called it an entirely unfair accusation.
Yes, they were away from Wyoming because her husband was in active military service and stationed all over the country and world, Heather said. They’d lived in California for the past three years because that’s where their youngest son, 33-year-old Scott, and his wife and two young children settled.
This is a sensitive topic for her given the death of the couple’s oldest boy Brandon, who at age 20, died of suicide.
“It makes me mad that people hold that against him because we wanted to be close to our son,” she said
Heather is still getting used to being in the political spotlight and the way it opens a person up to criticism from people she sees in person and on social media. Having been in military circles for the past 30 years, the Knapps are used to keeping their political opinions to themselves.
Knapp said he believes his time in the military, where he honed his leadership and negotiation skills, makes him uniquely qualified to serve as U.S. representative.
Knapp doesn’t say much about his time in the military other than to offer a general summary, so Chris filled in the holes because he said his brother is too humble to provide details.
Chris pointed to a photo on the wall in the living room of two tanks bearing down on Baghdad. His brother had been part of that surge, Chris said, and had actively served on the front lines. Chris gets emotional when he talks about his older brother’s service and the box of medals he amassed over the course of his three-decade career.
“He’s my hero and always has been,” Chris said.
Following His Own Orders
Knapp’s foray into the political world has not been without controversy.
Before former President Donald Trump endorsed Hageman, Knapp, Cheyenne attorney Darin Smith and state Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, had all said they would bow out of the race in deference to the person who won the endorsement.
After Trump backed Hageman, Smith and Gray dropped out of the race.
Knapp did not.
“I changed my mind,” he said simply. “I have the right to change my mind when the environment and people started to change the rules. I reevaluated what I was doing and made the right choice for Wyoming. Voters should have candidates to choose from and it shouldn’t be dictated by a faction of the party.”
Knapp’s continued opposition to Cheney stems from the fact she does not represent Wyoming, he said. He feels she sold out her Wyoming constituents for her own self-interests and a personal vendetta against Trump.
“She was elected to represent the people of Wyoming,” he said. “Not her own interests.”
He also does not like the way he sees the country heading under Joe Biden’s watch and what he describes as encroachments on America’s freedoms. He points as examples to the restrictions on movements that were put in place with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as threats to the 2nd Amendment and American values.
For these reasons, he felt it was imperative to step up now – not wait to make his ranks through local and state office.
“The time is now,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of waiting. Too much is at stake.”
His Own Man
One thing that Knapp said has remained consistent throughout his life are his views as a staunch, conservative Republican.
“I’ve been a Republican my entire life,” he said, noting he’s voted Republican in every election, including when he cast absentee ballots while stationed overseas.
For this reason, he takes offense to being labeled a member of the “Frontier Republicans,” a group of Republicans pursuing as “a statewide effort to encourage participation while promoting integrity, respect and civility.”
The group emerged two years ago in the wake of vicious infighting and verbal assaults among Republican Party members in Campbell County. The group has since been labeled “liberal Democrats” or RINOs by more conservative members of the Republican Party.
Knapp has been tied to the group because of his friendship with former legislator Tom Lubnau, a Frontier Republican advocate.
It’s not that Knapp has anything against the Frontier group, he said, but rather he doesn’t want to be aligned with any factions and wants to stand on his own as an independent candidate running on his own platform.
As to what his platform stands for, posts on his campaign’s social media page are pro-second amendment, anti-“woke culture” and critical race theory and advocate standing for Wyoming’s strong beliefs and traditional values.
He also is a strong defender of the Constitution.
As far as issues important to the people of Wyoming, he’s particularly focused on oil and gas production, energy independence, opposed to tax increases and wants to tackle the issue of country-of-origin labels for meat and other products among others.
The week Knapp was interviewed by Cowboy State Daily, he held court with about 40 guys at the local Expresso Lube in Gillette for their weekly coffee club. Like him, Knapp said the guys were concerned about the fact that the race is already a foregone conclusion pitting Hageman against Cheney.
The guys at the coffee group found that concerning because every qualified citizen has the right to run for office, and they worry, Knapp said, about all the outside money flooding into both the Cheney and Hageman campaigns.
“They respect me as a veteran,” he said, “and the fact that I’m a candidate who doesn’t have a bunch of money behind them from outside sources.”
He’s found that once people meet him and hear what he’s about, he tends to earn their vote. And that follows the advice given him by former U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi: get out there and knock on doors.
Now, Knapp is planning to hit the campaign trail, beginning with the Crimson Ball in Rock Springs last weekend, followed by Republican Party functions in Sheridan, Cheyenne and Natrona County.
“My strategy is to continue across my home state and meet as many people as I can to tell them who I am and why I’m running,” he said.
Regardless of what happens along the way, he’s in it for the long haul.
“I’m not a quitter,” he said.