How the GOP is trying to turn the tide in left-leaning Teton County
The Nov. 8 general election is around the corner, and Republicans are trying to make a dent in left-leaning Teton County.
WyoFile's Mike Koshmrl and the Jackson Hole News&Guide's Sophie Boyd-Fliegel joined us in the KHOL studio on Oct. 24 to discuss their election coverage. Billy Arnold, also from the News&Guide, participated via Zoom.
We dove into the exorbitant amount of money the GOP is spending in the county, how local Republican candidates are positioning themselves on abortion and more.
HANNA MERZBACH: Thank you all for being here today.
So, Mike, you've recently covered House District 22 for WyoFile. This district includes Wilson and southern Jackson, as well as Hoback and parts of Star Valley. Moderate Republican Andrew Byron and independent Bob Strobel are vying for the seat. Could you tell me about this race? What stands out to you? And why is a publication that covers news statewide focusing on this race in particular?
MIKE KOSHMRL: WyoFile is highlighting what we're just calling "legislative races to watch" all across Wyoming in the weeks leading up to the general election. And we're primarily trying to pick districts that could influence the balance of power in the state house. And so that race was of interest to us because for one, it's being vacated by the only independent, non party-affiliated politician in the 90-person Wyoming legislature, Jim Roscoe, who's on his way out. And it could be filled by another independent, a guy named Bob Strobel, who is one of a record number of either minor party or unaffiliated independent candidates running for office this year. I think going back 30 years, it's the highest number that's ever put in. And it looks also to be likely a close race.
HM: Great. I will definitely be giving that a read.
So, Billy, you've also been covering some of these Wyoming House races. You also covered House District 22, which Mike was just talking about. And you've covered House District 23. That district includes Rafter J, Alta, north Jackson. That race is between Democrat Liz Storer and Republican Paul Vogelheim. One of the main issues in these state races that I've observed has been abortion and the Republican candidates stances. How do you see these candidates kind of toeing the line between sticking with the Republican Party while also trying to appeal to voters in a more left-leaning county?
BILLY ARNOLD: Sure. Thanks for the question. And I agree it has been a really interesting issue there in this campaign cycle. Obviously, the backdrop here is that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer, the Dobbs decision, basically putting the role for legislating abortion access back in statehouses across the country. So, Wyoming then passed a bill that was called the trigger ban, which essentially banned all abortion with the exception for rape, incest and the life of the mother. That ban has since been challenged in court and that's where it's kind of held up right now. So that's the backdrop on this issue and it's really expected to end back up in the statehouse one way or another.
What I would say generally for candidates across the ballot in legislative races in Teton County, it feels like it's a race to the middle in some sense, or at least a race to say you're pro-choice. I think every candidate that I have seen in a legislative race so far has said that. But, you know, there's definitely some nuance and gray area of that because some candidates have said that publicly in debates. But, you know, a candidate like Andrew Byron, who's running for House District 22, filled out a GOP platform pledge back in September and checked a box saying that he supports life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. So that statement would seemingly be at odds with the statement that he's pro-choice. He's responded to that in interviews with us and said that, you know, he's emphatically pro-choice, but, you know, he's not the only candidate that we've seen have a confusing stance on the issue.
I think another example would be Jim McCollum. He is running for House District 16 , which is the seat currently held by Mike Yin. Mike Yin is also in the race. Mike Yin is a Jackson Democrat, Jim McCollum's a Jackson Republican. You know, in debates, Jim has said that he is pro-choice. But in our candidate survey, you know, we asked the question and the question was specifically worded to ask, "When and where should abortion be allowed?" And the answer that he gave was rape, incest, the life of the mother. So that's a position that's consistent with the trigger ban. And, you know, that has been a measure that obviously pro-choice advocates in the state have have fought.
HM: Another story that I know both of you, Billy and Sophie, worked on was about the Teton County GOP's golden tickets. Will you tell me a little bit about that story and what you found?
ARNOLD: Yeah, I'd be happy to. So basically what the Teton County GOP is doing is they are going around precinct by precinct in Teton County and hanging election material or campaign material on people's doors, and in the packets, in each precinct, one packet that's being hung on a door is going to have a $50 gift card and a gas card in it. We thought that was interesting, something we hadn't heard of before. So we called former county clerk, election officials around the state to get their opinion on how that meshed with state election law. And what we heard from the Secretary of State's office is, I think in their words, they said it was interesting. They hadn't seen it before either. But if they wanted to decide whether it was legal or not, somebody would need to file a challenge against it or a complaint that they would look into. And to date, nobody has filed a complaint that we know of.
But, you know, there are election officials in Teton County, former election officials, the main one being former Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle, who looked at it and said that is a really interesting question. It could get into the realm of buying votes, which is prohibited under state law. And she thinks that's a fine line, one that she's not terribly sure that it crosses. But she was saying, if she was the county clerk, that's something that she would ask the attorneys to look at and for them to resolve. It seems like the GOP will be able to go ahead with what they're doing. But there's some questions there about how it meshes with the state election law.
SOPHIE BOYD-FLIEGEL: I think the most revealing part of the story is just that the tactics that the GOP is using for local elections are much more active and innovative than what we've seen before. The GOP, as we've reported before, is flush with cash in a way that the county Democratic Party isn't. I don't know those numbers. And Billy, correct me if I'm wrong, but we've both asked those questions straight up and we don't get answers of how much is in any bank account. But the county GOP has been really active with the money that they do have. And I think this is just an example of how that money is being spent in really creative ways. Some say it's questionable, but it's looking like so far successful.
ARNOLD: Yeah. One thing I wanted to add to that, Hanna, is just a concrete example of what the GOP is doing with that money is obviously, yes, the $50 gift card, but they're also making a substantial contribution to each GOP candidate on the ballot. I believe the number is $15,000 per candidate coming from the Teton County GOP to Teton County GOP candidates, and the GOP in Teton county, unlike other areas of the state, has been the minority party for, you know, the past couple of years. Just looking at the county commission, for example, you know, there's only one of five county commissioners who are Republicans. Then looking at the legislature, there's only one seat that covers part of Teton County that is represented by a Republican, and that's the Senate district that Dan Dockstader represents. Otherwise, it's three Democrats, one independent representing Teton County in Cheyenne. So the Teton County GOP has a really strong interest in taking some of those seats and, you know, trying to send more Republican candidates down to Cheyenne and also on local boards. And that's sort of they're coming from there and they're willing to spend money to do that.
KOSHMRL: The more active spending that we're seeing from the county GOP that Sophie mentioned, that also kind of trickles down from what they're seeing on a statewide level. And so the state Republican Party, which actually has way less funds to spend on elections, is still vastly outspending the Democrats. I don't have the precise numbers off the top of my head. But I know that the state Democratic Party is not sending any money to individual campaigns across states. So when I just looked into Andi Lebeau and Sarah Penn's race in Fremont County, contributions to Sarah Penn, the Republican, was about $24,000. And Andi Lebeau, who's the incumbent who might lose her seat, had only raised $2,000. So we're kind of seeing that imbalance, I think, in Teton County and elsewhere.
HM: And I mean, as Billy said, most of these seats in Teton County do usually go Democrat. Do you think this spending could change that makeup or what are you hearing from experts?
BOYD-FLIEGEL: I think the money certainly makes things competitive and the aftershocks of this spending will probably be felt for a long time. So even if there's not a legislative red wave in Teton County, a county that voted 70% for Biden in 2020, then we can't necessarily count out the effect of that money on any grassroots progress that the county GOP is making here.
ARNOLD: And I think it's also worth pointing out that there are no polls, nothing of that kind in Teton County. So the real bellwether for whether any of this money is having an impact is going to be Election Day and what the voters decide.
Early voting is open in Teton County. Voters can return ballots in-person or by mail leading up to the election, or vote in-person on Election Day, Nov. 8.