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Reports on Wyoming State Government Activity

The Road to Cheyenne: The Big Picture

A man walks through buildings toward the Wyoming Capitol Building. The entire photo is overlaid with a blue and red cross fade and "The Road to Cheyenne, Wyoming Public Media" superimposed over it.
David Dudley/Wyoming Public Media, edits by Nicky Ouellet/Wyoming Public Media

We're starting a special series on Open Spaces that will run until the primary elections on August 20. We're calling it “The Road to Cheyenne” – and it's going to be your go-to listen if you're lost amid the run-up of the primaries every week. Each episode will feature one of our state government reporters, a regional WPM reporter and occasionally a political analyst to help us wade through how the primaries are – and aren’t – different this year, which races could tip the balance of power in the state legislature, and how the campaign field is influenced by national politics.

Kamila Kudelska: Today I have both of Wyoming Public Media's state government reporters with us. Welcome, David Dudley and Chris Clements.

David Dudley: Excited to be here. Thank you.

Chris Clements: Thanks for having us.

KK: And we have Dr. Andrew Garner as well. He's a professor of political science in the School of Politics, Public Affairs and International Studies at the University of Wyoming. Welcome.

Andrew Garner: Thanks for having me.

KK: So today we're going to take a big picture look at the primaries. Chris, how many seats are on the ballot for the state legislature this year?

CC: So let's start with the House. Every single seat is up for grabs there and roughly half of Senate seats are open: 15 out of 31. About 80 percent of the races in both chambers feature at least two candidates and that's slightly up from the 2022 election cycle, when voters had even fewer options. The Republican Party currently dominates politics in Wyoming as we all know, so the primary in August it's going to decide the majority of these contested races. Something I want to point out is I'm really gonna be watching this cycle for how many seats the far-right House Freedom Caucus will be able to pick up. They have roughly 26 seats right now, but at a town hall in Casper last year, Freedom Caucus officials mentioned wanting to expand their numbers by 10 more seats in 2024. That goal is pretty apparent in their endorsements of candidates who are taking on more moderate Republicans.

KK: David, what is it looking like in the federal elections? We have three representatives in Washington, DC. How many are up for re-election this year?

DD: We have the senior senator seat coming open and also Wyoming’s single U.S. House seat. Both of those are on the ballot. For that senator seat, John Barrasso held that office for the past 17 years. He's currently the third ranking Republican in the party. He also has presidential hopeful Donald Trump's backing to move even higher. He'll face off with John Holtz of Laramie and Reed Rasner of Casper.

As I've talked with people on the scene in Cheyenne, the word “untouchable” comes up to describe Barrasso’s place in the party. But Rasner is a supporter of former Pres. Trump and he's eager to test that idea.

We also have Harriet Hageman, who won Wyoming's at-large House seat over Liz Cheney in 2022. [Hageman will]try to defend her seat from Steve Helling of Casper. Interesting fact: Helling ran as a Democrat during the last election. So I'll be interested to talk with him about switching parties.

And as Chris just mentioned many races are going to be decided by the primary since there are a few Democratic challengers. About 20 percent of races in this primary will be uncontested, with only one person running.

KK: Andrew, is this unusual? What did 2022 look like?

AG: It's not at all unusual and it's not unique to Wyoming either. There's been a national trend over the past 40 years or more of uncontested elections and more lopsided victories in state legislative elections. So in 2022, Wyoming Democrats only ran candidates in about a third of the districts and third party candidates only ran in an additional 17 percent. So combined, about half of the elections in Wyoming were contested two years ago, and that obviously is a bit higher than it will be this coming election. That's all on par with what we see in most states around the country.

KK: As we keep on mentioning, the political climate in the state is very Republican-centric. Currently 86 out of the 93 Senate and representative seats in Wyoming are GOP. A lot of the races that we’re talking about for the primaries are between moderate, or you could say “old school,” Republicans against more Wyoming Freedom Caucus-like candidates. When I was researching the different candidates and why they decided to run, many said that the Republicans in charge aren't doing anything or they would just very bluntly say if they get elected they're going to join the Freedom Caucus. Andrew, is this a new phenomenon?

AG: Primary challenges used to be a tool used by leadership to keep members in line with the majority so they can pass the party's agenda. Now, we have our rank and file members using primaries as a way to change the composition of the party in the legislature and sometimes directly challenging the party leaders themselves in the primaries.

That would have been unthinkable in the past. Anybody who challenged a party leader in a primary, for example, their career in the party would have been over. So as far as the change in why rank-and-file members are using primaries now, some of this is motivated by desire to grow the size of their caucuses or the goal of promoting their policy agenda. Some of it is more establishment members trying to primary legislators they view as too extreme. And there’s a range of other motivations.

The main point is that there’s been a major shift in recent years in how primaries have been used and who has used them: a shift from leadership promoting party discipline to rank-and-file members using it to change the composition of the party itself and even challenge the party leadership. And my best guess is this change started within the last decade or so, and it’s certainly become far more common in the past several years at both the national and state level.

KK: Is this shift at all influenced by national politics?

AG: It’s hard to know which individuals and which specific candidates are driven by national forces, but a lot of the trend we’re seeing across the country is driven by national politics. Remember that the Freedom Caucus started in Congress about nine years ago and has now expanded to caucuses in around 11 state legislatures.

My colleague here at UW in Political Science just published a great book about the nationalization of congressional elections and I think we’re seeing the same dynamic filter down to state and local politics as well. Certainly some of the same issues and same political dynamics at the national level are being reflected in state and local politics – talking about the same policy concerns and using similar populist rhetoric, for example. And the strategy of using primary elections to move the party in a particular direction also reflects a national trend we’re seeing in congressional elections from several groups, such as the Freedom Caucus in the Republican Party and the Progressive Caucus on the Democratic side.

KK: So keeping that in mind, what are some state House and Senate races that are worth watching where there might be Republican infighting? Let's start with you, Chris.

CC: One is House Speaker Albert Sommers of Pinedale. He's one of the most recognizable politicians in the state. He's decided to leave the House position he's held for the last 11 years. He's trying to become a senator now, so I'm keeping an eye on Senate District 14.

Sommers is running as a more moderate Republican against Kemmerer sheep rancher Laura Toliver Pearson. Pearson posted on social media aligning herself with the Freedom Caucus in the past and they'll both face the third candidate in this race, former Navy submarine Commander Bill Winnie of a Bondurant.

DD: I'll be watching the Senate race between Tara Nethercott and Gregg Smith in Cheyenne. Nethercott's an experienced lawmaker who's served as a senator since 2017. She's been named “legislator of the year” by three different organizations and serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her opponent, Gregg Smith, says he's a former chemical weapons specialist in the U.S. Army. He has an MBA in operations management. An Oregon transplant, he’s lived in Wyoming since 2005. A retiree, Smith told me that he loves Wyoming. But he has complaints about dysfunction in government and feels that more could be done to bolster the business community. He said that he doesn't feel right about complaining without taking some kind of action. Rather than tapping out his discontent on the keyboard, he chose to run for Senate.

I'll also be watching the District 22 Senate race between Barry Crago and Mark Jennings. Both candidates have spent time in the Wyoming House of Representatives and both are looking to join the Senate. Crago is on the Joint Judiciary Committee. He sponsored legislation to ensure that people who have been convicted of a felony for controlled substances are ineligible for a concealed carry permit. Jennings, a member of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, is also on the joint Judiciary Committee. He made news this week after urging Gov. [Mark] Gordon to call a special [legislative] session to protect Wyoming's coal interests in the Powder River Basin. The Governor's office declined to comment but they did say they hadn't received the letter.

KK: Another part of this primary that seems a little unusual is a pretty incognito nonprofit popping up, starting to endorse candidates that are more aligned with the Freedom Caucus. Chris, can you share what we know about Honor Wyoming?

CC: It popped up last summer. It's been difficult for journalists and legislators to find out even just basic information about Honor Wyoming, like who actually leads it and who their major donors are. A big part of the group is ranking lawmakers based on what they call conservative bona fides and they've spent close to $81,000 on social media ads so far. According to Jackson Hole News and Guide, many of those ads were to support specific candidates. Honor Wyoming recently had to refile their business licenses with the Secretary of State's office. What I'll be watching for in particular will be when the group's tax documents become available on the Internal Revenue Service website for the first time. That'll happen sometime in the next year and a half. Because they're a new non-profit, their first filings aren't available yet.

KK: Besides that, there's a Freedom Caucus and Wyoming Caucus PAC. Chris, what are the details on the money that they've raised so far? Andrew, then we’ll come to you. What does that allow them to do? And what does that signal about the caucuses as they head into election season?

CC: Both the Freedom Caucus PAC and the traditionally-conservative Wyoming Caucus PAC formed last year. Something interesting I wanted to mention is that in their tax filings from 2023, you can see the Freedom Caucus PAC is falling pretty far behind the Wyoming Caucus in terms of money raised from individuals. The Wyoming Caucus PAC brought in about $130,000 in total contributions, whereas the Freedom Caucus PAC saw only $43,000 come in that year.

AG: The money allows them to do a lot of things, everything from buying radio and television ads to doing what we call get out the vote operations, [like] paying volunteers to go knock on doors, make phone calls.The whole range of campaign activities. It's always better to have more money than less. But one thing I would say is that in a state like Wyoming, that kind of a money disparity may not give us a lot of insight into who's likely to win.

For example, especially in a state like Wyoming, where retail politics is much more effective than air wars, Rep. Hageman was outspent by former Rep. Cheney two-to-one, I believe. And Hagerman still won by a lot. So you don't need a lot of money to compete in primaries in a state like Wyoming where the population is small and primary elections don't involve a lot of voters.

That's even more true in state legislative districts with even smaller numbers of voters. The retail politics of knocking on doors and calling neighbors and those types of personal campaign tactics, they go a lot farther and are far more effective than large spending on radio and TV ads. It doesn't take a lot of money to do those things if you have enough support from volunteers. I wouldn't necessarily read into the fact that the Wyoming Freedom Caucus PAC hasn't raised as much money. I don't think that can tell us a lot in terms of predicting the outcome of the primaries.

KK: Thank you everyone. That's the first of our new election series, The Road to Cheyenne.

Thanks for being here with me, Chris, David and Andrew.

And if you have a question about voting, the electoral process, specific races or candidates, feel free to give us a call and leave us a voicemail, at 307-766-4314. We may use your voicemail on the show, or you can fill out this form to ask any questions.

The Road to Cheyenne will be back on the next Open Spaces, June 28, and will be looking at the northwest part of the state. Thanks.

Chris Clements is a state government reporter and digital media specialist for Wyoming Public Media based in Laramie. He came to WPM from KSJD Radio in Cortez, Colorado, where he reported on Indigenous affairs, drought, and local politics in the Four Corners region. Before that, he graduated with a degree in English (Creative Writing) from Arizona State University. Chris's news stories have been featured on KUNC, NPR newscasts, and National Native News, among others.
David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.
Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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