Democrats Try To Improve Their Legislative Numbers

Jun 6, 2014

Credit Bob Beck

Wyoming Democrats have been in the legislative minority for a long time, but it’s been really tough lately. Only eight of the 60 Wyoming Representatives are Democrats and only four reside in the Senate.  While the party has hopes of grabbing a few more seats this year, there are not enough candidates to make serious gains. The problem started back in 1991. 

Former State Representative Matilda Hansen fondly remembers her days as a Democratic Lawmaker. When she entered the House in 1975 she had a lot of friends in the room.

“There were 29 Democrats, 31 Republicans and one independent and the Senate was 15-15.”

Hansen remembers that included Democrats from Republican strong holds.

“We had Democrat from Niobrara County, a Democrat from Park County, (laughs) a Democrat from these unusual kinds of places. “ 

But that all changed when a lawsuit forced the legislature to switch from countywide votes to single member districts.  

“The Democrats are in a minority now, seriously in a minority, because of districting” said Hansen.

Now Representatives and Senators represent a like number of people within legislative districts that can encompass multi-counties. Since most of the state is Republican, that made life difficult for Democrats. University of Wyoming Political Scientist Jim King said there is no question that made an impact.

“Many years ago when there were multi-member districts, that is each county would elect a particular number of legislators from the entire county, it was a lot easier for a democrat to be successful as one out of four, two out of four, two out of five, something like this.” 

While Hansen and some others blame Republicans for crafting legislative districts that made it difficult to win, King said that the mere fact that there are so many more voting Republicans is the real culprit.  Especially when a lot of people will vote what’s called a straight ticket. 

“There are a lot of people who use political party as a voting cue and it doesn’t mean they are automatons, it just means that they understand that if they are Republican, the Republican candidate is more likely to share their views and if they are a Democrat, the Democratic candidate is more likely to share their views.  So it’s a reasonable voting cue” said King.

After a number of losses in the 1990’s, fewer and fewer Democrats started running for office. But there is a concerted effort to recruit new candidates who will at least give it a shot. Teton County Democratic Party Chair Jordan Schreiber is 24 and has the optimism and enthusiasm that goes along with people her age.  She admits there is a good chance their party candidates will continue to lose. However, she said there is value in running, if for no other reason than to challenge the incumbent.

“Having a challenger forces you to stay honest, forces you to answer the right questions, and in the end a lot of the time I’m trying to convince these candidates to run because there is a chance they will win, but they are also doing their civic duty.”

However, she doesn’t think all is lost either. While the G-O-P registration numbers are hard to overcome, Schreiber says the right message and personal contact can go a long way. 

“I think you really overcome it by doing the solid door to door work and talking to people and getting out the vote. And what’s unique about Wyoming is that we don’t really same issues that you follow on a national level.  So there is a lot more about wildlife and open spaces, and things like that.”

But Democratic leaders and Political Scientist Jim King believe that national politics does play a role. The President is unpopular in Wyoming and King says that has backlashed against Democrats in the state. But Fremont County Party Chairman Bruce Palmer said that means they need to improve their message to voters. For instance running things like the Republicans opposition to Medicaid Expansion or minimum wage hikes. He said they also need to be more aggressive during the year and in campaigns.

“We are letting people know when we see a vote that we think is not in the best interest of the people in the state of Wyoming. I think we need to point out when we see hypocrisy in our elected officials and do that and I think we need to stand for something, we need to be able to say what our values are and what we may do differently.”

Palmer says this effort will take time, but he says a few victories should give Democrats momentum. He says the party is committed to improve things in the future and he’s excited about it. 

Take a look at the Primary Candidates here.