Wyoming Republicans Are Battling For Control Of Their Party

Aug 14, 2020

Credit Bob Beck

Tuesday, August 18 is Wyoming's primary election, and while there is a race for the state's open U.S. Senate seat, more interesting races surround the attempt by the conservative arm of the state Republican party to gain power in the legislature. Nick Reynolds of the Casper Star Tribune joined Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck to discuss this.

Bob Beck: Let's set the stage if you wouldn't mind. Explain to listeners what's been going on in the Wyoming Republican Party, because there seems to be a couple of factions.

Nick Reynolds: Yeah, well, the backstory goes back, well over a decade here, but we've really started to see a lot more of this activity sort of coming out in the last two years where we have a more activist wing of the Republican party that tends to identify with more far-right policies. We're talking about, you know, a sustained opposition to gay marriage, very pro life, very pro gun, that sort of deal.

We've sort of seen this transformation in the Republican Party infrastructure over the last couple of years where purists have actually managed to take over the party infrastructure and have now gotten organized to the point where they are fielding candidates and races that for a long time have been mostly dominated by moderate Republicans.

We're seeing a doubling in the number of house races that are currently held by Republicans that are now facing challengers from their right flank in the most part, and we're seeing about 47 percent of incumbent Senate Republicans facing primaries. So seven out of the 15 people that are running for reelection this year are facing primary challenges from the right.

Now, what's going to be interesting about this year's election is we're really going to see a testing of whether or not the activist wing of the party, who says purifying the party of Republicans in name only or rhinos and adhering to a Republican platform that is frankly very conservative.

We're going to see the theory of that actually being susceptible to most voters, actually being tested this year. Ultimately, the success of the moderates this election cycle or the incumbents is really going to speak to, I guess, how strong that upswell is of grassroots Republicans in the state right now.

Beck: The last couple of elections, you really saw strong efforts and then money thrown into these races, which maybe never showed up before. Has the moderate side now decided to go to war on this?

Reynolds: Yeah, I mean, I think we've already seen it to some degrees. I know that organization that got a lot of attention from the right wing so far has been the Frontier Republicans, which is a political action committee that was started by Sheridan area GOP activist Gail Simmons. She's run for a couple things in the past. Natrona County GOP Chairman Joe McGinley and Doug Campbell and out of Converse County. Those guys have been leading the charge on that, but their focus hasn't exactly been state house races. They've been focused more on the precinct level, looking to take back the party from the inside. And what we're really seeing is kind of a war on, you know, big donors that have actually been emerging in this year's election. So you have support right wing candidates, we see typical names like the Brophy's, Dan and Carlene. They've pumped nearly six figures into this year's elections. You know, Susan Gore, who's, of course, the founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group, and some other groups. She's dumped about $30,000 into these races. And we've also seen a number of different conservative organizations come up, kind of propping up these candidates who are challenging incumbents from the right.

On the other side of the spectrum, we've seen the emergence of top figures from Republican politics of the past such as the True family. You know, we've seen Matt Micheli organizing a political campaign committee here, and we've actually seen like a big proportion of the entrenched political class around the state, throwing thousands of dollars at some of these races to help protect some of these vulnerable incumbents. You really see that there are two distinct sides of thought that are not only fighting for the sole of the Republican Party, but for the legislature at this point.

Beck: So let's talk about some of the races that you are watching very closely. I know a lot of people in Gillette talking about Sen. Michael Von Flatern and that race. Talk a little bit about who his opponent is and what seems to be the issues there.

Reynolds: I guess that one really is a question of whether this message of getting rid of these Republicans in name only is going to be a successful message. Because I think you can talk to anyone in Cheyenne, and you'll know that Michael Von Flatern is probably not the most emblematic conservative of Republicans in the legislature. But I mean, he's effective. He's a pragmatic lawmaker, and he's been in the community for a really long time. And we know that ethic in Wyoming politics that I think people vote for the person more than the platform in a lot of cases. But you know, as we're seeing that idea tested around the state, we're certainly gonna be seeing it tested in Gillette, particularly as all of these outside groups such as, Wyoming gun owners, Wyoming Conservative Alliance, literally everybody has been piling on. He's actually interestingly enough facing off against one of his neighbors, you know, Troy McKeown lives right down the street from him. And he's kind of been running, largely on a similar line upstart candidates are running on across the state. It's an opposition to new taxes, promise to be more in line with gun rights and pro life issues.

I guess we kind of noticed these themes that have been popping up in races around the state and I'm seeing a place like Von Flatern's district, those are really going to come to a head. Now I think we've seen similar arguments in Sheridan where John Heyneman is now facing off against Mark Jennings, who's a standard bearer of that party's thinking. I mean, I know that he's very active in state Republican politics and has supported some of the most hardline conservative pieces of legislation in the legislature the last couple years or at least signed on to them.

We're also seeing that in House District 31 over the race for outgoing representative Scott Clem seat between John Baer and [former] county commissioner Mickey Shober. And even in races out in Cody where we are seeing Sandy Newsome fighting off a very, very strong challenge from a very right wing candidate and Nina Webber, who was a former Hot Springs County Clerk.

Beck: We also see an interesting one down in Laramie County, referring to Anthony Bouchard and Erin Johnson.

Reynolds: That's a really interesting one, because I think if we look in the past, Senate District Six has already shown susceptibility to be very narrow. I mean, the way the districting works in Wyoming there is really isn't an opportunity to gerrymander a lot of districts and I actually had a story written about the last redistricting effort in early 2010s about how there was some gamesmanship at the end to create districts, that have been more advantageous for incumbents at the time that now has sort of flipped on moderates out there. I know that one was infamously redrawn in 2012, to actually include a prison that was over the county line, in an effort to protect them.

After incumbent Wayne Johnson announced his retirement, it allowed Bouchard to actually overcome what had previously been pretty narrow losses to (Wayne) Johnson to manage to actually eke out a win over House Republican David Zwonitzer and later his wife. This round we are seeing something different. Now we have a challenger in Erin Johnson, who is a pretty well established contract lobbyist in Cheyenne has worked for the Cubin administration, as well as Gov. Gordon's cabinet. And you know, she's been on the front of a number of different policy issues, she's a very credible Republican candidate.

She's earned support from almost every industry group in the state as well as endorsements from the vice president of the Senate, who of course wants Bouchard out. I think that's been pretty public on social media. As well as former Gov. Matt Mead who's actually put, you know, quite a bit of influence on this race, which I've found to be really interesting.

And assuming Bouchard can emerge from those conditions, then we're looking at a general election in which he's facing a Democrat who's put together one of the most impressive volunteer operations in the state, you're kind of seeing an outpouring from both sides, you know, not only within his own party, but also from Democrats in his district who have always faced an uphill battle to get Republicans out of there. And I don't think any other race around the state really has an element like that.

Beck: The Democratic candidate is Britney Wallesch, who started Black Dog Animal Rescue, which is popular and that doesn't hurt her. Before I let you go, is there another race you're keeping your eye on?

Reynolds: Another really interesting one to watch is House District 47. And this is another race seeing money flowing from both sides. It has incumbent Jerry Paxton, who's been very bulletproof so far, he's won every single one of his races since 2013. The lowest margin of victory he's had was 21 points. And this year, he actually seems to be facing quite a bit of challenge. And what is shaping up to be a four-way election out there. You have Dee Garrison as the one time president of the Wyoming Association of Correctional Employees, your perennial candidate, Julie McAllister, and you also have Joey Correnti who's the Carbon County Republican Party's chair who has actually received thousands of dollars in donations from donors like Susan Gore, the Brophy's, and I believe Casper megadonor Kathy Ide is on there. She's not extremely active in the party apparatus, but she does give large amounts of money to some candidates on occasion. And we've sort of seen a similar alignment behind Paxton from more moderate donors. So that one should be really interesting. Yeah, it's a big question mark, for sure.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Bob Beck, at btwo@uwyo.edu