Wyoming’s Republican and Democratic parties on a bumpy ride

Wyoming Republican State Central Committee Meeting in Cheyenne, Wyoming

Wyoming Republican State Central Committee meeting in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Republicans have dominated state politics for decades, having controlled all three of Wyoming’s congressional offices since 1978. (Wyoming Republicans’ Facebook – click to enlarge)

By Bill McCarthy

Just seven months into her new job as executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party, the Casper Star-Tribune editorial board called Robin Van Ausdall a failure. Van Ausdall had not recruited enough competitive candidates, according to the editorial.

“Moreover, she hasn’t just failed the party, the party has failed voters by not giving them better choices and a better alternative,” according to the editorial board.

Wyoming Voter Registration

(Click to expand)

“The standard they chose was arbitrary. The part that matters is how many seats we win,” Van Ausdall recently told WyoFile.

Wyoming’s top five elected seats, including the governor’s office, are all held by Republicans; the party has held those positions since Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal decided not seek reelection in 2010. The GOP has held all three of Wyoming’s congressional offices since the 1978 election. And, it has overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature; outnumbering Democrats 26-4 in the Senate and 50-10 in the House since 2010.

“They’ve (Star-Tribune editors) set the bar pretty high in terms of their concern for voters in Wyoming having a choice and the ultimate health of our democracy,” Van Ausdall said. “I couldn’t agree more and hope they will do a better job of holding up their end of the bargain. The Fourth Estate plays a crucial role in a healthy democracy — that of creating an informed electorate.

“It’s a fair thing to say we need to do some infrastructure building and improve our outreach in 2013,” she added. But in a state that is overwhelmingly Republican, Democratic candidates have to start very early in the process to be competitive.

Republican challenges

The state Republican Party does not have to worry as much about early starts. Republicans have an advantage over Democrats with 145,269 registered Republican voters to 47,117 Democrats, as of August.

But a year ago the Star-Tribune berated the Wyoming Republican Party for what appeared to be careless accounting of donors’ money.

In 2010, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) said that the Wyoming GOP improperly reported more than $129,000 that was spent just before the 2008 general election, most of it to elect Cynthia Lummis of Cheyenne to her first term as Wyoming’s sole representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“The amount was significant, accounting for about one-fifth of the state party’s 2008 disbursements — certainly not the type of thing a political organization forgets to track,” the editorial board said.

The FEC fined the Wyoming Republican Party $1,500 and suggested it repair its accounting practices. The state GOP chairwoman at the time blamed accounting errors and bookkeeping software problems.

But the Star-Tribune editorial board stated, “These were not small oversights; these are federal documents that are routinely required of every political party.”

In a second incident, the Internal Revenue Service threatened the Wyoming Republican Party with a $10,000 penalty because the party allegedly failed to properly file payroll forms in the 2008.

“The two incidents have damaged the state party’s credibility,” the editorial board stated in November 2011. “They also need to be open and admit mistakes. It’s the only way the party can regain the trust and confidence of the public in its ability to operate professionally.

But Tammy Hooper, Republican State Party chairwoman, said this July that the party won’t have to pay a $10,000 civil penalty to the Internal Revenue Service. Hooper apparently issued a press release to announce the resolution. Records always indicated that the Wyoming GOP timely paid all taxes owed to the IRS, said Hooper, who was elected state chairwoman in April 2011.

So what was the actual problem?

No phone interviews

WyoFile hoped to discuss specifics of the Wyoming GOP’s reported July news release and the future of the state party with Hooper, but Hooper told WyoFile she doesn’t do phone interviews.

Along with an advantage in the number of voters, the Wyoming GOP has an overwhelming advantage in the two congressional races in money as well. The Wyoming GOP’s strict access policies, according to some, may also mask the internal strife between the conservative and more conservative elements of the Republican Party that is part of the debate statewide.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso has $2.8 million in cash on hand as of August 1, according to Opensecrets.org. His opponent Tim Chesnut, a Democratic Albany County commissioner, has no recorded contributions on Opensecrets.org. Earlier this summer, Chesnut told WyoFile he had little money and he expected to run his campaign on a shoestring.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis has $283,871 in cash on hand as of August 1.

Chris Henrichsen, the Casper political science professor challenging Lummis, shows no funds on Opensecrets.org as well.

Henrichsen complained about the Wyoming Democratic Party raising money for out-of-state candidates, such as Sen. John Tester of Montana, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Rep. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico who are in tight Senate races in their home states. He was not allowed to ask for money at the state event, though, and said that Wyoming Democrats organize well for outsiders but not Wyoming candidates.

Henrichsen’s complaint led to the Star-Tribune’s stern assessment of Van Ausdall’s first seven months.

While divisions in the Wyoming Democratic Party appear to be mostly about process and money – or the lack of it — the divisions in the Wyoming Republican Party are ideological.

Party purge

There are several groups that have been looking to purge the Republican Party of those who are not conservative enough, including WyWatch Family Action, the newly formed Country Party and some people who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party.

Conservative Republicans of Wyoming or CROW has created very specific principles that candidates must adhere to if they want to avoid being targets of a primary campaign.  For more on CROW see WyoFile’s earlier story, ”Conservative group seeks to rid Wyo GOP of ‘RINOs,’” by Laton McCartney.

The Star-Tribune editorial board weighed in: “This is an unprecedented attempt by a handful of conservative Wyoming Republicans to effectively take over the state Republican Party, even though the GOP and its generally conservative beliefs has overwhelmingly controlled state politics for decades.”

But those who support CROW say it is simply an organization that provides voters with additional information and when necessary and possible an alternative.

“CROW’s principles make for a reliable yardstick by which to measure candidates and elected officials for the benefit of Wyoming’s voters,” CROW provisional chairman Harlan Edmonds wrote in response to editorial board’s criticism.

CROW is a political action committee (PAC) and hopes for county-level committees as well as a statewide committee, according to its website.

Due process for RINOs

CROW has established a detailed set of principles that it believes true conservatives should adhere to. Additionally, the committee has a procedure targeting supposed “Republicans in name only” — or RINOs — incumbents and challengers for defeat in the primaries.

“RINOs will only be identified as fair game after ‘due process’ is met, by which a decisive demonstration of misconduct has been assembled and brought before at least one county CROW PAC under their past, present or potential jurisdiction. Their attitude toward each of CROW’s twelve foundational conservative principles shall be considered in detail. A three-quarters vote of all Executive and Precinct CROW Committee members of an affected county shall be required to flag a RINO for removal,” the group says on its website.

Chairman Diana Vaughan addresses the Wyoming Republican Central Committee in Jackson, Wyoming. An incident involving the Federal Election Commission has called the party’s accounting practices into question, but party leaders say minor errors and bookkeeping software problems were to blame. (Wyoming Republicans’ Facebook – click to enlarge)

The purge of moderates and liberals from the ranks of Wyoming’s elected Republicans had mixed results on primary day, though. One victim was Rep. Pat Childers who, by most measures, would be considered quite conservative. The Republican from Cody has served in the state House since 1997.

Childers and the Powell rancher who beat him, David Northrup, believe Childers lost because of his stand on the same-sex marriage issue. Childers argued on the House floor that his lesbian daughter was “born that way” and that it was wrong to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Having a differing view in the current Wyoming Republican Party on any single issue can be a serious breach, according to some. Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) said, “I do not think it (the current state Republican Party) is very welcoming to diverse views.”

The Recluse Republican diverges from the party on issues such as abortion rights.

“Our party organization within the legislature itself is strong, and well run, and we do all contribute to a fund for our conference which is used to support our Republican colleagues who are in tough races,” Wallis said.

The state party is focused on statewide races, though, Wallis said, and rarely has any involvement on down-ballot races. In Wallis’ opinion, it is the well-run county parties that help Republican legislators, not the state party.

Within the Republican legislative caucus though, there is also evidence of a move to the right.

For example, Speaker of the House Rep. Ed Buchanan, a very conservative Republican from Torrington, replaced moderate-conservative Rep. Del McOmie of Lander as chairman of the House Education Committee, with a much more conservative Republican, Rep. Matt Teeters of Lingle.  Some believe it was a strategic move considering the fact that Wyoming has been working on controversial legislation to hold educators more accountable for student performance.

Governor rejects labels

Gov. Matt Mead told WyoFile on Thursday that Wyoming has a long tradition of vehement disagreements over policy without name-calling or putting labels on people. The first-term Republican governor has had the RINO label hung on him when cooperating with those who have viewpoints other than those of the hardcore conservatives.

Mead said, however, Wyoming has benefited from cooperation without concern for political parties or fear of expressing points of view that may veer from ideology.

“Wyoming is a conservative state,” Mead said, “but on any issue we may have a disagreement.”

Instead of facts and persuasive arguments, he said, some people have resorted to labeling opponents.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate, and I don’t think it enhances debate,” Mead said. “I think the hallmark of the legislature is to have severe disagreements on Monday and be able to work together on Tuesday. And as soon as you start throwing labels, I think the ability to work together is harmed by that.”

Low voter turnout

It is difficult to say how the electorate is reacting to the strife within the state parties. The primary election results for those challenging more moderate Republicans were mixed. The Wyoming Secretary of State’s office reported that voter turnout for the primary election in August was the lowest in 30 years.

Only 50 percent of registered voters and only 25 percent of the people eligible to vote in Wyoming actually voted in the primary, according to Peggy Nighswonger, state election director. More information about voting trends in Wyoming is available on the Secretary of State’s website.

Turnout is usually much higher for the general election, Nighswonger said. Ninety-eight percent of those registered turned out on average over the last five presidential elections. She expects a large turnout on Nov. 6.

As for Democrats, they received only 20,276 ballots of 108,440 total ballots cast in the August 21 primary.

The 2010 shellacking that Democrats took is “a big hole to dig out of,” Van Ausdall said.

As the Republican Party moves to the right, Van Ausdall said, “more and more, we have some opportunities to appeal to moderate Republicans.

“I think, broadly, people want moderate sensible people (as candidates) who want to serve voters,” Van Ausdall said, even in Red State Wyoming.

Bill McCarthy is a freelance journalist who lives in Cheyenne.

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Published on September 11, 2012

  • Bill McCarthy

    Thank you, Keith, for pointing out the error. the line should have read that only 25 percent of people eligible to vote exercised the franchise during the primary. I appreciate the feedback very much.

  • Keith B. Goodenough

    Good report but it seems to me there is a factual error. I do believe that more than 25% of the eligible voters are registered to vote. Or did I misread that?

  • Patrick

    I’d love to know more about some of the developments this piece reports on – where does CROW come from and who’s funding it? How do they see the results of the primaries? What’s happening with WyWatch and how are they moving their legislative agenda forward? They’ve been claiming big victories and making big promises. On the state level, it almost feels as if the dissident factions of the GOP and Democratic Party are more active/noisy/effective than the parties themselves. I can’t help but wonder if the RNC views Wyoming as too small to actually matter – otherwise, it would be hard to imagine a state organization falling into such a messy state of affairs.

    On the federal level, things seem very different. Where do Barrasso’s campaign funds come from? I’m guessing the origin is not Wyoming. Lummis seems a bit more straightforward but clarity about the source of funds might be illuminating, especially in light of a state party that appears to be in such disarray.

    Finally (I promise) it seems as though Robin Van Ausdall felt that the Fourth Estate was somehow remiss in its obligations in Wyoming. I’m curious to know more about this – was this a reaction to the CST’s criticism or did she see a broader pattern?

    Thanks for this timely piece!

  • Brodie Farquhar

    I hope Wyofile can expand on this theme of ideological purity and what has happened historically to political parties, and even religions, that have pursued the goal of purity.
    Based on what I understand about history, philosophy and theology, I find this pursuit silly, absurd and ultimately, terrifying.
    If politics is the art of compromise, what is purity but a recipe for gridlock? Climb further out on that branch of purity, and pretty soon all you’re left with is revolution and dictatorship.
    Ask Torquemanda, Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot what came of their efforts to impose “purity” on others. Please note that the horrors of ideological purity come from left and right. Never from the moderate center.

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