Conservative group seeks to rid Wyo GOP of ‘RINOs’
By Laton McCartney Harlan J. Edmonds has harbored a major bugaboo against Wyoming RINOs (Republicans in name only) since he first came to the state in 1993 while working for the U.S. Department of Defense at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. He arrived with the expectation of finding “a conservative sanctuary,” he told Liberty’s Torch, a monthly Cheyenne newspaper. Instead, he was bitterly disappointed. “I found the state’s political system to be lousy with liberals and political opportunists.”
Not to be confused with rhinos, RINOs, as Edmonds defines them, are counterfeit Republicans — liberal and moderate members of the party and even some closeted Democrats — who somehow have insidiously entrenched themselves in the Wyoming Republican Party’s “big tent.” Edmonds and the five-month-old political action committee he chairs, CROW (Conservative Republicans of Wyoming) want the flaps of the big tent closed to all but true red, white and blue conservatives.
In short, CROW is seeking to reform the Wyoming GOP from the ground up. So who is Harlan Edmonds and why is he trying to purify, or reform, his party?
Origins of CROW
After his stint at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in the 1990s, Edmonds moved to Kansas City where he started dating his future wife, Amy Edmonds. In 2000, they moved back to Cheyenne, where Amy, a farm girl from tiny Butte, Nebraska, and a one-time Democrat, converted to her husband’s ultra-conservative beliefs. “Harlan started me down the intellectual path, the process of what it means to be a conservative,” she told Liberty’s Torch.
The couple was married in 2002 with Harlan working for the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WyDOT) as a project manager. He became more involved in right wing politics. According to the CROW web page, he and other “conservative reformers” who were frustrated with the “disproportionate liberal influence that exists in the Wyoming government and WYGOP,” began an ongoing series of strategy meetings across Wyoming.
“The various folks at our earlier strategic conservative unity meetings … each contributed valuable input to the refinement of CROW’s 12 Foundational Principles,” Edmonds told WyoFile via email. “Some hold office today. But they are not presently members of CROW and so I don’t think it (is) fair to name them here and will leave that up to them.”
These gatherings ultimately gave birth to CROW.
“CROW is the product of previous attempts to unify conservatives in Wyoming, which is nearly impossible because conservatives have to be united by what they are for (by what they are conserving), whereas the collective advantage of the liberals is that they only need to be united by what they are against,” Edmonds told WyoFile. “Offense is always easier [than] defense in the culture war especially.”
At about the same time, Edmonds decided to run for the Wyoming Legislature. After his bosses at WyDOT discouraged him, according to Amy Edmonds in a December 2, 2011, interview in Liberty’s Torch, however, he and Amy agreed she’d run in his place. Harlan effectively managed her “boots on the ground,” house-to-house campaign. In 2006 she won the general election for House District 12 in Laramie County by 18 votes.
The CROW Mandate
CROW registered as a PAC with Harlan Edmonds as chairman, Amy Edmonds as state treasurer, Bruce E. Perryman as vice chair, and Christine L. Johnson as state secretary. To date three Wyoming legislators have been identified as members: Representatives Bob Brechtel of Casper, Frank Peasley of Douglas, and Allen Jaggi of Lyman.
Total membership hasn’t been disclosed, but Harlan told Liberty’s Torch that the growth and interest to date in CROW has been “phenomenal.”
On its website, CROW spells out its mandate. Specifically, it wants to unify all conservative groups in Wyoming “behind the ideal of a rigorously conservative Republican Party.” It is also seeking to secure the nomination of conservative candidates in Republican primary elections.
To accomplish these goals, CROW aims to identify and oust so-called RINOs from the party. “WYGOP has been so dominant over time in Wyoming that it has attracted legions of frustrated Democrats and other left-liberals who have joined its ranks in order to better their political chances,” the CROW website notes. “These RINOs greatly magnify the power and influence of otherwise marginal Wyoming Democratic party by dividing WYGOP internally and parasitically using its resources to elect RINOs to public office.”
CROW’s Reception in Wyoming
CROW has already ruffled feathers including those of Phil Roberts, an associate professor of history at the University of Wyoming who made a bid this year as an independent challenger to U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming). Roberts dropped out of the race in July.
“The motives of CROW are very detrimental to Wyoming politics, in my opinion,” Roberts told WyoFile. “Over much of the past half century or so, Democrats and Republicans in Wyoming have cooperated with respect to getting things done for the benefit of the state. Rigid ideology and strident partisanship have not been part of it and, consequently, we’ve had as fairly good record of accomplishment with respect to dealing with the state’s problems.”
Roberts, who likens CROW to the Birch Society’s fulminations in the early 1960s, questions why any organization would want “our legislature and our politics in Wyoming to mirror the national situation. The U.S. Congress is utterly dysfunctional and much of it is because of the stridency and the rigid refusal to compromise that has been introduced into that body by individuals like the CROW here in Wyoming,” he said. “I’d say leave those attitudes in Washington D.C., and get on with governing Wyoming in the ‘Wyoming way’ of constructive and pragmatic problem solving.”
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) told WyoFile that CROW is to be taken seriously. “They are an indication of the schism in the Republican Party between little ‘c’ small government conservatives, who have traditionally played a key role in Wyoming, and social conservatives.” The latter, of course, are against gay marriage, abortion and a litany of other emerging social changes they see as threatening.
To help ferret out RINOs, Edmonds, on July 4, emailed a questionnaire to every Republican primary candidate. “Independence Day greetings to you from the all the members of the Conservative Republicans of Wyoming,” the email read.
Crow requested that the candidates state if they agreed or disagreed with each of the political action committee’s 12 fundamental principles. “Keep in mind that they are entirely compatible with the beliefs of the country’s founders, most of the Americans who have ever lived and platforms of the Republican party,” Edmonds informed the candidates, before listing the principles themselves. Among them: “The Sovereign Nature of God,” “The Imperfect Nature of Man,” and “The Primacy of Western Civilization.”
The survey noted that each of the candidate’s responses would be combined with documentation of their public record and other (unnamed) sources of information, allowing CROW to make “an informed decision about your value system and core beliefs …. CROW merely wishes to determine which candidate … is the most conservative and the least amenable toward the present ideology of the Democrat Party.”
And the laggards who failed to respond in 10 days? They “will be counted as a disagreement with CROW’s principles and a desire to avoid scrutiny as a public official.”
The survey was not well received by even some of the more conservative Wyoming Republicans like Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse). “Dear Harlan and Members of C.R.O.W.,” Wallis responded. “With all due respect … to insinuate that only those Republicans who adhere to your particular form of religious zealotry qualify as conservatives who are ‘conservative enough’ is a view that many including myself will have trouble perceiving as anything but deeply offensive and dangerously intolerant of the wide diversity in our country and our state.”
“I have no interest in being a CROW, a magpie, a woodpecker or a hoot owl,” said Dave Evins, a Republican from Lyman who is challenging CROW member Rep. Allen Jaggi for the HD 18 seat. “I am a conservative Wyoming Republican, and don’t need a fringe group to tell me what to think or how to vote.” Evins didn’t respond to the CROW questionnaire.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R—Cheyenne, HD 43 seat) — not to be confused with Rep. David Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne, HD 9 seat) — said he agrees with the majority of the 12 principles spelled out in the CROW questionnaire. But, he added, the organization’s insistence that its principles be the sole factors guiding policymakers is unrealistic. “They want public policy to be determined exclusively by their principles,” he said. “It’s more complicated than that. You have to make policy decisions based on differing points of view, and each decision is different.”
Edmonds said CROW will soon be posting its survey findings on the PAC’s website. “We are more concerned with getting information out than fund raising,” he said. “It’s the people not the PACs that are doing the electing after all. I’m not sure if we’ll do endorsements yet; measuring folks by the consistent standard of our fundamentals is key. Cross checking by voting records and other documentation is also important because obviously some respondents are not being truthful, or maybe they think the US Constitution is a hipster band.”
As of August 13, the survey results have not been posted on the CROW website.
Long time state Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) said he is among the first to be branded as a RINO by CROW. The labeling came after Scott shot down H.B. 35 which was sponsored by Rep. Bob Brechtel during the 2011 legislative session. The bill asserted that, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to the contrary, so-called “Obamacare” (Affordable Care Act) was flat out unconstitutional and thus null and void in Wyoming. As drafted, the bill imposed a $5,000 fine and a felony conviction on any state employee, official, or public servant found to be enforcing the Affordable Care Act.“I killed it, and, boy, was he (Brechtel) mad,” Scott said. “Passing the bill would have made us look extreme and plain silly.”
Scott said in the wake of the H.B. 35 controversies, he’s been the target of three separate mailing campaigns, each of them costing about $2,000, by his estimate. Scott believes the funding comes from wealthy CROW backers.
Brechtel is now trying to unseat Scott in the Senate District 30 primary. Brechtel denies that CROW has paid for any mailings on his behalf or against Scott. “CROW has not donated to my campaign, and I have had almost no communications with them since the start of my campaign. Two family members were the only out-of-state contributors. Donations are primarily from voters in our community who are concerned about a range of issues, not just the defeat of any single bill.”
Ballotpedia shows Brecthel’s largest contributors in the 2010 election as The Republican Party ($1500); Natrona Republican Party Central Committee ($750); WyWatch ($550); Anadarko Petroleum ($500) and Union Pacific Railroad ($500). His total contributions came to $8,225 in 2010.
Scott has also been singled out by WyWatch, another PAC that is in lockstep with CROW on many issues. On July 19, two weeks after the CROW questionnaire went out, WyWatch sent out the following fund raising letter.
“In 2011, Representative Bob Brechtel ran a bill that would have protected Wyoming from the mandate of Obamacare. Do you know who is responsible for killing that bill? The Chairman of the Senate Health, Labor and Social Services Committee, Charlie Scott. He simply buried the bill and did not let it move through committee. … We are confident that we can help voters in SD 30 replace this RINO with Bob Brechtel.”
In the wake of the HB-30 uproar, Harlan Edmonds appears to believe he has Scott and other alleged RINOs on the verge of a stampede. “The RINOs are very worried,” Edmonds told Liberty’s Torch. “They just can’t hide, and there’s already … paranoia on their part of what’s to come.”
For its part, the Wyoming media has largely dismissed CROW as marginal wackos, a political side show, but Charlie Scott believes they’re not to be taken lightly. “If CROW is able to mobilize a group of zealots, and there’s a low voter turnout, they could win,” he said.
- Laton McCartney was born in Denver, Colo., and grew up on cattle ranches in Colorado and Wyoming. He is the author of the national bestseller, Friends in High Places: The Bechtel Story—The Most Secret Corporation and How It Engineered the World; and Beyond the Great Divide: Robert Stuart and the Discovery of the Oregon Trail. His most recent book, The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country, was published by Random House. McCartney has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Today Show and numerous other television and radio programs. He and his wife Nancy divide their time between Dubois and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.