Three socially conservative members of the Wyoming House who have all taken on incumbent legislators and won are aiming to move the Senate further to the right this year.

If they win, the Senate will likely be awash in a sea of new attempts to restrict women’s reproductive rights, legalise LGBTQ discrimination and put guns in every classroom. The new makeup would mean that any half-baked bills the House passes — “religious freedom” measures that discriminate against the LGBTQ community, for example — could have a better chance of passing the traditionally more deliberative Senate.

Wonderful — more chances to debate bathrooms, guns and abortion. I can hardly wait until January.

The trio — Republican Reps. Bo Biteman of Ranchester and Cheri Steinmetz of Lingle and former GOP Rep. Lynn Hutchings of Cheyenne — have limited state legislative experience but have proven popular in their districts.

Hutchings defeated two-term incumbent Sen. Fred Emerich in a close Senate District 5 primary race last month. She doesn’t have a Democratic opponent, so she’s guaranteed victory in November. She sandwiched her lone earlier legislative win in 2012 with losing campaigns in 2010 and 2014 for the House and Senate, respectively.

The other two candidates were giant-killers in their initial races. In 2014, Steinmetz knocked off Rep. Matt Teeters, then the chairman of the House Education Committee. Teeters had sponsored a bill to strip many of the powers held by the state superintendent of public instruction, which proved extremely unpopular to fans of controversial Superintendent Cindy Hill in House District 5.

That year Steinmetz waltzed to her win without a Democratic opponent in the general election, and she was also unopposed for re-election in 2016.

In August she flattened Martin Gubbels in the GOP primary, 71 to 29 percent. But for the first time she has a Democratic opponent, Marci Shaver of Torrington. The seat became open when Republican Sen. Curt Meier decided to run for state treasurer.

Biteman scored the biggest political upset of 2016 when he toppled House Majority Leader Rosie Berger of Bighorn. She was on track to be the first woman Speaker of the House since 1969 before she ran into the Biteman buzzsaw.

In that primary, which he won by 310 votes, Biteman attacked the moderate Berger for supposedly siding with Democrats too often. One of the campaign’s biggest rallying cries against her shouldn’t even have been a concern for HD-51 voters, because it was a phony issue — trying to keep transgendered people out of public restrooms.

Biteman slammed Berger’s support the previous year for a Senate bill to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. An anonymous handout was mailed to voters that claimed Berger voted for “Discrimination Against Women’s Privacy: Allowing Transgenders [sic] to Use Restrooms, Lockers and Showers of Choice.” There was nothing in the bill about the issue but since when do we let a little thing like facts get in the way of good politics. Berger said the attack took votes out of context to paint her as deviating from Republican principles, but the damage was already done.

Biteman easily defeated his 2016 Democratic rival Hollis Hackman, 69 to 31 percent. The pair will square off again in this year’s general election for the seat for Senate District 21. It became available when Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) decided to retire. Biteman is campaigning as a “true conservative,” which prompts the question: Has any Republican candidate ever declared he or she is a “false conservative?”

I’ll donate 25 bucks to any Wyoming politician who tries that strategy. Who knows, maybe it’s a winner.

The three GOP Senate hopefuls share a passionate — I prefer to call it paranoid — support for gun rights. In 2017 Biteman sponsored a bill to allow concealed carry on college campuses. The controversial proposal passed the House easily but was killed in the Senate after the University of Wyoming and all seven community colleges claimed it was a dangerous bill that would make campuses much less safe.

During her time in the House, Hutchings co-sponsored a bill to prohibit enforcement of federal firearms regulations, and a companion measure to make the state the only entity that could regulate or prohibit firearms. The Senate killed both bills, but while she lost the battle she became the darling of the NRA, which has endorsed her in every contest since.

Blocking legal access to abortion is a major part of the GOP conservative playbook, and Steinmetz has taken the lead on this issue. In 2017 she sponsored a bill to stop abortion clinics from selling “baby parts.” There’s no evidence that the only two doctors who perform abortions in Wyoming, both in Teton County, do such a thing.

But Steinmetz watched a widely debunked video that allegedly showed Planned Parenthood workers talking about selling baby parts on the black market, so she decided Wyoming needed to ban a practice that only exists in the minds of extreme right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Unfortunately the bill passed, but several amendments took out its most harmful provisions. Steinmetz has a Democratic opponent in Shaver, but if Steinmetz becomes SD-3’s new senator expect a raft of bills aimed at stripping Wyoming women’s rights to have a safe, legal abortion.

Steinmetz had an even more controversial bill in 2017. House Bill 135 was called the “Government Non-Discrimination Act,” which would give private businesses, local and state governments the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer residents. It would have even allowed EMTs to refuse treatment to transgendered individuals and let county clerks refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Why does Steinmetz have such a problem with the state obeying the U.S. Supreme Court? It’s worth asking her before election day, but please note: When two gay constituents asked her at a Lingle town meeting why she was sponsoring a harmful bill that does the exact opposite of its title, she called for a bathroom break. For her own protection I hope she said something like, “Knock, knock. Any ‘transgendereds’ in there?”

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Then, according to the questioners and other observers, she left the building. In the wake of widespread opposition, Steinmetz withdrew the bill. But, she explained, “The intention of this bill has always been to hold Wyoming to the highest standard in terms of equal protection under the law.”

Unless you’re gay, of course.

“Equality means equality,” her opponent, Shaver, wrote in a Jan. 17, 2017 letter to the Casper Star-Tribune. “There is no way to justify unequal treatment in a state that loudly proclaims to be the Equality State.”

Seems like a pretty clear choice on LGBTQ issues for the voters of SD-3.

Biteman, Hutchings and Steinmetz form a like-minded right-wing trio who could have a much bigger impact on close votes in the Senate than they did in the larger House. If Democratic Rep. Mike Gierau of Jackson can beat his tough SD-17 opponent, Republican Kate Mead, the contingent of former House members in the Senate would total 10, or one-third of the body.

That’s a fairly large number of people going from one side of the Capitol to the other, but it still provides the Senate a good argument about why it deserves to be called the “upper chamber” — for a representative who wants to get there it’s usually a healthy climb.

To have three current House members with no more than two terms running for the Senate is a new trend, but it’s likely to continue. A new breed of Wyoming politician is showing little patience with the standard practice of moving up the leadership ladder in one body before moving on to the other.

As a progressive I wish more House Democrats would be as ambitious as Gierau. The three members of the minority party in the Senate could use some company.

Then the rest of us — those who would like to spend more time and money on education and less transforming all the “gun-free zones” in the state into pistol palaces, could have some Senate representation too.

CORRECTION: Due to a publishing error, this Drake’s Take originally published with the wrong author’s name. -Ed.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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