The Wyoming Republican Party’s formal decision to turn against U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney raises the option for her to run as a Republican in the general election. This would be a rare opportunity to show the state the benefits of an open primary system like we have in 21 other states, and what it could do for Wyoming’s political and economic health.
A year ago, the Wyoming Republican Party took the unusual step of censuring Cheney, and in early February the Republican National Committee took similar action. Now, the Legislature is taking action in an attempt to further hamper Cheney’s chances in the Wyoming primary by making it harder for voters to change party affiliation on election day. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed the measure, Senate File 97 – Change in party affiliation.
The state GOP is not simply putting its thumb on the scale, it is stepping on it. But the party’s position gives Cheney all the justification she needs to shift the contest to the general election.
I welcome such a move. For years I’ve opposed Wyoming’s primary system, where the 43% of voters who do not identify as Republican are effectively disenfranchised from participating in how they are represented. It has led to an increasingly insular political culture, where a handful of party elites decide what is best for the state, and then use the party apparatus to get what they want. That hardly looks like what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
Cheney has a chance to show the state what an open primary system looks like, by challenging Harriet Hageman to a contest where they both make their case to the whole state. And while Hageman probably won’t like it, she would have a hard time arguing that she doesn’t want to face the judgment of all Wyoming’s voters. If Hageman complains, Cheney merely needs to ask, “What are you afraid of?”
Furthermore, there is nothing Hageman can do to stop it. All Cheney needs is a $200 filing fee and 4,025 signatures. She won’t need to change her political beliefs and can still identify as Republican. She can stand behind her conservative rating of 96% (the same as Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, and eight points higher than Sen. John Barrasso) and her record of voting with President Trump 93% of the time (which is four points higher than Barrasso’s).
I understand that moving the contest to the general election would have a strategic advantage to Cheney, although that’s not why I favor such a move. Cheney will likely have an easier time winning votes from the 43% of Wyoming who identify as Democrat or independent than those who vote in the Republican primary. Furthermore, Republicans who do vote in the general election are 15% more moderate than their primary counterparts, according to information from the firm Catalyst.
Cheney would also benefit from the state’s 33,000 college and university students, who vote more moderate than Republican primary voters. Disbursed throughout the state during the summer primary, they are hard to reach, hard to energize and frequently not living in the precinct where they are registered to vote. But by November, those same students are concentrated on campus, where get-out-the-vote efforts, establishing on-campus precincts and employing traditional activation efforts are easier.
Of course, in so doing Cheney would upset the GOP and some Republican voters. But those people are not going to vote for her anyway. Their wrath comes at no cost. Meanwhile, voters would get a taste of how an open primary might work in Wyoming.
The GOP has overplayed its hand this year, showing many Wyomingites that our current system is no longer healthy for Wyoming. Today the state’s Republican Party acts more like the politburo than a political party.
The effect has been a narrowing of ideology and a viciousness to how Wyoming candidates vie for public office. I’d like to believe that the bulk of Wyoming is tired of the nastiness that has become normal in our state politics — when candidates never face the judgment of the whole state and are free to turn their backs to nearly half of Wyoming. But this vanishes if Cheney challenges Hageman to a statewide race.
To win, each would need to appeal to all Wyoming families: Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated alike. That feels like a refreshing change.
If Cheney and Hageman are required to make their case to the entire state, the Wyoming GOP elites will hate it because the power shifts to the voters. But to me, that looks a lot more like democracy.