ROCK SPRINGS—Michele Irwin’s first tactic was to wax poetic about the holiday pie kit she was auctioning to raise cash for what’s left of the Sweetwater County Democratic Party. 

Irwin, a bison rancher who also works for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, extolled the dessert’s Buffalo Trace Kentucky bourbon topping and pitched its natural fit with any Christmas dinner. But when the 15 or so Democrats milling about a corner of Bitter Creek Brewing failed to bid big bucks, she cut to the chase. 

“Come on, these are desserts that are raising money for our desperate Democrats,” Irwin hollered. 

The direct approach worked. Cathy Delman, a former state committeewoman, walked away from the brewpub down $130 but up one custard pie kit. 

Former Wyoming House candidate Michele Irwin, left, converses with Sweetwater County Democratic Party Chair Meghan Jensen at the party’s 2022 Christmas gathering. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Irwin’s dessert-slinging exuberance brought a little pep to the step of what was otherwise a pretty discouraged group of Democrats. Rock Springs and surrounding communities, with their rail lines and mines, have deep labor union roots — a history that helped make southwest Wyoming a party stronghold for generations. Not so long ago their Christmas party was so popular that organizers capped attendance. This year the party’s chairperson, Meghan Jensen, hesitated to even hold a Christmas party, she said.

“The most excitement we’ll have tonight is auctioning off the rum balls,” said Traci Watkins, whose mother once chaired the Sweetwater Dems. “I’m kind of happy my mom isn’t alive to see where the politics have gone.” 

There’s essentially nothing left of the Democrats in southwest Wyoming. In the 2020 election, two of the minority party’s incumbents were voted out: 14-year-veteran lawmaker Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River) and Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D-Rock Springs). This year’s election took care of what was left. First-term lawmaker Rep. Chad Banks (D-Rock Springs), whose day job is to lead renewal of the Rock Springs downtown area, was clobbered by Rep. J.T. Larson

“All the experience [Chad Banks] had, all the knowledge, all the education, and he was beaten by a 21 year old who does not even have an associate’s degree,” longtime Sweetwater County Democrat Mike Martin said. “The only thing [Larson] had was an R beside his name.” 

After this story was published, Larson told Martin and reiterated to WyoFile that he does have an associate’s degree. He’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Wyoming, too, he said, though has to take a semester off school for the Wyoming Legislature’s coming general session.

The political bloodshed didn’t stop at the Capitol steps. 

“The coroner’s a Democrat,” Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto said. “That’s it.” 

Of Banks’ loss, Barbuto said there was “nothing we could have done to overcome that D on the end of his name.”

“That’s the problem we now face,” he said.

Barbuto, Sweetwater County’s elected treasurer, knows from experience. He just lost his job, and it wasn’t even close. The former state representative and fifth-generation southwest Wyoming native was trounced by Republican challenger and now treasurer-elect, Mark Cowan. Barbuto won fewer than half as many votes as Cowan, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or investment. 

“All in all, between the primary and the general, [I spent] 15 grand,” Barbuto said. 

Building on up

Similar big-spending, little-return dynamics are playing out statewide for the Wyoming Democratic Party. 

Under Barbuto, the party has expanded its infrastructure considerably. The Democratic National Committee has supported the state party both through its rural council and red state fund, the latter of which has provided $15,000 a month, according to Barbuto. Overall, the Wyoming Democratic Party now spends $300,000 to $400,000 annually and employs a staff of six

That means the Wyoming Democratic Party, as a professional statewide organization, is considerably larger than the financially strapped Wyoming Republican Party, which only supports a single full-time employee. 

“If we don’t have an organization,” Barbuto said, “we’re going to do a lot worse than we have, right?” 

Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto, right, and the party’s communications director, David Martin, converse at the Sweetwater County Democratic Party’s 2022 Christmas gathering. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

But there’s not much room to do worse. 

Judging by the results of two races for federal office — Democrat Lynnette Grey Bull’s 2022 tilt against incoming U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman and former president Donald Trump’s 2020 race against President Joe Biden — more than a third of Wyoming residents lean Democratic. Going by voter registration numbers from well ahead of the 2022 election (before Democrats might have changed parties to vote in the Republican primary) there were nearly 46,000 registered Democrats statewide, not quite a quarter of what Republicans count on their rolls.

Yet, only two of the state’s 23 counties — Albany and Teton — have any Democratic representation in the Wyoming Legislature. 

Republicans’ supermajority in the state capitol now pencils out to 92% of the body, with 86 senators and representatives to the Democrats’ seven. The Democrats attempted to make inroads this election cycle by competing for 17 seats previously held by Republicans. They failed, losing every single one of those races. The Democrats, whose thinning numbers are exacerbated by crossover voting, are even at risk of losing their major party status.

“The Democrats are probably right at the rock bottom right now,” said Martin, whose son, Nate, runs the progressive advocacy group, Better Wyoming. “I don’t see anything coming up.” 

The Green River Union Pacific Depot in the winter of 2019. The railroad town was long friendly ground for Wyoming Democrats. People familiar with the region’s politics say change began when an oil boom in the early aughts brought in blue-collar workers who didn’t identify with Sweetwater County’s union-centric, democratic leaning politics. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Some call Frank Prevedel, a 90-year-old former 14-year veteran of the Wyoming Senate, the “Godfather of Sweetwater County Democrats.” Prior to the 1940s Sweetwater County was dominated by Republicans, he said, but then a sustained period of Democratic Party-aligned union influence tilted power.  

“Democrats now are in the same fix that the Republicans were the whole time I was active, and that was for a long time,” Prevedel said. “And that is, you might be a closet Republican. If you ran for office, you wouldn’t be elected if you weren’t a Democrat.”

Prevedel perceives two turning points that hastened his party’s Sweetwater County decline. One was the Legislature’s passage of a right-to-work statute, a 1960s law that dates to Clifford Hansen’s governorship that established no one had to be a labor union member to keep their job. Second, the Democratic Party began to espouse policies nationally that were unpalatable in southwest Wyoming, especially gun control and those intended to reduce fossil fuel consumption to combat climate change.

“This county has always existed on fossil fuels,” Prevedel said. “A lot of young people that came through here saw that their livelihood depended on fossil fuels.” 

Image problem 

Martin, meanwhile, recalls that Democrats’ decline was slow, then “hit a steep slope” in the 2000s. 

“You couldn’t sell Hillary [Clinton] here at all,” he said. “Then it was even worse with [Barack] Obama, just being one of the most redneck, proudly racist states in the union.” 

Mike Martin at the Sweetwater County Democratic Party’s 2022 Christmas gathering in Rock Springs. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Sweetwater County officially tilted red, with the majority of elected officials being Republican, during the Obama administration, Barbuto said.

In Wyoming’s modern-day Democratic strongholds of Teton and Albany counties, the party’s national talking points don’t hurt candidates, said Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), who beat his Republican challenger in November by a 2-to-1 margin.

“But if you want to try to play in the other 21 counties,” Gierau said, “you’ve got to cut it more in the middle of the road.” 

Those political realities persuaded Gierau not to run for state treasurer this past election although he desired the post, he said. The Jackson Hole restaurateur has been a critic of the current treasurer, Republican Curt Meier, a Trump-endorsed rancher from LaGrange. 

“I know [Meier] would just run a grainy photo of me and Nancy Pelosi,” Gierau said, “and that’d be the end of it.”

Wyoming’s election results, he said, confirm that such attack tactics work

“Just grab any Chuck Gray speech and you know what I’m talking about,” Gierau said. “He just ran a campaign saying it was the elitist Democrats that were against him. He turned a group that is virtually extinct into the enemy and won a race against a good, hardworking Republican senator [Tara Nethercott]. Chuck Gray isn’t good enough to hold her coat, let alone be in that job.” 

The southwest Wyoming city of Rock Springs, pictured here in December 2022, was once a Democratic Party stronghold, but the GOP now dominates elected positions. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

State party Chairman Barbuto also believes the Democrat’s national image isn’t doing Wyoming candidates any favors. The political swing in Sweetwater County isn’t unique. Socioeconomically similar union-influenced rural communities like Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range and Morenci, Arizona have also experienced a shift toward the GOP, he said. 

“The national discussion is a lot more polarized, and I think we’re impacted more nowadays by what’s happening everywhere,” Barbuto said. “The internet and social media have really had an incredible impact on politics.” 

The Democrats’ collapse outside Wyoming’s wealthy resort community and college town has coincided with the rise of Trumpism.

Blake, who worked as a legislative director for his rail union before retiring, joked that he “got hit by the old Trump train” when he lost his House District 39 seat to Rep. Marshall Burt (L-Green River) in 2020. (Burt then lost by a 3-to-1 margin in his 2022 bid for reelection to incoming Republican Rep. Cody Wylie of Rock Springs.)

Blake’s take is that Wyoming’s elected Democrats and their state and county parties need to rebrand themselves as proudly middle of the road. It’s important, he said, that the party leaders clarify they have reasonable stances on issues like gun control and domestic energy that otherwise might scare off rural Wyoming residents.  

Stan Blake, a former Democratic lawmaker from Sweetwater County and state director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, speaks to members of the Wyoming Democratic Party on July 31, 2021 in Saratoga. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

“When we’re painted as national Democrats, it’s hard to battle that,” Blake said. “We need to get better messaging out there in Wyoming. But you’re walking a razor’s edge, because there are a lot of Democrats out there who are opposed to carbon. They want wind, they want solar, they don’t want any coal mined anymore.” 

Cause for optimism

Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) said his fellow Democrats ought to tout themselves as the party that “actually cares about the working class of Wyoming.” The Republicans in the majority, he pointed out, just passed legislation that gave corporate coal companies a $10 million annual tax break. 

“That $10 million is never going to contribute to our communities,” Yin said. 

Yin hopes political winds shift back toward blue as a result of dissatisfaction with Wyoming’s cyclical natural-resource-based economy, which has languished for decades relative to neighboring states like Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana. 

“Maybe people are happy in Wyoming with the government that they have, and then I’m just wrong,” Yin said. “But I think that there are a lot of people who realize that a lot’s not going the way that they would like in their communities.” 

Taking the long view, Prevedel, the nonagenarian former state senator, believes change will come. It’s inevitable, he said, that the Democratic Party will experience another resurgence in Sweetwater County. 

“The two Republican parties in Wyoming today will take care of part of that, because they’ll fight each other off,” he said. “I regret that I’m this old and I won’t live to see it, but [a Democratic comeback] will be here, and I’ll be keeping an eye on you guys from afar.” 

Lander resident Bruce Palmer, a former vice-chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party, is less sanguine. For a long time, he quipped that he was “the most optimistic man in the state of Wyoming” because he kept on thinking “Democrats can win.” Nowadays, however, he worries the electorate has shifted right, and that residents have sold themselves a bill of goods that’s more about individualism and less about being a good neighbor. 

Palmer is saddened by it, he said, but he’s losing faith in the people of Wyoming.

Referring to a recent column published in WyoFile, Palmer said, “it was something about how bashing transgender people is not the Wyoming way … Now I’m almost thinking, ‘Maybe it is the Wyoming way.’” 

Owning the scarlet D

Glasses were also half-empty at the Christmas party at Bitter Creek Brewing. State party leadership was in the house but there were neither stirring speeches about a Democratic resurgence nor public discussions of strategy. 

Music teacher Leesa Kuhlmann, a former state senate candidate, hydrates at the Sweetwater County Democratic Party’s 2022 Christmas gathering. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Despite that, the dwindling collection of Democrats tried to have some fun. Irwin, the auctioneer, pushed donated desserts with a distinctly descriptive style for the better part of an hour. 

“Not for people allergic to peanuts,” she quipped about homemade nut bars. “Like Payday, only a lot better.” 

Local Democrat Mike Masterson, who sat nearby, piled on: “More energy than a Natrium reactor,” he said.

Barb Smith’s winning nut bar bid brought in $35. In all the bake sale netted more than $600, enough to cover the Sweetwater County Democrats’ overhead for a year, according to Jensen, the chairwoman.

Jensen’s hope for the Sweetwater County Democrats’ future rests on its members proudly owning their party and political positions.

“There’s going to have to be people [willing to] say, ‘Hi, I’m a Democrat,’” she said. 

Correction: This story has been updated to include information from J.T. Larson about his education. —Ed.

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. The ideology of the Democrats both on the state and national level will destroy Wyoming and the Wyoming way of life. I would be very happy to see zero Democrats in Congressional seats in our great state!

  2. Frank Prevedel is correct about the national Democrat positions hurting Wyoming Democrats, especially on social issues. Being called a racist or homophobe because you don’t agree with them on every extreme issue is not the way to win support. The national party has since moved away from the unions in favor of grievance politics and left the unions behind. It works in the big cities, but kills rural Democrats. They’re withering up all over the country. I think the fall of the Wyoming Democrats can be traced to 1992 when the legislative races became single man districts. The Democrats made up about 40% of the legislature then and the unions held a lot of political power then including holding candidate forums and campaign money. They used that power to support entire blocks of candidates. That paradigm has changed as well as the shrinking of unions in Wyoming. The Democrat Party was not the force, the unions were.

  3. Ya know, the Ds have really haven’t done themselves any favors. As a Democrat who served on a local school board as well as the state board of education I was attacked with ad hominem epithets of being a racist for my opposition to the drive to create “dedicated school board seats” per the the three high school boundaries here in Cheyenne. No one was willing to listen to my concern that the proposition would only politicize the school board and school board elections to a dangerous level – which it did here in Cheyenne this past election with the county GOP, Focus on the Family and Moms for Liberty weighing in and supporting a menu of candidates which ultimately led to a supermajority on the local board which is at best alt-right, at worst a dangerous replica of Alabama in the 60s ; instead I was called names in the newspaper, in ugly emails, and phone calls. It was hurtful and I am at the point of going independent. When I am told that “you are an old time Democrat and there is no room for you in this party here” (specific quote from a 2020 candidate for the legislature) it is time to move on; and in fact that speaks to what has happened in this state regarding the demise of the Democratic party in terms of its inability to bridge the “Rooseveltian progressive agenda” with the rural nature of the state.

  4. What best epitomizes the problem was Robb Slaughter. Slaughter was a long time Democratic Treasurer. Appointed Barbuto. Then ran for commissioner as a Republican and was the top vote getter. I really don’t fault Slaughter, he did what he had to do to get elected. Most of the issues that the commission faces have nothing to do with party affiliation.

    If Slaughter had ran as a Democrat I bet he would have just lost. The typical voter is so uneducated it’s scary. They are voting based on guns, gay marriage and Trump’s stolen election claims.

  5. As nearly as I can tell, Wyoming “democrats” are nothing more than semi-moderate republicans. No thanks. I got a bellyful of them with Freudenthal. The only decent thing he did was remove sales taxes on food.

  6. It is so sad, being a born and raised Wyoming Democrat, with fine memories of great Wyoming Democrat leaders like Gale McGee, Tina Roncollo Ed Hershler and others. I left Wyoming in 1984 for work in DC but my heart has always been in Wyoming.
    I do agree with the gentleman in the article that stated the the demolition of democratic popularity in Wyo started with (Right to work Legislation), in Wyoming but many other factors are also involved.
    I now live in Colorado which has flipped to Democratic control. I credit (EDUCATION) as the reason that Colorado denounces the GOP.
    Good luck Wyoming Democrats, hang in there, the GOP is in a self destruction mode now and will need a place to land.

  7. Maybe the democratic party needs to look at the message. You cannot continue to pound the square peg in the round hole. At the national level the democratic party has shifted so far left it only represents large urban areas. Large swaths of the country leans heavily republican because the urban democrats have shifted so far left. In Wyoming this is not a new shift, it started back in the early 90’s when a popular Wyoming Governor lost an election to be US Senator because they would have to support the Clinton machine at the National level. We are fine picking the best person for the job within the confines of the border, not so fine when they will be under the direct influence of and forced to take a more liberal left position than most of this state is comfortable with.

    Second, just because somebody is republican or conservative in this state does not mean we are facist racist homophobic individuals. Actually, 90% of the time it is the exact opposite. I think people have become weary of the socialist left pulling out the race card every time the other side of the isle dislikes a candidate and/or their right leaning position. We are compassionate people too, we just have a different opinion. But I do not pull out the race card every time I disagree with people that are more left centric.

    Look at Colorado. You have democratic governor that is woefully out of touch with most of the land mass in the state, but people in Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins love him – especially those California transplants. It is situations like Colorado that have Wyoming people concerned – and frankly, I do not blame them

    Until the democratic party digs deep and looks at the message, they have no chance in this state

  8. Montana Democrats are “feeling your pain.” We have lost ground but not hope. In Montana, political control is exchanged with the Republicans about every 16 years. The swing now is toward Republicans, but they will aggravate the voters and eventually lose their votes.

  9. Really doesn’t matter as long as you have the GOP in congress voting with Democrats on massive spending bill. Like Liz and others did. We really don’t have a democrat problem. But we have heck of a GOP problem. It all going in sewer any way

  10. Excellent reporting, fact filled comprehensive account that none other of our state’s journalism provides.

  11. Thanks to Joe, Michele, Sen. Mike, Rep. Mike, Ben Rowland, Liz Storer, Trey Sherwood, Chris Rothfuss and many other Dems who have carried the opposition banner, even in such bleak times. I don’t have any other answers or suggestions other than what you are doing. I would post a yard sign that says “proud to be a Wyo Democrat.” Given the success that Biden, Shummer and Pelosi have been having in the Congress one would think that would translate to local support. But it does not seem to.

  12. The pearl clutching “Republicans are meanies” excuses displayed here are missing the point.
    The Democrat party has taken an extreme left tilt in recent years. Gone are the days of Bill Clinton.
    When cities burned in 2020, prominent Dems downplayed the violence actually encouraged donations to bail out rioters. Gun control? Dems have received cooperation in the past on gun legislation, and now turn around and demand more. If a citizen dares ask about election integrity they’re labeled as a fascist and insurrectionist. Want border security? The border is closed and you’re a bigot. Raise an eyebrow about someone born a male, claims to be female, and competes – and usually trounces natural females? Get outta here ya transphobe!
    If WyoDems would confront their own party about these issues and come to the table with reasonable responses to these issues they could likely win over a few converts. But the national party will never allow that and WyoDems will suffer for it.

    1. “The Democrat party has taken an extreme left tilt in recent years. Gone are the days of Bill Clinton.”

      I hear this kind of rhetoric all the time from the right as it is repeated without any push back in the media. The right wing knows that Dems/Progressives are working for the betterment of all and not just for the wealthy, which is why we are the Party of good ideas. I actually realize that when Clinton took office violent crime was peaking, yet there were no good explanations for why it was occurring so more enforcement was the answer. This proved to be a false response but the public never got any other explanation for why violence and crime went down worldwide even as the rest of the world did not turn to incarceration.

      The immigration problem can be tied directly to American policies that drive the immigration with the leading culprit being the war on drugs waged by America and yet America is the largest purveyor if “illegal” drugs. America should realize that banning alcohol caused the largest crime wave in American history, yet we seemingly cannot fathom that our war on naturally occurring plants has resulted in massive crime across the globe. So its a policy choice by the USA that is driving immigration and all Republicans want to do is spend more money building a stupid wall that will not work. To be fair, both Parties are afraid of the pharmaceutical industry so the politicians of both parties would rather keep getting campaign donations than fix the misery caused by the Drug War.

      Even bringing up the transgender issue is disingenuous as it does show a phobia. Why do you care how people dress or identify? Mind your own business as people are people no matter how they dress or whom they consensually are attracted too.

      Its pretty clear even in your comment, you do not want to solve things, you want to complain.

  13. This was eye opening! I lived in Green River in the 60’s and 70’s, and figured Wyoming Democrats were really Republicans anywhere else. My husband ran for the legislature as a Democrat when the primary was actually the election. I really enjoyed finding out what my old friend Frank Prevedel has been up to!

  14. Ignorance spans the entire country. With two corrupt political parties vying for the throne, voters are confused, so they vote for the social issues. When you have half the country thinking that a man on a cloud is going to save them, they’re easy to manipulate. If we don’t address the cognitive dissonance problem, then we are going to continue to spiral downward.

  15. While I agree with some points made, this is my take. When the Republican Party adopted pro-life position, anti-abortion members left the Democratic Party in droves.
    Then the NRA started grading candidates according to their extreme position. Clearly in bed with gun and ammunition manufacturers NRA and their corporate buddies are only after profit. They reject all candidates with any reasonable position like limitations on abusers, age limits,
    And, clearly most residents are anti-women. Even women here seem to accept that only men are qualified. They elect men over women even in Republican party. The vitriolic hatred of Pelosi and Hillary is rejection of powerful women.
    The bigotry against others has become mainstream thinking.
    Perhaps it is all about power and white men feeling marginalized. They have been in control for a long time. They used to own women and enslaved minorities.
    I do know that I used to think Wyoming and people in our country were special. Now evidence says otherwise. We have residents fully willing to commit Nazi type atrocities.
    The Democratic Party is about equality for all. The Republican Party is about making corporate America rich and keeping white men powerful.

  16. Yep!
    Like Yin said, we have to regain the working people. Not only show Wyoming we have solutions for their day to day lives but although abortions, LGBT rights, grizzlies and wolves are important, it does not resonate very deeply in a Gillette oil worker’s heart.Job security and steady pay checks would be closer to their needs.
    There are enough working people in Wyoming to reconquer; after all the Republicans have only hate, bigotry [ religious or secular] and conspiracy theorists.
    And let’s face it Wyoming Democrats do hunt, have rifles and shot guns!!
    In Teton County,where I live, the Democrats are dephased! They care more about wildlife that human beings. Hello!!! We haven’t even been able to rally the younger section of our population. Moreover with a majority of Democrats Commissioners and Town Councilors we are displaying are inabilities to better the plight of our working class.
    What a shit show we are.

  17. Having an ” I ” behind your name wasn’t much help in this last election in a state that use to think of itself as a tough place where people thought for themselves.

  18. Uinta County had only one candidate on the Democratic ticket. Uinta County used to be a Democratic stronghold. If you are a Democrat in Uinta County now and want to vote for someone you have to change your party. Even Cheney couldn’t get past the primaries. At the polls this year they had a table set up at the poll so you could change your party and have someone to vote for if you were a Demcrat. For years you can’t even get the legislature to pass the medicare extension when billions of federal healthcare money that we pay for goes to other states but not Wyoming.

    1. When a candidate wins an election in Wyoming simply by being an “election denier,” I’m not sure the Democratic platform is where the problem lies. But the pendulum will swing back, it always does (slowly). GenZ’s are the main reason we kept the senate! I have hope.