The 2022 election results appeared to enhance the ability of far-right Republicans to not only maintain their dominance in Wyoming politics, but build on it.
That grip on the GOP, however, has taken a hit. Party leaders’ actions this year appear to be a catalyst for more traditional Republicans to gain ground, and perhaps even retake party control. The return of many more moderate central committee officials in recent county elections may be a harbinger of this power shift.
More establishment conservative and moderate Republicans made a concerted effort this year to file for precinct committee seats, which in previous years were given to more hardline conservatives.
Long-time right-to-life advocate and former legislator Marti Halverson lost her spot as Lincoln County Republican chair to former treasurer Wade Hirschi, who called for more party civility and unity.
Why does he think those qualities have been missing? Perhaps it has something to do with Halverson’s call in November for an investigation of Republican Gov. Mark Gordon. The resolution was baseless nonsense, but Lincoln County Republicans helped pass a state resolution alleging Gordon is in cahoots with billionaires George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett over development of the TerraPower nuclear project near Kemmerer.
Admitting she had no evidence to back up the explosive charge, Halverson told Cowboy State Daily, “It seems very likely that this was planned amongst these subversive enemies of freedom.” No, she wasn’t kidding.
Laramie County Republicans, the largest GOP delegation in Wyoming, elected traditional Republican Taft Love as chair over Stacey Leach, whose daughter, Jessica Rubino, is state director of the far-right Freedom Caucus.
Love offered an olive branch to the state party, saying Laramie County plans to pay the Wyoming GOP $12,000 that it withheld from its state dues because of internal conflicts. If the county party gets back in good graces with state Republicans, who refused to seat its 37 delegates at the 2022 state convention, perhaps Love can rise in the party’s ranks.
In Uinta County, where moderates in the party sued conservative officials over alleged improprieties in 2021 leadership elections, voters tossed out the entire far-right slate of leaders, including Chair Elisabeth “Biffy” Jackson, State Committeeman Karl Allred and State Committeewoman Jana Williams. Traditional Republicans led by new Chair Joy Bell have taken over, but calming down this dysfunctional family is a tall order.
Mike Madden, former chair of the House Revenue Committee who — to the horror of the state party — has actually called for some tax increases, was elected to lead the Johnson County Republicans. Scott Harnsberger, who denies he’s a RINO although he’s certainly fielded the allegation often, takes over as head of the Fremont County Republicans.
By no means have the winds shifted so far to bring about a wholesale leadership change. Ultra-conservatives like Bryan Miller in Sheridan County, Scott Clem in Campbell County and Martin Kimmet in Park County also racked up wins. Still, the impressive showing by many “RINOs” must make state party officials nervous.
The most vulnerable is likely Frank Eathorne, who led the party’s rapid rise of hard-line, take-no-prisoners conservatives with his election as Wyoming GOP vice chair in 2017 and chair two years later.
Eathorne’s reign has been controversial, to say the least. He was outside the U.S. Capitol for two hours during the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Eathorne downplayed his show of support for rioters, sending out a press release that claimed he barely walked by the place and didn’t see any violence.
Eathorne has also been identified by a whistleblower as a member of the Oath Keepers, a militant right-wing group present at the Capitol that infamous day.
Eathorne’s leadership style consists of rewarding loyal supporters and punishing detractors. His attack of former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney for voting to impeach former President Donald Trump was perfectly in tune with Wyoming Republicans who felt betrayed.
Despite a state law prohibiting a party from favoring any Republican candidate over another in the primary, Eathorne supported Cheney’s Trump-picked rival, Harriet Hageman, who trounced her.
Hageman wasn’t the only far-right victory in the 2022 election. Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), who said the election was stolen from Trump and made false claims that Wyoming elections are not secure, defeated centrist Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne).
At least 14 freshmen in the extremist Freedom Caucus, the lapdog of state GOP officials, won House elections. The most startling victory happened in the Senate, when Bob Ide, who was with Eathorne outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, knocked off former Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper).
But when the Legislature convened in January, the GOP’s dream of passing everything it wanted, no matter how extreme, quickly died.
The Freedom Caucus controlled much of the agenda, forcing debates on alt-right priorities like banning teaching critical race theory in public schools, which isn’t happening, and jailing librarians who make LGBTQ-themed books available. Thankfully it didn’t get any of these bills passed.
But what “victories” the caucus did have may come back to haunt its members and the Wyoming Republican Party’s leadership. Since 2018, the party’s top legislative priority has been eliminating Democrats’ ability to change their affiliation and vote in the GOP primary. The bill failed every year until this one.
With unanimous Freedom Caucus support, the Legislature passed a House bill to ban “crossover” voting, but just barely. The Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee rejected it, only to have the chamber revive this “zombie” bill and send it to the friendlier Senate Revenue Committee.
Even then, weak support in the Senate made passage questionable, so the final vote was delayed for a day until it had enough votes to comfortably pass. Gov. Gordon didn’t even sign it, though he allowed the bill to become law.
Most contests are decided in the Republican primary since low Democratic voter registration and lack of candidates don’t offer many choices.The new law requires voters to choose a party by May 1 to vote in its primary. That’s 96 days before the election, when candidates haven’t even filed for office.
Democrats will get tired of changing registration and simply stay Republican, giving the party a massive margin over Democrats, already about four-to-one in the last election. The progressive voting bloc Republicans charged was “stealing” their primary will be even more of a presence, and the GOP will have only itself to blame, though it will still whine like crazy whenever “true conservatives” lose to moderates.
With only five Democrats in the 62-member House and two in the 31-member Senate, the crossover voting ban is an example of pure greed by a party that wants to hold every single seat.
The Freedom Caucus’ other big wins were two bills criminalizing abortion and prohibiting transgender females from competing in girls’ sports. The abortion laws are being challenged in court as unconstitutional, as will the anti-trans law.
The GOP leadership that backs such terrible laws has literally dragged the party so far from the mainstream to the radical right, the “establishment Republicans” I covered for decades as a reporter wouldn’t even want to be in the same room as these yahoos, let alone party. A change needs to happen, and it can’t be soon enough.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct election result details in Natrona County. – Ed.