CROOK COUNTY—Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) likens his first term in the Wyoming Legislature to being a newly married youngster responsible for a 2-month-old baby.
“I had flippin’ no idea what I was doing,” Neiman said from the living room of his ranch home.
A newcomer to politics in general, that’s Neiman’s best comparison to what it was like going from cattle ranching in the Bear Lodge Mountains to legislating in Cheyenne, which began in the 2021 general session.
“It’s a learning experience every day,” he said.
At the same time, Neiman said, it was “exciting,” and there was a “tangible awareness” that his constituents were depending on him.
“That is very humbling,” he said. “And it’s scary.”
The 56 year old evidently got the hang of it. And he made the right connections. His lone sponsored bill that passed during that first session, House Bill 229 – Livestock identification choice act, led to an introduction to Harriet Hageman, a natural resources attorney who was Donald Trump’s hand-picked candidate to run against U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. Hageman easily ousted Cheney.
By late spring 2022, Neiman took a call from Hageman while herding heifers on an ATV. She invited him to speak at the former president’s first-ever political rally in the Equality State. Proximity to Trump, who has a strong following in Wyoming, helped elevate Neiman politically. And by late fall, the Wyoming Republican Party caucus elected him the majority floor leader for the House. Although just a freshman, the chairman of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), urged Neiman to run for the powerful role, which is in charge of choosing the order of bills heard on the House floor.
Regardless of whether Neiman strove for it, there’s buzz around his name — even rumors of gubernatorial ambitions — and he’s fast becoming an influential Wyoming politician.
“I’ve never looked at it like I was somehow a force to be reckoned with,” he said.
Neiman’s 2020 election — in which he beat out a rising GOP star, former Rep. Tyler Lindholm (now state policy director for U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis) — and his rise in the statehouse is emblematic of shifting Republican Party dynamics in Wyoming.
The fact that the decision to make him incoming House majority floor leader was made by a vote of 29 to 28 also speaks to the fractured state of the GOP. Now, Republicans who’ve traditionally occupied leadership posts and pulled the strings in the statehouse are on the cusp of possibly losing their legislative majority. The threat comes from Republicans who’ve embraced Trump’s often incendiary ‘MAGA’ brand of politics and criticize establishment Republicans as being moderate ‘RINOs.’ Those newcomers, a bloc of lawmakers who made major inroads in both the state House and Senate during the 2020 and 2022 elections, are nipping at the establishment’s heels, especially in the lower chamber, where Neiman is set to jockey bills and where the Freedom Caucus operates. The once far-right fringe is now organizing as it prepares for a new era of influence and hoping to establish itself as a competent, capable bloc of lawmakers.
The Freedom Caucus is looking to shake its reputation as an uncivil obstructionist body, leaders say, which stems partly from the tactics and rhetoric deployed by its members in the past. Last legislative session, Freedom Caucus affiliates were accused of being indecorous. On a recent afternoon in his Gillette business, Bear’s Naturally Clean Dry, Bear said the upcoming session gives his caucus a chance to prove to skeptics “who we are.
“Until we have that opportunity to govern,” he said, “we can’t prove what I’m saying.”
Bear’s message is that the Freedom Caucus won’t abruptly torpedo the Wyoming government as it’s known today. Instead, he said, they will come to the table and be “systematic” in making changes like shrinking the government.
“When I’ve spoken to other legislators, my colleagues that are not part of the Freedom Caucus, I try to assuage those concerns by letting them know that we’re not interested in burning things down,” Bear said. “Otherwise we would be in office for one term, and we’d be done and leave a mess — and that would be our legacy.”
The Freedom Caucus is in the process of building up its infrastructure. Members have drawn up bylaws, will soon hold elections for two other leadership posts and are in the process of establishing membership criteria. The caucus doesn’t plan to divulge exactly what that criteria is, but Bear said it will be based on voting records and staying true to the caucus’s preferred vote on any individual bill.
“If they follow us, that’s a good mark,” Bear said. “If they don’t, that’s a bad mark. And there’ll be certain thresholds.”
Estimating the threshold of adherence to retain membership, “let’s call it 80%,” he said.
The Freedom Caucus’ agenda will largely reflect the Wyoming Republican Party’s 23-point platform, Bear said.
As for the Freedom Caucus’ membership, that too will be kept secret, though members aren’t barred from self-identifying, Bear said. The 2020 election tripled its membership from six to 18, though infighting caused some representatives to defect, like outgoing Rep. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston), who lost a bid for the Senate.
“I didn’t like how they did things,” Wharff said. “I’ll engage anybody and talk about anything, but you’re not going to tell me how to vote or how to think. I didn’t like showing up to meetings being told what I was supposed to do.”
Bear’s take is that the directive on how to vote is a service to the Freedom Caucus members who are strapped for time and are unable to get to know every issue.
“I pour a lot of my time and energy into being a good legislator,” he said. “But you can’t study everything when there are 700 bills being introduced. We get it down to 120, maybe, that get passed out of the House.”
Bear couldn’t speak to the Freedom Caucus’s precise priorities for the coming session, which are yet to be determined. Achieving its agenda will be “a lot more difficult” with a non-member, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), in the Speaker of the House role, but “is still possible,” he said.
Moving the needle?
Nevertheless, Bear’s personal top-of-the-list goal is to see through a bill prohibiting same-day voter registration changes, a Trump-backed effort which has failed before. He’d also like to “tighten up” the Second Amendment Protection Act, a gun bill that’s caused a fracturing of the far-right conservative element. Passing alternative abortion ban legislation in case the Wyoming Supreme Court strikes down the current ban is another priority, he said, as is creating law that would prohibit investing public money in environmental, social and governance (ESG) funds.
The Freedom Caucus’s short-term goal is moving into a majority position in the House. That’s not achievable this session, Bear said, but the 29-to-28 vote for Freedom Caucus member Neiman to be the majority floor leader suggests that they’re close.
Freedom Caucus defector and outgoing Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) told WyoFile the caucus has grand long-term plans. Neiman, he said, is being groomed for a run at governor and members seek to get Freedom Caucus-aligned officials voted to the other four statewide elected positions: secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.
“John Bear told me last year that was their plan,” Fortner said.
But Bear distanced himself from the idea of a systematic state government takeover. Having Neiman run for governor, he said, has gone no farther than casual conversation.
Neiman said he hasn’t even had the conversation.
“I don’t know what prompted Bill Fortner to say that I’m running for governor,” he said, “because I have never thought that.”
Fortner, like Wharff, broke away from the Freedom Caucus partly because of a run at a Senate seat. He challenged Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), now the Senate president-elect, and he failed, but months later has an acrimonious relationship with former caucus mates.
“They’re going to put the Bible ahead of the Constitution,” Fortner said. “I’m a Christian, and I believe in God and I pray a lot … but this country wasn’t founded on the Bible, it was founded on the Constitution.”
Across the capitol
In the Senate, there’s not as cohesive a bloc of far-right lawmakers as in the House. Though they have not coalesced along a construct like the Freedom Caucus, there’s still a distinct division.
“I don’t know how you define it, but the two sides, there are about 14 [senators] on each side,” Driskill said. “It’s very close to an even split.”
The roughly even split among GOP lawmakers in the Senate and House gives the 93-person Legislature’s seven remaining Democrats outsized power, especially during a general session where bills only need majority support for introduction.
The even divide could make legislating “a little more difficult,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said. By one measure, it’s becoming more difficult to route legislation through the statehouse: Only 59% of introduced committee bills survived to become law during the 2022 budget session, a 23-year low. Still, Case said, counting the Democrats, the more traditional Republicans “have enough votes to move forward” at the end of the day.
“I’m not afraid to work with the Democrats on things like Medicaid expansion,” he said.
Driskill foresees good legislation coming out of his chamber.
“Those tough splits make it harder to do it, but it makes for better legislation,” he said. “The bills generally have amendments on them that make them better, and that’s called compromising.”
Compromise has become a dirty word in some GOP circles. U.S. Rep.-elect Hageman recently told Wyoming Public Radio she’s not interested in finding a middle ground.
“I do not agree with the Democrats and I’m not going to apologize for that or try to find a way to compromise, to reach a middle ground, so that I’m moving more towards the Democrats,” Hageman said.
But in the Wyoming House, the GOP’s top two leaders, who hail from different factions, say they’re committed to working together.
“We’re trying to find a path where we all get along,” Sommers said, “and it’s really about Chip [Neiman] and I communicating.”
Neiman has plenty in common with Sommers, including their multi-generation cattle ranching backgrounds. He, too, pledged to work cooperatively regardless of political allegiances.
“I don’t believe you can come in there and say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” Neiman said. “I will be open to working with both views to try to find some ground where we can work together and get some good things passed.”
As the majority floor leader, Neiman said his learning curve is again high. He’s bracing for that same exciting yet scary feeling of not quite knowing what he’s doing.
“But that’s OK,” Neiman said. “If the Lord didn’t want me in there, I wouldn’t be there.”
Other than a school board stint, until a few years ago Neiman had never engaged in Wyoming politics. He climbed the ladder within the Crook County Republican Party, then decided to run after he failed to get his then representative, Lindholm, to attend a local event to answer questions and discuss legislation, Neiman said.
“It always bothered me, this unavailability of my representative,” he said.
Although the broader Neiman family owned timber mills and has been politically influential in Crook County, Driskill confirmed that Chip Neiman’s ascension came out of nowhere.
“They were unknowns statewide, they were unknowns county-wide,” Driskill said, referring to Chip’s branch of the Neiman family before he ran against Lindholm.
Just a few years later, Neiman will be managing and ordering the General File list of bills that appears before the Wyoming House over the course of an eight-week-long legislative session.
“For whatever reason, I’m here,” Neiman said. “I’m going to do the very best job that I possibly can for everybody.”