SHERIDAN—A year and a half after the earliest candidates announced they would challenge Congresswoman Liz Cheney for her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the incumbent and her four Republican opponents faced one another in person for the first time.
Cheney along with Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), Harriet Hageman, Robyn Belinskey and Denton Knapp took to the stage at Sheridan College and debated for 90 minutes last week. It was part of a long tradition of Wyoming Public Broadcasting Service hosting political debates as a civic service to the state.
“It’s an opportunity for voters to see candidates and hear them in their own voices,” said Craig Blumenshine, who moderated the debate and recently retired from being a producer for Wyoming PBS.
Breaking from the norm, the event was closed to the public due to alleged threats and concerns about hostility and violence. Nonetheless, candidates remained safe and civil, and in the week following the debate video has streamed more than 52,000 times. Thousands more likely tuned in live to Wyoming PBS or Wyoming Public Radio, who also aired the debate.
“I thought it should be a template for candidates not only in Wyoming but across the country on how to air their views on specific topics in a very civil way,” Blumenshine said.
Debates are often the only time voters see candidates speaking to one another. And while candidates may attempt to steer the conversation towards campaign talking points, panelists drive the direction of the debate by asking candidates for specifics about certain issues. On Thursday, those questions and topics were decided by three Wyoming journalists: Bob Beck of Wyoming Public Radio, Steve Peck of Wyoming PBS and Stephen Dow of the Sheridan Press. The three of them used conversations with Wyoming voters and past political reporting to frame their inquiries.
Beck’s first question was about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January of 2021.
“I’m hearing many of you downplay the events of January 6,” Beck began, referencing several candidates’ responses to a previous question about the state of the Republican Party. Beck then asked why some candidates weren’t more concerned about the events of that day and “the fact that some leading people in the Trump administration said his goal was to overturn the election,” he said.
As to why he pressed candidates on the insurrection, Beck said: “I got a lot of people asking me to ask various questions on that.” Approximately eight voters contacted him prior to the debate requesting the topic be discussed, he said.
“My suspicion is that these were people either on the fence, or these are people that in particular, wanted to hear what Hageman had to say about it,” he said.
Beck took into account what he’s been hearing from voters to shape his questions, but he also leaned on his decades of experience covering politics in Wyoming. For instance, Beck asked the candidates whether they had a federal solution to the issue of affordable healthcare for Wyoming residents.
“That’s a question that’s been pretty standard for me,” Beck said. “I’m going to ask it because for a lot of years, we [get] lip service, but we don’t really ever come up with a concrete solution. And I’m not really sure I heard one the other night.”
One of two education-related questions came from Dow, who told WyoFile he included it so the topic would not be left out of the discussion. Dow also asked if bipartisan cooperation should still be the goal in Washington, or if it was unachievable at this time. Candidates have dodged that question, Dow said, when he previously asked it for his own reporting in the Sheridan Press.
“So I really wanted to try to get them on the spot on the stage and ask them that question because I think there is, especially in the Republican Party, maybe not as much of a desire for that as there used to be,” Dow said.
Dow’s other questions were posed on behalf of Kristen Czaban, the publisher of the Sheridan Press. Originally, Czaban was scheduled to be a panelist but had to drop out due to the death of a family friend.
As for Peck, he called on his many years in the newspaper business to shape his inquiries. Before joining Wyoming PBS earlier this year, Peck was owner-publisher of the Riverton Ranger for many decades.
He raised the federal infrastructure bill and asked candidates how they felt about one-time federal dollars coming to “Wyoming to build or improve infrastructure projects that were often built with federal dollars in the first place.”
It’s not unusual for Republicans to take aim at the federal government, but Peck said he is always interested in watching lawmakers grapple with the contradiction of “condemning federal dollars, particularly when there’s a Democrat in the White House, and on the other hand, of course, readily taking them.”
For much of the debate, candidates worked to make distinctions between themselves, but there was much they agreed on. Cheney stood out on her approach to the events of Jan. 6 and her stance on COVID-19 vaccines, according to Peck.
“Several of them immediately went to the political angle and ignored the public health angle of it except for Cheney,” Peck said. ”The very first thing she said was everybody should get vaccinated.” But in line with her opponents Cheney said she opposed a federal mandate.
After about a dozen questions posed by the panelists, the debate concluded. When the cameras stopped rolling, press in the audience were invited to the stage to ask additional questions. Cheney took a couple of questions before leaving, as did Knapp, Bouchard and Belinskey. Hageman exited out the back door, declining to field questions and telling WyoFile she had another event to attend that evening.