The big tent that once held all Wyoming Republicans is shrinking at an alarming rate. State party leaders are now operating a one-ring, right-wing circus.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask any moderate GOP member what they think about the state party’s executive committee launching secretive investigations of several Republican county chairmen, and you’ll likely get an earful of dissent.

Gail Symons of Sheridan has been a proud Republican for 45 years. She told me another member likened belonging to the Wyoming GOP to attending church. 

“She said, ‘If you don’t like what the church is saying, you should go find another church,’” Symons recalled. “Well, you don’t get to hijack my church and tell me I need to go somewhere else. That’s what it feels like.”

Nick Reynolds, who covers politics for the Casper Star-Tribune, has done an excellent job in the past two years documenting the ever-widening rift between party leaders and members who don’t toe their rigid line. His reporting about the recent GOP State Central Committee meeting in Lusk shows that the party’s imposition of disciplinary measures has reached a disturbing new zenith.

Reynolds obtained a copy of a resolution — drawn up and passed by the central committee — giving the party the right to dictate the stances of all its members. Natrona County Republican Chairman Joe McGinley told Reynolds he was surprised to learn from other committee members that he was being investigated.

Who wouldn’t be — especially if you were told the reason you landed in the state party’s crosshairs was “confidential”?

The committee tried to justify its actions by stating that while “the First Amendment applies to all Americans in affairs public, governmental and social, it does not supersede the conduct and expression within the confines of a private organization made up of voluntary constituents.”

How can a party impose this kind of iron-fisted rule on its own members? 

If you’re surprised by this escalation of “our way or the highway” rules, you haven’t been paying attention.

The incident that indicated to me all things GOP were about to go off the rails occurred in the summer of 2016.

Rep. Rosie Berger (R-Big Horn) had been elected to serve seven terms in House District 51 and was one of the leading lights of the party. She was in line to become the first woman Speaker of the House since Verda James in 1969.

But the GOP’s extreme right wing placed a target on her back. Her crime? She was a moderate who too often voted with Democrats (who numbered fewer than a dozen). An anonymous, deceptive brochure proclaimed she didn’t adhere to Wyoming Republican values.

In addition to not backing the repeal of gun-free school zones, Berger was accused of favoring “discrimination against women’s privacy [by] allowing transgenders [sic] to use restrooms, lockers and showers of choice.”

In reality,  Berger had voted for a bill to prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But chalk one up for the GOP bathroom police: Berger lost the Republican primary by about 300 votes. Winner Bo Biteman of Sheridan, a staunch no-new-taxes, pro-gun-rights-at-all-costs conservative, won the general election. He moved on to the Senate last year after just one House term.

“What happened to Rosie was kind of a wake-up call to some people, but not everybody,” Symons said. “People who aren’t civic wonks and not from Sheridan County don’t realize how ugly and really perverse that movement to get rid of her really was.”

The state party did disavow a new anonymous website aimed at outing “RINO”— Republicans in name only — legislators. Still, the information it contains is pretty spot on with the GOP executive committee’s legislative priorities and how it ranks the chosen few.

The site selected 10 conservative bills from this year’s session and the party’s preferred vote on each one. Any Republican lawmaker who failed to vote the “right” way on at least seven bills was labeled a RINO.

Only 21 House and nine Senate members were deemed “real Republicans.” That’s one-third of the 90 total members.

Now, like Will Rogers famously quipped, “I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” I don’t mean to speak out of turn and criticize the self-ordained cheerleaders of a party that has long held a super-majority in both Wyoming legislative chambers.

But it strikes me as foolish to try and bolster the Republican ranks by denigrating so many members of the same flock. 

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If your goal is to put more conservatives in the state Capitol, it seems like   trying to run the alleged “RINOs” off the cliff risks giving moderates a great reason to band together and throw YOU out.

The Republicans who believe they have earned their conservative spurs apparently want to only share their sandbox with people who look exactly like them.

I get the reason why. The state GOP failed to accomplish its top legislative priority of 2019 — outlawing “crossover” voting in the primary. The far-right demanded an extreme conservative as governor, and thought they had two candidates who fit the bill — Jackson billionaire Foster Friess and Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman. They lost to the decidedly more moderate Mark Gordon.

Friess’ followers blamed his loss on Democrats who switched party affiliation at the polls, even though the math didn’t add-up. They bullied their party’s legislative leaders into advancing several bills to ban the practice, but they all failed.

I call it sour grapes, while Symons views the effort to move the entire party farther to right as a blatant, wrongheaded attempt to consolidate power. She is one of the leaders of a grassroots group called “Frontier Republicans” that’s organizing in all 23 counties to bring diverse views back into the fold.

 “We’re not looking to kick out the far right,” she said. “But we are saying any organization that encourages different ideas is actually a stronger one. We need to make a commitment to finding solutions to our problems.

“We’re in a horrible position in the state from a financial perspective, and we’re simply not going to recover to where we were with the extractive industries,” Symons added. “We’ve got people whose primary considerations are some social issues that simply don’t affect the state.”

Last session Wyoming Republican officials threw their weight around and told “their” lawmakers at committee meetings they must vote against any new or increased taxes. The implied threat, as Berger’s experience proved, is very real. Go against the party and you will face a far-right primary opponent.

If that doesn’t get “RINOs” to shape up and play party ball, perhaps a secret probe will do the trick.

The situation reminds me of a Bob Dylan song from the early 1960s called “Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues.” It’s about a right-winger musing about a fate that may befall the Wyoming GOP someday:

“Well I finally started thinkin’ straight

When I run out of things to investigate.

Couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

So now I’m sittin’ home investigating myself!

Hope I don’t find out anything.”

I genuinely hope it doesn’t come to that. No resident in Wyoming — Republican or otherwise — should put up with being told how to think or vote. 

The change that’s taken over the Republican Party here came from within, even if it had existed on the fringes. And if the mainstream is going to take back the party, it doesn’t have any time to waste.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. The Frontier Republicans are not republicans. An investigation found that the creation of their group is supported by liberal organizations and foreign nationals. Also, on every single article they post, they only criticize republicans / conservatives. There is not one single article about democrats. I submit to you, that the FR’s are democrats in disguise. They want the RINO’s to stay in legislature. They want civil, respectful debate but when I provide factual evidence that they are not telling the truth, they censure. Who does that remind you of? Liberals.

  2. P.S. All of this makes a pretty sound argument for moving to a Ranked Choice election system in Wyoming

  3. Mr. Rubino’s comment, and others, raise a good question, “What does it mean to voluntarily belong to a political party?” His answer is that it should mean adherence to a platform developed by those who show up at party meetings and take on party leadership roles. An alternative answer is that it means agreement with the aggregate policies of those successfully elected under that party banner. Clearly, the number of party members expressing their preference under the latter process vastly exceeds the number involved in the former.

    If Jane Doe freely chooses to run for office as a Republican, a responsible voter will look beyond the “R” she has adopted and decide whether or not her policies are appealing. If she passes muster in a Republican primary election, the party membership has spoken with far more authority on what “it means to be a Republican” than any group of party “leaders” can. That’s the difference between a democracy and a theocracy.

  4. I usually refrain from commenting, but there is just so much misinformation in such a short space it is really hard to know where to start. In Drake’s words I will begin with the “math that just doesn’t add up”.

    Gordon won 32 percent of the vote. He ran on being a conservative. It was in all of his ads, all of his mailers, and everything he said on the campaign trail. I never once heard him say, I am a moderate. The two candidates, Drake calls “extreme conservatives” took a combined total of 47.3 percent of the vote. Throw in Taylor Haynes and you are up to 52.9 percent of the vote. Though none of those candidates won the race, the “extreme conservatives” certainly won the higher number of votes. It is really disingenuous to pretend that the voters of Wyoming reject being governed by those who want a check on government, a.k.a. “extreme conservatives”.

    Next, quoting Drake, “Nick Reynolds, who covers politics for the Casper Star-Tribune, has done an excellent job in the past two years documenting the ever-widening rift between party leaders and members who don’t toe their rigid line. His reporting about the recent GOP State Central Committee meeting in Lusk shows that the party’s imposition of disciplinary measures has reached a disturbing new zenith.”

    Good grief. Excellent job? By whose standards? Was he at the meeting? Has anyone besides a very small faction of the group ever spoken to him? That last article regarding the meeting in Lusk contained so many inaccuracies and misrepresentations that it was basically unreadable. Please Drake, tell us what are you even talking about when you state, “the party’s imposition of disciplinary measures has reached a disturbing new zenith.” A disturbing new zenith? What does that even mean?

    Again, I have to say I am completely puzzled by the part where Gail Symons recalls the 2016 race between Bo Biteman and Rosie Berger as a “wake up call” to the moderates. What? Two years later Bo went on to win his senate race, 5,125 to 2810. The voters “woke up” to what? How much they like Bo?

    Drake finishes with, “And if the mainstream is going to take back the party, it doesn’t have any time to waste.” So by that statement it would seem that he would want the voters to be informed of the voting records of their legislators. That way they would know which of those pesky conservative lawmakers they should throw out to “take the party back”.
    Finally, Drake, just so you can rest easy, no one is being kicked out of the party. All Republicans have the right to be involved, to run for office from the precinct level, to the governorship. All I ask is that people are honest in their communication with the voters. If they want to run as moderates or Frontier Republicans, I can absolutely support that as long as they do not hide behind a label they do not believe in.

  5. If you don’t like our conservative platform you should run as a Democrat. Oh wait, you wouldn’t win. The next question is why not? Answer: We the people of Wyoming don’t support liberal ideals. In state after State liberals have moved from areas they don’t like anymore because of crime and high taxation to better environments and bring their liberal philosophies with them. But they can’t seem to connect the dots. Your liberal ideas open the door to crime and failed government. Look at how many liberally controlled states are deep in read ink and crime.
    Nothing is free and liberal laws do nothing but support bad behavior. But not to worry, our socialist educational system has flipped our youths thinking. It won’t be long now and you can have a free for all here too. Next question…where will you move when Wyoming too slides into the pit. Thank God for those in our government that are holding the line.

  6. A recent study of Wyoming House and Senate voters indicated that many elected republicans do not vote for their party platform. VoterID, new taxes are just a few. WYRINO.com is the website. The unacceptable voting record of these people is startling.

    The WYOGOP has tried to negotiate with these progressive RINOs and it has not worked.

    These WYGOP RINOs need to be replaced by true, conservative republicans who will vote appropriately and support the party platform. This needs to begin now. The Wyoming SWAMP needs to be drained.

    1. Rather than expelling RINOs from the Republican party, maybe RINOs should be left alone. Maybe it is the alleged “conservative” Republicans who should form a new party that, given their behavior at the national level, should be called the RICOs.

  7. I guess that we Republicans are no longer entitled to think for ourselves. What on earth has my party come to?!

    1. Of course you are allowed to think for yourself. What is going on has nothing to do with thinking or even expressing opinion. Research this incident more.

  8. A one party state always disintegrates into back-biting purges and strict party-line sycophants rising to power. No surprises here, I’m hoping they set up the gulag where there is good skiing.

  9. What does it mean to voluntarily belong to a political party in this day and age? If republicans are going to run as such on the ballot, shouldn’t they be measured against the platforms of the party that they VOLUNTARILY belong to? It seems silly that placing an R behind your name now entitles you to vote any way you want, without someone shedding light on how your votes match with what you claim to represent. If the Frontier Republicans are proud of swinging the party in a different direction, they should stand by what they don’t like in the Republican Party platform, not cry foul when they Party identifies where they break away from it.

  10. If we wanted Democrats we would elect Democrats. Instead, we elect Republicans, and why shouldn’t we expect them to behave like Republicans? Democrats these days, given the freedom to do so, would change virtually everything about America. Moderates will compromise endlessly, thus the country slides leftward. If Democrats only wanted a FEW changes compromise COULD be acceptable in some cases. However, Democrats, given everything they say they want today, will be back next week with a new list of demands. Such being the case, doesn’t it make sense to fight them here and now?

    1. Wyoming Republicans : lockjawed leaders demanding the party faithful in lockstep. Goosestepping lessons every Saturday night. Expected attire is long sleeved brown shirts , armbands, and heavy blackjack boots.

      Nowhere worse than right here in our own Park County , Keith…

      Being a nonaligned pragmatic populist , I find it both amusing and disturbing that our entire national political system has degenerated into a two party Bipolar Disorder . Except in Wyoming it is mostly mononucleosis.