Bill Fortner, a Gillette GOP precinct committeeman, got pretty beat up recently for his failed call to purge his county’s party of RINOs — Republicans in name only.

But let’s not be too hasty. Fortner may be on to something here in his quest for party purity.

Just look at Campbell County’s House delegation. It’s led by Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow, and while some may consider him a moderate member of his party, the veterinarian rancher’s old-school fiscally conservative Republican values are unimpeachable.

But the other four — Reps. Scott Clem, Roy Edwards, Tim Hallinan and Bill Pownall, all of Gillette — constitute a veritable rogue’s gallery of flaming liberals. Why, I’ve seen every one of them actually talking to Democrats, and even occasionally joking with their rivals. That’s a sure sign for conservative voters to be wary of their true intentions.

Truth be told, the quartet cited above doesn’t have to prove its Republican credentials to anybody, nor should that be a requirement. It’s a group that leans very far to the right. I can’t say for certain without an exhaustive study of their respective voting records, but I’m reasonably sure none would have trouble meeting Fortner’s demand that a GOP candidate in good standing vote with the party platform at least 80 percent of the time.

Fortner, a coal miner, made headlines when he sponsored a resolution to keep candidates from running as Republicans if they didn’t pass such a litmus test. County GOP Chairwoman Vicki Kissack ruled the proposal out of order at an April 27 meeting after State Committeeman Dave Horning said the party does not have the authority to disqualify candidates.

Fortner appealed, but the members voted 57-16 to uphold Kissack’s decision.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, Horning was right. A major political party in Wyoming is a public group and cannot restrict membership or participation for any reason, including ideology. That’s illegal, as it should be.

“We’re gonna clean up this party,” Fortner told WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham before the meeting. He didn’t seem deterred by the negative results.

“This was my first try,” the precinct official told Kathy Brown of the Gillette News-Record. “I’m not done. I’ll come with another one. This was just the first big step. It just didn’t get heard. They twisted it in a way.”

Fortner maintains that too many Republican candidates ignore fundamental party stances on taxes, savings and spending government funds. Apparently that’s why they get only about 90 percent of what they want every session.

At the top of his list of “RINOs” is freshman Gov. Mark Gordon, the former state treasurer who won a contentious GOP primary and went on to handily defeat Democratic opponent Mary Thorne.

“In my opinion, the governor’s a Democrat,” Fortner told Graham.

He’s not the only one who holds that belief, but I know a lot of Democrats and I generally understand their views, mainly because I am one. I know a lot of Republicans, too, and I categorically maintain that Gordon should never be mistaken for a Democrat.

That’s not to say that many Democrats didn’t believe Gordon was the best Republican candidate on the primary ballot. I stayed in my lane and voted as a Democrat for last year’s election, but some temporarily switched parties at the polls to vote for him over the ultra-conservative second- and third-place finishers, Jackson GOP mega-donor Foster Friess and Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman.

Gordon’s primary win sparked a sour-grapes response from Friess, who pushed for a Senate bill to prohibit voters from changing their party registrations between May 1 and the primary election. That deadline would be before most candidates even announce their intention to run.

The Wyoming Republican Party made the proposal its top priority for the legislative session, even placing it ahead of that tried-and-true GOP staple, no tax increases or new taxes, period.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), was killed by the Senate Corporations Committee, resurrected and killed again.

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It was like a Frankenstein monster. Biteman filed a similar measure that won Senate approval via the Senate Agriculture Committee and then the full chamber. But House Corporations sidelined Biteman’s rewrite in favor of a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Blackburn (R-Cheyenne) which ultimately went down to defeat in the Senate.

I score the whole wasted exercise as (small d) democracy 1, Friess/GOP 0. It was as much of a failure as former Cheyenne state representative Harlan Edmonds’ silly Conservative Republicans of Wyoming (CROW) outfit, which also received a backlash from party members not inclined to be bullied by the far-right fringe.

The Friess’ anti party-switching campaign was an attempt at the state level to do what Fortner wanted to accomplish in Campbell County: Keep those sneaky Democrats from leaving their dirty fingerprints on good clean Wyoming elections.

Nevermind that Friess lost the 2018 governor’s race on the strength Republicans’ votes alone.

Gordon defeated Friess by 9,109 votes. Statewide only 6,057 Democrats and 4,355 independent voters changed their registration to Republican between July 6 and Sept. 20 2018. One could make the case that if everyone who switched was both motivated by the gubernatorial race, and voted for Gordon, than switching was a decisive factor. But that logic requires an ignorance of the Wyoming electorate that only a tax-refugee from the Midwest like Friess could hold.

A grand total of 4,355 independent voters switched their affiliation to the GOP, but there’s no evidence that they voted as a bloc for Gordon. Besides, shouldn’t Republicans want more members no matter which candidate they choose?

Despite what Fortner thinks, there was no big push by Democrats in Campbell County to put Gordon over the top. He ran third there, behind Hageman and Friess, by more than 300 votes. Democratic registration totals after the primary, meanwhile, only dropped by two voters. The wild-eyed horde of liberals Fortner fears doesn’t appear to be much of a threat to the Campbell County GOP.

The real threat to the party — and to free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people — comes from within. Parties with elite, all-powerful central committees that define the ideological doctrine, demand that elected officials answer to it above the electorate and that determine who qualifies for office have their place — the Soviet Union and China for example — but surely no such body could survive for long in fiercely independent Wyoming.

And let’s be clear — complete concentration of power and the neutering of the will of the people is absolutely what Fortner is proposing.

The Wyoming GOP already has a stranglehold on politics in the state.  Historically it has about a 4-to-1 voter registration advantage. All three members of the congressional delegation are staunch conservatives. Republicans hold all five elected statewide offices and huge majorities in both the Wyoming Senate and House. More than a few are far-right extremists, particularly in the upper chamber.

The question of which party is in control of Wyoming — our economy, our environment, our natural resources, our liberties, even our bodies —  has long been settled. Fortner and his crowd are now after the next strategic piece on the chess board: which ideological sect controls the party.

The bitter irony, of course, is that Fortner and his ilk press their claim under the flag of limited government and empowered individualism. What a crock.

But I still believe rank-and-file Republicans are fine with disagreement within their party. There are plenty of moderates in the GOP, despite Fortner’s assertion to WyoFile’s Graham that such a combination is like “trying to interbreed a cat and a dog.” It’s a funny line, but it’s also an insult to members of his party who are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves and choosing candidates most aligned with their values.

I think he’s selling his party short, and the Campbell County Republicans’ vote to defeat his resolution proves my point. So does the Legislature’s decision to keep the state Republican Party’s leaders from restricting vote switching.

No slice of conservative or progressive political pie is right all the time. Some Democrats on the left are just as guilty of being unwilling to compromise with other party members who are closer to the middle of the spectrum, but I don’t see them trying to change the election laws. It will be interesting to see how Democrats react to the field of nearly two dozen presidential candidates thus far, and how they winnow it to a single nominee.

Not getting what you want as a voter isn’t an excuse to try and wipe out the opposition. It’s not the way to win elections, either.

 

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. I do not think this is the case with Mr Fortner’s proposal. Defining what the party stands for and represents is the intent. Traditionally the party stood for individuals and smaller affordable government not intending to hide behind large corporate bests interests. Being a republican used to mean fiscal conservatism and not taking money from the federal govt .and not being dependent on energy company revenue to sustain state govt.. Not selling everyone out of scarce water supplies and other resources for a quick buck to satisfy special interests also was important. abiding by the state constitution and transparency also was paramount along with clean air, clean water and self sufficiency. three or four parties may now be needed to get back to true republican values. .

    Maybe we need three or four parties and let the competition begin.