Twice now, Libertarian candidate Bethany Baldes has gotten within striking distance of winning House District 55.
In 2020, Baldes lost to Rep. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) by 32 votes, according to state records. In 2018, longtime incumbent Rep. David Miller beat Baldes by 53 votes. That initial defeat got the attention of the national Libertarian Party.
“I was called by the executive director of the National Party, the ‘big dog’ of the Libertarian Party, trying to talk me into a recount,” Baldes said at a League of Women Voters forum in Riverton on Oct. 13. While state statute allows a candidate to ask for a recount regardless of margin, Baldes decided against such a request. She now has another shot at victory, as she faces Oakley in this year’s general election.
Redistricting did little to change the boundaries of House District 55, which includes most of Riverton. About 6% of the district is Indigenous, according to U.S. Census data, while 77% is white. That makes it much less diverse than House District 33, which also represents a piece of Riverton along with the Wind River Indian Reservation.
The district has been a Republican stronghold for several decades. Miller held the HD 55 seat from 2000-2021 after succeeding a tenure by former Speaker of the House Eli Bebout, who was initially elected as a Democrat before switching parties in 1994.
Oakley works as a prosecutor in the Fremont County Attorney’s office. She’s used that professional background as a member of the Joint Judiciary Committee since first being elected to the district in 2020. Her prosecutorial experience came into play when she sponsored an unsuccessful bill during the 2022 legislative session to make methamphetamine and other narcotic drug use while pregnant a felony. The committee rejected a similar bill in September during the interim session.
Where Oakley sees her background as lending itself naturally to lawmaking, Baldes says it’s a conflict of interest.
“Prosecuting attorneys being able to run legislation that gives her more executive power against people violates principles of our nation and state,” Baldes told WyoFile. As for the child endangerment bill, Baldes said the exact language of the bill would determine her support but overall she’s against “putting more punishment on top of people who are already being punished” since those types of drugs are already illegal to use.
After serving in Wyoming’s National Guard, Baldes was a stay-at-home mom for 11 years. She currently works as a real estate agent and serves as president of the Riverton Chamber of Commerce.
Another thing that sets Oakley and Baldes apart are their views on Medicaid expansion.
“I shake in my boots anytime I hear us tying ourselves tighter to the federal government,” Baldes said, while acknowledging that Wyoming has “a very real problem with rural healthcare.”
Oakley said she understands the reluctance to make a deal with the federal government. “But here’s the key — it helps Wyomingites,” she said, after describing a recent constituent call from a woman who needed the program to afford medical care.
Both candidates oppose a lawsuit by the Wyoming Education Association, which charges the state with failing to adequately fund education. However, the two candidates differ on how education funding should be spent.
“The money needs to follow the student,” Baldes said, even if that means shifting tax dollars outside of Wyoming’s public education system to private institutions. Oakley disagreed with that, saying that would exacerbate the education funding issues Wyoming currently faces.
Both candidates identify as pro-life and both said they were in favor of exceptions to abortion prohibitions in the event of rape or incest.
Additionally, both Baldes and Oakley believe the wage gap in Wyoming is misunderstood. In Wyoming, women earn $0.70 for every $1 that men earn, according to the most recent data, making it one of the largest gender wage gaps in the country. But the candidates have slightly different takes on why that is. Oakley said a lot of well-paying jobs in Wyoming were simply geared toward and taken by men, while Baldes said an “opportunity gap” would be a more accurate term.
What to watch for:
The Libertarian Party has gained visibility in Wyoming in recent years. In 2020, Rep. Marshall Burt (L-Green River) became the first minor-party legislator elected in Wyoming in more than a century. Burt is up for re-election. If both he and Baldes win their bids, the minor party’s footprint in the statehouse will double in size.
Five other Libertarian candidates are running for the Legislature.
As a part of our ongoing coverage of the 2022 election, WyoFile is keeping an eye on notable legislative races across the state. Follow our Legislative Races to Watch series here. —Ed