Wyoming’s Republican gubernatorial candidates hewed to comfortable conservative positions— yes on guns, no on Medicaid expansion, yes on free-market liberties — while struggling to differentiate themselves on matters of policy during Thursday night’s hour-long debate in Riverton.
Gov. Mark Gordon, proposed hardening schools with additional security measures and teaching Wyoming’s youth about guns as ways to prevent school shootings.
“I don’t think trying to have gun free zones is a good idea and I will fight against those,” the governor said. “I think that we educate kids about how to use firearms, how to do that properly.”
Gillette resident Brent Bien, one of three Republicans vying to replace Gordon, also endorsed teaching kids about guns.
“It’s such a big part of our culture,” Bien said of firearms, “and we need to teach those values early.”
Rex Rammell, the third participant in Thursday’s debate, departed in his answer, but not by much. The self identified “staunch Second Amendment supporter” called for preserving constitutional rights and “protecting liberty,” adding that Wyoming ought to keep unwanted firearms out of schools.
“I actually believe that we should have security people guarding our schools,” Rammell said, “and I would even support some kind of a metal detector, so that [a school shooting] never happens in Wyoming.”
Guns weren’t the only issue the three candidates agreed on during the gubernatorial Republican primary debate, despite their disparate political reputations. (A fourth candidate, James Quick was invited but didn’t attend the Wyoming PBS event at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.)
Fielding questions about issues like COVID responses, Medicaid expansion and party switching, the candidates repeatedly offered overlapping answers and look-alike positions.
Gordon, the former state treasurer, is running for his second term as governor, and is perceived by many as more moderate than his challengers. Bien, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, is a political newcomer who’s aligned himself with Wyoming Republican Party favorites. Ramell, a veterinarian, is a serial candidate for state, federal and legislative office — first in Idaho and more recently in Wyoming — and is known for anti-federal government rhetoric in a state where nearly half the acreage is federally owned and administered.
All three candidates opposed Medicaid expansion, which would help an estimated 19,000 Wyoming residents afford preventative healthcare.
Gordon, who opposes the idea, said he’s been “very concerned” about costs Wyoming could be saddled with if the federal government’s contribution ever went away.
Rammell made the same point: “What happens when those checks stop coming,” he said, “then what are they going to do?”
Bien echoed the sentiment too, calling Medicaid expansion a bait and switch: “I do think after those first couple of years,” he said, “then we are on the hook for it.”
Critiquing how Wyoming handled the COVID-19 pandemic, Bien and Rammell both emphasized how they’d never close down businesses.
“I think that’s an abuse of power,” Rammell said. “I don’t think that the governor has the authority to do that.”
Bien, whose candidacy stems from personal displeasure with Gordon’s COVID response, said that closure mandates were a “very, very strong attack against civil liberties.”
Gordon, who governed the state through the pandemic, and whose public health orders drew the ire of many fellow Republicans, played a similar card: “I’m proud of the fact that Wyoming was one of the five most open states,” he said.
Candidates’ responses also lined up on crossover voting in Wyoming — the currently legal practice of changing party registration on primary election day to vote in the primary election of a voter’s choosing. Some Republicans credited Gordon’s 2020 primary win to party switchers, despite the arithmetic suggesting otherwise. Yet, all three candidates supported reform that would restrict voters from party hopping.
Perhaps the only substantive difference on display Thursday was Gordon’s track record as an elected official — neither challengers have held office.
Of the two challengers, Rammell was the quickest to blast Gordon’s tenure as governor.
When the candidates were asked to critique U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, who has gained national prominence for her role on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol, the sitting governor declined to offer his views.
“Governors typically don’t get involved in races, and I’m going to do that now,” Gordon said. “When President Trump called me and said, ‘Please come to my rally,’ I said, ‘I’m glad to meet you at the airport, President Trump, but I am not going to take sides in this particular race.’”
Rammell maligned Gordon’s neutrality, contending it was not becoming of a leader.
“When we have somebody like Liz Cheney, who has disgraced the state of Wyoming, I certainly, as governor, would take a position against her,” he said.
Rammell also turned heads by asking Bien to drop out as the hour-long debate wrapped up. The former military man, Rammell contended, wasn’t eligible to be governor because his service had taken him out of state in the past five years — the immediately preceding residency requirement, according to state law.
“You’re not eligible to be the governor,” Rammell said, “and I ask you tonight, patriot to patriot, to honorably bow out of this race.”
Bien declined. The Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, he said, affirmed his eligibility, as did attorneys.
The Wyoming Secretary of State’s office is neither aware of any issues with nor investigating Bien’s eligibility.
“We didn’t find any issues with his application to run for office,” communications and policy director Monique Meese said, “and we haven’t received a complaint.”