Terry Dugas was thinking of the possibility for hostility and even violence when he made the call to exclude the public from Wyoming PBS’ Thursday evening debate featuring the five candidates vying for the state’s lone U.S. House of Representatives seat. 

“One of the candidates has seen death threats that I’m aware of, and that’s because they posted it publicly on their Facebook campaign page,” Dugas, the station’s general manager, said. “With the passion running so high among all the supporters of the candidates, we could not risk either the Wyoming PBS staff or the candidates’ safety by opening this up to the public.” 

Dugas claimed sole responsibility for the decision to close the doors at Sheridan College, the venue. Candidates engaged in the debate have gone on record saying they prefer the debate stay open, but the decision is final. 

“You got what you got, it’s not going to change,” Dugas said. “This particular race is like none other in the recent history of the state, regarding the volatility of the supporters. It was simply a risk I was not willing to take.” 

The candidate who posted about the death threat wasn’t the nationally prominent incumbent, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), but rather state Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne). He did so in a comment thread on his campaign page, Anthony Bouchard for Congress Against the Swamp, arguing that threats to Cheney were being overblown. 

“She pissed off conservatives and conservatives don’t threaten lives,” Bouchard wrote in the June 25 post. “On the other hand, a Leftist from Laramie threatened to storm my house and kill my family…” 

Along with Bouchard and Cheney, the debate will feature candidates Harriet Hageman, Denton Knapp and Robyn Belinskey. All are Republicans. 

U.S. House candidates Jeff Haggit, Liz Cheney and Lynette Grey Bull debate before an empty house in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election. While the Wyoming PBS’ debate was closed to the public two years ago because of COVID-19, the station closed a Thursday House debate because of safety concerns. (Wyoming PBS/screen grab)

Dugas’ decision to hold a closed-door debate for one of the most-watched congressional races in Wyoming history comes amid a backdrop of reported death threats, lawmakers who say they’re afraid for their lives and vitriol that has pervaded politics in the Equality State. The downward spiral of civility doesn’t serve Wyoming well, argue veteran statesmen like former Gov. Dave Freudenthal. 

“I think it’s fairly amazing that a state that hates Washington, D.C. has adopted Washington, D.C.-style politics,” Freudenthal said. “We should have a healthy disregard for the nation’s capital and certainly some of the policies, but now we’ve chosen to mimic their politics, which I think is a step back for Wyoming.” 

A Democrat who governed Wyoming from 2003 to 2011, Freudenthal recalled plenty of angry constituents but said he “never felt threatened” during his time in office. 

Media invited 

The first debate between the five U.S. House candidates was originally also going to be off-limits for the media excluding the panel of questioners: Wyoming PBS Public Affairs Producer Steve Peck, Wyoming Public Radio News Director Bob Beck and Sheridan Press reporter Stephen Dow.

Moderating is Craig Blumenshine, a former Wyoming PBS staffer. 

“The media was initially going to be barred,” Blumenshine said. “That was a Sheridan College decision as I understand it, and it was the wrong decision. I’m glad it’s been righted.” 

Sheridan College officials were unavailable Wednesday for an interview. But on Tuesday, Dugas spread word that the Sheridan Press was developing a credentialing protocol to admit journalists beyond the panelists. 

Harriet Hageman, who will participate in Wyoming PBS’ U.S. House race debate Thursday, meets a voter at a rally in Jackson. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

A liability release sent to prospective attendees includes a provision that organizers aren’t liable for any “bodily injury or death” journalists and family members might sustain. 

Journalists in the audience potentially have an opportunity to pose questions to the candidates. 

“I hope the press gets the opportunity to come up on stage after the debate and follow up with candidates on anything,” Blumenshine said. “Maybe there won’t be [that chance], but that’s my hope.” 

That opportunity for candidates to converse with reporters could introduce more bona fide journalism into the debate. Wyoming PBS gets funding from both the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Wyoming Legislature, which poses a conflict of interest that clouds its relationship with elected officials and government, Dugas said. 

“Wyoming PBS considers itself not a news and reporting organization,” Dugas said. “What Wyoming PBS does is public affairs. We don’t have reporters. It’s not our role to speak truth to power.” 

Having journalists as panelists does not transform the U.S. House and other Wyoming PBS political debates into true journalism, he said. 

“The fact that we invite journalists to participate, I think, is just a reflection of our public affairs,” Dugas said. “We’re not trying to inject journalism into what we do.” 

Change of times

The closed-door debate will not be Wyoming PBS’ new norm, Dugas said. There are five other political debates on the docket for this election season, and all will be open. 

“The volatility surrounding this [U.S. House] race is unprecedented,” Dugas said of the Republican primary candidates. “We have no concerns over security for the other five debates.” 

Outside of COVID-19 times, neither Dugas nor Blumenshine could recall any past Wyoming PBS-administered political debate being off-limits to the public. 

“We have been moderating statewide debates, to my knowledge, really almost since the inception of the station,” Blumenshine said. “I can’t recall any other debates that have been closed to the public, though we certainly have addressed security concerns at debates before.” 

Times have clearly changed. 

“I think this is going down a road that’s not appropriate for our democracy. In fact, it lets the agitators win.”

Former congressional candidate Gary Trauner

Three-time congressional candidate Gary Trauner, a Democrat and repeated statewide debate participant, saw the erosion of decency over the span of his time vying to represent Wyoming in Washington, D.C. Prospective constituents were cordial during his first two campaigns, when he ran against Barbara Cubin and Cynthia Lummis in 2006 and ‘08. But by the time Trauner took on incumbent U.S. Sen. John Barrasso in 2018, it was a “whole different ballgame.”  

“For example, I was doing an event in Casper and some guy posted on his Facebook page … a photo of himself on his bed with a bunch of guns and ammo, and talking about me and coming to the event,” Trauner said. “It scared the you-know-what out of me.” 

Trauner called law enforcement and his concerns prompted undercover police and even an FBI agent to attend the event, he said. 

Wyoming PBS is in a “tough” spot, Trauner said. Still, he doesn’t approve of the network’s decision. Public engagement is “critical.” 

“I think this is going down a road that’s not appropriate for our democracy,” Trauner said. “In fact, it lets the agitators win.” 

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. All this hype and no actual story on the debate? Talking-Point Tuesday will be extra-entertaining!

  2. “She pissed off conservatives and conservatives don’t threaten lives,” Bouchard wrote. I guess he must have been living in a cave since January 6, 2021.

  3. “Conservatives don’t threaten lives?”

    The current Chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party is a member of the Oath Keepers, a domestic terrorism group that rioted at the Capitol on January 6th, chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”

    Mr. Bouchard apparently believes that this is NOT a mortal threat. Hmmm…. Whatever universe Mr. Bouchard lives in, it must not be ours… which disqualifies him for office because he is not a resident.

  4. I disagreed with Mr. Bouchard once. He graciously gave me a colorful cloak of threats and vulcarty.

  5. The local chrump lemmings are detached from reality and critical thinking. They let their savior piss down their backs and convince them its only the rain.

    It will only take one gullible chrumper to listen to the violent rhetoric and do something stupid.

    Anyone who can be convinced of absurdities, can be convinced to commit atrocities.

  6. “Wyoming PBS considers itself not a news and reporting organization.”

    Wait, what???!!!!

    If so, why does the “People” page on the Wyoming Public Media site list a “News Director” and multiple “Reporters?”

  7. No wonder. Trump tweeted to the rioters as they were leaving the Capitol and numerous injured cops behind: “We love you. You’re very special.”

  8. I am sure what ever was brought up by Bouchard to close the debate is fake and was created by him.

    The man is a fake. He does not represent Wyoming politics. He lives in his own reality and God save us if he gets elected.

    He is right in one point conservatives to threaten people they actually cause bodily injury and kill people.

  9. All overblown to draw attention to what will be just ho hum. Who cares. Cheney could stay in DC. One could say no bags allowed in. Or clear bags. Walk thru metal detector. Only threat to Chaney is from her self

  10. Terry Dugas is the sole reason I do not contribute pledge money to Wyoming PBS. And that was before this debate debacle. I’m very sorry to have to say that publically. I just want him to hear the statement: Wyoming PBS needs a new captain in its wheelhouse.

  11. Terry, you made the correct decision for this particular situation. What a sad state of affairs! Wyoming has changed for the worse and it is disheartening.

    1. Cindy, it’s not just Wyoming, it’s the whole country. Look at all the voter suppression laws coming on the books, for example. Look at the disastrous “hold in Mexico” immigration policy for another example. Look at a supreme court that no longer looks at the Constitution and precedent to make decisions for another example.

  12. Lets call out lies: “She pissed off conservatives and conservatives don’t threaten lives,” Bouchard wrote in the June 25 post.
    He honestly thinks conservatives don’t threaten lives? Have you met a Trump supporter lately? Does the phrase “Hang Mike Pence” ring a bell???

  13. Mr. Dugas, your job at PBS IS TO “SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER”! Public affairs are to be TRUTHFUL! Always!
    Wyoming needs more of the truth than disinformation! Closed minds are easy to come by in Wyoming, how about opening them up!

  14. Thanks for the informative article. Political threats and and violence go hand in hand with Wyoming Fascism/ GOP tactics. The Wyoming GOP is an anti democratic extremist group. Ignorance and bigotry is part of this recipe.The welcoming of a twice impeached and globally disgraced threat to democracy for a political event is all you need to know. Governor Mark Gordon is now Mark I, as in first Fascist Leader of the State of Wyoming. His appointment of Mr Schroeder as Minister of Propaganda/ Superintendent of Schools says it all. Anti Gay, book banning ,violent threats against other politicians, school administrators and the media is par for the course. Sad.. not a fan, moral and intellectual bankruptcy….

  15. In my opinion, if the public is not allowed, then all candidates should have walked from this debate and convenes later (at a venue with both the press and public allowed). I do understand the safety concerns, though. Anthony Bouchard might say that “conservatives don’t threaten lives” but hey Romeo, remember your buddy Troy Bray? The Wyoming GOP has been hijacked by an unstable mob and there has been plenty of violent threats tossed around…take your pick

  16. The January 6th riot at the Capitol Building seems to be the logical outcome of so much intemperate political speech both by a few constituents and politicians. The parallel in history that comes the closest to 1/6 riot is the burning of the Reichstag on February 27, 1933, four weeks after Adolph Hitler was sworn in as the Chancelor of Germany. The Nazi party wanted to eliminate legislative debate over policy which was successful. After the left leaning segment of the parliament was silenced through intimidation the Enabling Act was passed on March 23, 1933 it conferred complete control to the Fuhrer and we know how that ended.
    Though the Capitol was not burned the invasion was intended to produce a similar effect.