Senate District 23 comprises the southern half of Campbell County. Before redistricting, it included a portion of northeastern Converse County. (Courtesy/Wyoming Secretary of State)

About a third of the Wyoming Legislature’s Senators began their statehouse service as representatives. After nearly a decade in the House, including his recent stint as speaker, Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) is hoping to make that transition in the 2022 general election. Unlike the primary election, Barlow has a competitor on the November ballot — Patricia Junek is running as an independent and says she wants Wyoming to better live up to its “truly conservative” reputation.

The race has been peppered with campaign finance controversy, official party disdain for Junek’s independent stance following her failed Republican primary write-in campaign and a push by many Republicans to move the party further to right. 

District:

Before lawmakers whittled down Senate District 23 during redistricting, it stretched across the southern half of Campbell County and a northeastern portion of Converse County. It now represents only Campbell County voters, including those south of Gillette in the town of Wright and the rural unincorporated communities of Pleasantdale, Teckla, Turnercrest and Savageton. And while it gained a greater portion of northeast Gillette, some of the city’s southeast neighborhoods went to Senate District 1. 

“The makeup of Senate District 23 is at least a little bit different than maybe the rest of Wyoming in the sense that energy and energy development is a very important issue,” Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) said. He’s represented the district since 2015, but is not seeking re-election. The district is also heavy on agriculture and “overwhelmingly pro-business,” Wasserburger added. 

The political newcomer:

Junek retired from a career in Washington state where she taught college students employment skills. She and her husband now own The Lodge in Gillette. When she first moved to Wyoming eight years ago, Junek said, she expected the state “to be truly conservative.” It has come up short of that measure in her view. 

“We are a conservative state and conservative voters, but yet our Legislature does not represent that at all,” Junek said, pointing to an anonymous website that ranks lawmakers according to how they vote on certain bills. According to WyoRino.com, roughly three-fourths of the Wyoming Legislature’s supermajority of Republicans are “Republicans in Name Only.”

The biggest issue Wyoming faces right now is “the attack that is coming on our coal, oil and gas industries,” said Junek, who added that those attacks are made possible by the state’s reliance on federal funds and grants. Her priority as a legislator would be to find a way to wean the state off of those federal dollars. That popular fiscal philosophy has proven difficult in practice, both for the state and many current lawmakers in their own financial dealings

Patricia Junek, an independent running for Senate District 23, during a televised League of Women Voters forum in Gillette on Sept. 19, 2022. (Screengrab/Gillette Public Access Television)

Initially, Junek ran as a write-in Republican candidate in the primary election. But she did not secure enough votes to beat Barlow, who earned 3,355 votes. There were 814 Republican write-ins, but it’s unknown how many were for Junek. When write-ins do not exceed the number of votes for the candidate on the ballot, they’re not processed, according to the Campbell County Clerk’s office. 

After her primary loss, Junek gathered enough signatures to run as an independent. Her county party was displeased with this. 

“The Campbell County Republican Party expressed frustration with the notion of defeated Republican candidates re-inventing themselves so they can run again in the general election,” the party said in a press release after voting to financially support Republican candidates who won in the primary, including Barlow. 

Additionally, the Wyoming Republican Party voted to no longer recognize Republicans who run in the general election as independents, such as Junek. 

“There are many Republicans that are in positions that cannot publicly support me without repercussions,” Junek said. “So they have supported me privately with anonymous donations.” 

While candidates are able to report anonymous donations on their campaign finance reports, that “does not mean that an individual may contribute to a candidate with the understanding the contributor’s name will not be reported,” according the secretary of state’s office. Junek has since said she would not accept any donations that were not legal and that she misunderstood what was permitted.

The veteran: 

Barlow, who is a veterinarian and operates a cattle, yak and sheep ranch, has served in the House since 2013, including as House Majority Floor Leader and Speaker of the House. If elected, Barlow said he would continue his work moving the state to a cash-based budget. 

“I’ve heard from the citizens of Wyoming, and certainly in our district, [that] government needs to live within its means,” Barlow said during a candidate forum in September put on by the League of Women Voters. 

Barlow recently received the Legislator of the Year Award from the Wyoming Business Alliance/Wyoming Heritage Foundation. 

“As far as Legislators go, Speaker Barlow is one of Wyoming’s best. He has an extraordinary ability to conduct lengthy, complex discussions while maintaining order among a body of 60 other representatives with kindness and humor,” according to a press release announcing the award. 

As a multi-term House leader, Barlow has been increasingly associated with the Legislature’s “establishment” earning him the ire of more populist elements within his own party and making him a target for ouster. 

Speaker of the House Rep. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) on the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

What to watch for: 

Coal Country Conservatives Political Action Committee has endorsed Junek, Harriet Hageman, Republican nominee for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat, and more than 100 statewide, legislative, local and precinct candidates. After the PAC did not file the mandatory July report with the Federal Election Commission, Campbell County Clerk Susan Saunders filed a complaint. When the PAC filed in October, it reported mostly anonymous contributions used to print and distribute voter guides across Campbell County.

The Secretary of State’s office ultimately found no violation of Wyoming’s election code.  

Before deciding to enter the race this summer, Junek said she hosted a fundraising dinner for CCCPac in late June. The PAC received $950 in anonymous $50 donations on June 28, according to its July quarterly report

Junek does not see a problem with CCCPAC’s reliance on undisclosed donors, mostly because the state determined there was not a violation of Wyoming’s election code. She also pointed to a voter guide distributed in 2020 by Frontier Conservatives — a Republican PAC that wants to increase civility in the state’s politics. That particular PAC, however, did not rely on anonymous donations, according to state records. 

Barlow sees campaign finance transparency differently than Junek. 

“We all believe in freedom of speech. There’s no question about that constitutional principle. But I don’t know if there’s a constitutional principle of anonymous speech or anonymous influence in the elections,” Barlow said, adding that he doesn’t accept PAC money nor does he coordinate with any PAC. 

The race is indicative of the increasing presence of PAC money in Wyoming’s political environment and concerns over campaign finance transparency.

Junek has had to scale back her efforts due to recent health problems in her family. So the race could come down to CCCPAC’s efforts ahead of the general election, and whether they can compete with Barlow’s own campaigning. 

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

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify CCCPAC’s endorsements. —Ed.

Maggie Mullen

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. Not sure how anyone can move to Wyoming from Washington and not think Wyoming is conservative enough! Once again we see that GOP far right think there is only room in the GOP for those that think exactly like them.