Amid record voter turnout in a presidential year, Republicans in the Wyoming Legislature picked up one seat each in the House and Senate.
Between last night’s results, August’s primary elections and lawmaker retirements, the 2021 Wyoming Legislature will feature at least 23 new faces. The body on the whole looks to have shifted to the right ideologically once more.
House and Senate party shifts
When voters hit the polls yesterday, the House tallied 50 Republicans, nine Democrats and one Independent. In 2021, there will be 51 Republicans, seven Democrats, one Independent and one Libertarian, according to unofficial results.
Independent Rep. Jim Roscoe (Wilson), who retains the seat he was first elected to in 2018, votes often with the House’s small Democratic block, preliminary counts show. Libertarian Marshall Burt, who unseated longtime Green River Democrat and union champion Stan Blake, touted conservative positions on issues like gun control and Wyoming’s economic woes on his campaign website.
Preliminary results released by county officials Tuesday night will be certified in coming days.
Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) also lost her seat — to Republican John Romero-Martinez, according to Tuesdays’ tallies. Burlingame, a progressive politician and LGBTQ advocate, held the seat for just one term.
Mark Baker, a Libertarian-minded Republican who once held Sweetwater County’s House District 48, will move into House District 60 after defeating Democrat Lindsey Travis. Democrat John Freeman had represented HD60 since 2011.
For Democrats, those three losses were somewhat cushioned by a win in Albany County, where Democrat Trey Sherwood captured the previously Republican-held HD14 by a slim margin. Rep. Dan Furphy vacated HD14 to run for the state Senate, and last night captured SD-10, maintaining Republican control over that Albany County seat.
Along with flipping Burlingame’s seat, Cheyenne House Republicans beat back a wave of Democratic challengers, in some cases by very slim margins.
There are currently three Democrats and 27 Republicans in the Senate. In 2021, there will be two Democrats and 28 Republicans. Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D-Rock Springs) lost to Republican businessman John Kolb, completing a Republican sweep of Sweetwater County. Only half the Senate was up for election this year.
Democrats suffered legislative losses both this year and in 2016 as Wyoming saw record voting turnouts driven by a statewide affinity for Donald Trump. The flip of the remaining two Democratic seats in Sweetwater County is historic — cementing for the next two years at least southwest Wyoming’s political shift away from union-card-carrying Democrats like Blake and toward Republicans.
Shaping the Legislature beyond political party results, however, is the increasing rightward swing of the Wyoming Republican Party — and the lawmakers it sends to the statehouse.
During the August Republican primary election, more ideologically strident candidates knocked out a number of seasoned lawmakers, and also won fights for the seats of retiring lawmakers.
Across the state, those candidates went on to win last night’s general election. Though these candidates don’t have voting records yet, campaign platforms and in some cases political pledges indicate a tough stance against abortion rights, gun control and taxes and a desire for smaller government.
Some incoming new representatives, like Robert Wharff (R-Evanston) or Ocean Andrew (R-Laramie), are prominent right-wing activists. Others, like John Bear and Bill Fortner (both R-Gillette) and incoming senator Troy Mckeown (R-Gillette), signed a pledge committing to not raise taxes and to advance a voter ID law and other conservative causes.
Another signer of that pledge, Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette), died Monday before he was elected with 95% of the vote in an uncontested race. The Campbell County Republican Party will choose three candidates to replace Edwards, and the Campbell County commission will pick one.
The pledge matches the current rhetoric of the Wyoming Republican Party, which has been zealous in its effort to enforce ideological voting purity from lawmakers.
“The majority in the Wyoming Republican Party believes that, if you wear the brand, if you are running for public office under the Republican banner, and especially if you want the Party to give you campaign money, you should agree with 80% of the party Platform,” party chairman Frank Eathorne wrote in a recent missive defending the party’s current leadership style.
The state Senate in particular has shifted further right — likely spelling doom for any tax revenue measures.
Gun rights advocate Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) easily brushed off a well-funded challenge from Democrat Brittany Wallesch. Rep. Tim Salazar, another gun advocate who opposed tax reform efforts in the House, moved on without a challenger into retiring Sen. Eli Bebout’s Fremont County seat.
Other favorites of the political faction controlling the Wyoming Republican Party defeated some longtime senators in the primary and faced no challengers yesterday. Pledge signer McKeown defeated moderate Republican Sen. Michael Von Flatern in August, while Tim French will take over a Senate seat vacated by Sen. Henry Coe (R-Cody).
The new Legislature will convene Jan. 12, though as COVID-19 cases rise in the state there is some question as to what form a session will take and when it will begin.
Whenever lawmakers meet, they will face deep structural revenue problems that for now Gov. Mark Gordon has been confronting on his own. Gordon has cut 10% from the state’s two-year budget already, and will soon finalize another 10% in cuts. He has asked lawmakers to cut an additional 10% as the state confronts a precipitous drop in the energy industry tax revenues it has long relied on.
If lawmakers are unwilling to consider shifting the state’s tax dependence off of the energy industry — and indeed, legislative committees had been knocking down such measures even before this year’s elections — most analysts believe the state will continue to face dwindling revenues.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Sen. Anthony Bouchard’s town of residence to Cheyenne and also to correct the name of Ocean Andrew, which was originally reported as Andrew Ocean in error. —Ed.