Sweetwater County Democratic Party chief Meghan Jensen is a concrete contractor, a former school cook and a soccer mom who views both leading Republican candidates for Congress as “elitists” who are out of touch with working class Wyoming.
Fremont County Native American activist Lynnette Grey Bull is seeking a second straight run as the Democratic Party nominee but encourages her supporters to “cross over” and vote for Republican Liz Cheney in the Aug. 16 primary.
Casper attorney Steve Helling supports former president Donald Trump but is running for Congress as a Democrat. He thinks Trump’s chosen candidate Harriet Hageman is a “hypocrite” because of earlier statements she made calling Trump a “racist” and a “xenophobe.” Trump has since apparently forgiven Hageman, but Helling has not.
In the face of the intense national scrutiny and the mountains of money surrounding the Aug. 16 Republican primary, it might be easy to forget that there will also be a Democratic primary on the same day. The high-profile GOP primary pits incumbent Liz Cheney against Hageman and three other challengers — Cheyenne state Senator Anthony Bouchard, Gillette native Denton Knapp and Sheridan small business owner Robyn Belinskey.
Up until the last day of the state filing period it was not clear that there would be a Democratic Party candidate for the state’s sole congressional seat.
In a state that once elected the likes of Democrats Gale McGee, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1977, and Ed Herschler, who served three terms as governor from 1975 to 1987, the party is at a low ebb.
According to the most recent state records, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state by a 4-1 margin, 197,868 to 44,643. The last Democrat to win the U.S. House race in Wyoming was Teno Roncalio in 1976. The last close race for the seat was in 2006 when incumbent Republican Barbara Cubin — who was tainted by having the highest roll-call absenteeism rate in Congress — edged out Jackson’s Gary Trauner by just over 1,000 votes.
But just as officials were preparing to close the primary books on May 27, three Democratic candidates suddenly appeared. None are widely expected to successfully challenge the Republican nominee in the general election, but their candidacies could still impact the outcome in multiple ways, particularly if there is significant crossover voting.
Lynnette Grey Bull, 45, is a social activist based in Fort Washakie, where she is cofounder of Not Our Native Daughters, a nonprofit organization aiming to increase awareness of “missing, exploited and murdered indigenous women and children.”
Raised in southern California, Grey Bull is the daughter of a Hunkpapa Lakota father and Northern Arapaho mother. Her family came to Wyoming often when she was a child to participate in pow-wows and dances. A divorced mother of three, Grey Bull moved to Wyoming in 2017 from Phoenix, Arizona where she had been active in the United Way and social welfare programs through her church, the evangelical Christian Vineyard Movement.
“The elders here in Wyoming invited me to help with homelessness and addiction issues here on the reservation,” Grey Bull said. By 2020, she was entrenched enough in the community to run for congress in the Democratic primary. She won the primary handily to become the state’s first Native American candidate for Congress, but lost to Liz Cheney in the general election by nearly 120,000 votes.
After consulting with friends and political advisors, she said she decided to run again in 2022, setting up a potential rematch. But this election, she acknowledges, is different because of the battle for survival it represents between Trump and his main Republican antagonist, Cheney.
“I think all eyes are on Wyoming because of the political dynamics involved,” she said. “From what I hear from other Democrats across the state before I got into the race, a huge number of Dems were going to support Cheney.”
“In fact, many of them are still going to vote for Cheney. Their viewpoint is ‘You know, Lynnette, we are going to vote for you in the general election, but we have to get Cheney in first.”
In fact, Grey Bull said, had she not decided to run, she too would likely have switched registration to vote for Cheney in the primary against the Trump candidate, Hageman. Grey Bull said she expects to “take a hit” from supporters crossing over to vote in the Republican primary but that she still hopes to get enough votes to win the Democratic primary and face off for a second time against Cheney in the general election.
“If I do get the Democratic nomination,” she said, “I would rather enjoy going against Cheney in the general.”
Meghan Jensen, 38, is co-owner with her husband of a small concrete company in Rock Springs that specializes in installing residential driveways, RV pads and garage floors. It is hard work for the mother of a blended family with five children, including four stepchildren. In addition to helping her husband pour concrete she serves on the Sweetwater County Library board and, since 2018, as chairperson of the Sweetwater County Democratic Party.
Jensen disagrees with Grey Bull about the significance of the potential Democrat crossover vote in the Republican Primary.
“Talking to folks in my county and a few outside of my county,” Jensen said, “I’ve had people tell me they actually changed their registration. But after sitting on it for two or three weeks they said ‘I can’t do it. I can’t keep registered as a Republican. I’m going to switch back to the Democrats.”
Like Grey Bull, Jensen admires Cheney for taking what she feels is a principled stand against Trump. “I call her a formidable foe,” she said, dodging potato chips thrown at her by one of her children. “As a Wyoming woman I connect with her because she does take a stand in what she believes in. And while that may not be right for me, I do admire her for that.”
Jensen feels the problems in Wyoming go beyond the issue of Trump. She said her primary campaign will be called “Face it” and serve as a kind of wakeup call for the state’s electorate.
“I think Wyoming has been going this way for a long time and it is coming to a head. So, it doesn’t really need to put Trump in the equation. It is really a Wyoming problem. We need to find a bridge between the regular folk and the federal government.”
Unlike Grey Bull, Jensen said that she could never bring herself to vote for Cheney, even in a primary.
“That’s an absolute ‘No,’” she said. “I’m very, very firm in that.”
Steve Helling, 68, is a civil litigation attorney specializing in truck accident cases who has lived in Cheyenne, Laramie, Rock Springs, Green River and Casper. A former deputy prosecutor in Sweetwater County, Helling moved back to Wyoming in March after 20 years in Colorado Springs where he practiced law and helped care for his ailing mother, who has since died. But Helling, a graduate of the University of Wyoming law school, stresses that his real home is in Wyoming, where several of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren now live. “Prior to moving to Colorado, I lived 24 years in Wyoming, including 16 years in Casper.”
Over the years, Helling said, he has been a registered Democrat and Republican as well as an independent.
“I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t have strong party loyalties,” Helling said. “In the spirit of full transparency, I actually contemplated doing this as a Republican, but President Trump had asked the Republican field to coalesce around his selection, Ms. Hageman, so that would have been in direct conflict.”
Instead, Helling chose to run as a last-minute, pro-Trump candidate in the Democratic primary. “There are radical left-wing forces within the Democratic Party that need to be challenged from within the Democratic Party,” Helling said.
Helling said he does not support the former president on every issue. A journalism graduate of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, he does not agree with Trump’s blanket condemnation of the media as “fake news.” And unlike Trump, he supports same-day registration at the polling place that allows “crossover” voting.
But he thinks Trump did a “fantastic job” in his one term as president. He dismisses the January 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol as “a peaceful protest that got out of hand” and agrees with those who contend the 2020 election may have been stolen through massive voter fraud.
However, Helling said he cannot support Trump’s hand-picked candidate Hageman, whom he describes as a hypocrite for positions she took against Trump before the 2016 election, when the Wyoming delegation supported Ted Cruz.
“If there is one thing I can’t stand, it is hypocrisy,” Helling said. “She attacked President Trump right before he was elected. She tried to keep him from getting the nomination that he had earned. She called him a racist. She called him a xenophobe.”
It is unclear how the Wyoming Democratic leadership will react to Helling’s candidacy when it holds its convention this weekend, June 11-12 in Rock Springs, although a party spokesman said it would likely be discussed. Helling said he has attempted unsuccessfully to reach party leaders. The specter of having two pro-Trump candidates — Helling and, were she to win, Hageman — facing off in the general election may be more than they can handle.
However, Helling looks to his wife Kathy Helling’s experience as a precedent for a maverick, little-known candidate winning the Democratic nomination.
As a 32-year-old college undergraduate running as an anti-abortion Democrat, Kathy Helling came from nowhere to win the 1990 Democratic primary and face off against incumbent Republican icon Alan Simpson for the United States Senate. Steve Helling was her campaign treasurer in that race. She lost by a lopsided margin in the general election but was able to use her nomination to promote her views on abortion in a statewide televised debate with Simpson.
Given the sparse turnout for Democratic Party primaries (Grey Bull won the 2020 primary with 14,153 out of a meager 23,576 votes), anything is possible, although Steve Helling admits he is a long shot.
“I think God would have to place me in Washington, D.C.,” Helling said. “I think my chances are slim. However, I think my chances as a Democrat would be much greater than a Democratic candidate who hewed the leftist line.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the first names of Gale McGee and Teno Roncalio and to clarify the composition of Jensen’s family. —Ed.