CASPER — Bill Larsen and Jack Graves didn’t know each other before Saturday, but they learned of plenty in common as they rested weary legs while awaiting entry into the Ford Wyoming Center.
Both men, adorned in cowboy hats and wild rags, are cattle ranchers, who formerly ran sheep. They also shared excitement for the day’s main attraction: an appearance by former President Donald Trump. There was also agreeably less enthusiasm for the thousands of people who snaked by.
“We don’t do crowds very good,” Larsen said. “That’s why we live here.”
Larsen, of Casper, didn’t see anything unusual in his kinship and banter with Graves, from the Riverton area.
“That’s what Wyoming people do,” he said. “I watch the news, and on the streets of New York City people are bumping into each other and they don’t even speak to each other. That’s not the way we do things out here.”
But there’s one native New Yorker that Larsen and Graves hold in higher esteem: Trump.
“He’s not that way,” Larsen said. “He’s for the people.”
Hours later, inside the arena overlooking Casper, the 75-year-old former president on his first ever political trip to Wyoming told Larsen, Graves and roughly 8,400 other loyal fans what they’d come to hear: The 2020 election had been stolen from them, they can’t trust the media, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney is their enemy and they should vote for Harriet Hageman to replace her. He even tantalized the crowd throughout his rambling 88-minute speech with hints that he may run for president a fourth time in 2024.
“Wyoming, all of America is counting on you,” Trump said. “So important. We all know how great of a state you are, how beautiful you are. But you’ve become, politically speaking, you’re at the top of the list. We have a lot of elections coming up … I think [the House race] is the most important election that we have, right here.”
The Trump effect
For Larsen and others, Trump’s endorsement of Hageman was all they need.
“Donald Trump thought that she’s the one,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”
Although Trump was the main attraction, it was a Hageman diatribe about being “fed up” that triggered the most raucous applause from the near-capacity crowd.
Hageman, a Cheyenne attorney, took to the stage at 4:25 p.m. sporting her signature round glasses and turquoise jewelry. She told the crowd “I am Wyoming,” and that she’d driven 23,000 miles around the Equality State since announcing her campaign.
Her 12-minute-long speech returned repeatedly to a “we’re fed up” motif, and the frustrations she voiced with the federal government and progressive policies proved a crowd pleaser.
Voters are fed up with the press and social media platforms, Hageman said. Democrats were wrong on important issues like COVID-19 and the 2020 election, she said, and chose instead to shut down the discussion and block “conservative speech.”
Cheney was another target of the “fed up” refrain, but Hageman gaffed while trying to make the case that she’s the better candidate.
“I am that person who will represent you, your fallacies,” she said.
Hageman realized the blunder and pivoted, saying in closing that she’d represent voters’ families, businesses and interests.
Parts of the all-day Casper event were tailored to Wyoming-specific issues, while other talking points, and the political figures who appeared, were cookie-cutter parts of many Trump rallies.
“He does repeat some of the same things at all his rallies,” Bar Nunn resident Thomas Suffel said during a bathroom break mid-Trump speech. “But he always makes sure that he understands the people and the culture of where he’s going, and he addresses them, which makes it very interesting.”
Suffel watches every Trump rally he can on television and he wasn’t disappointed seeing him in person. Trump, he said, is “dynamic” and “magnetic” and “knows how to handle a crowd.”
Trump took the stage nearly 45 minutes later than scheduled. He dubbed Wyoming “ultra MAGA country,” a nod to the acronym from his 2016 campaign slogan, Make America Great Again. In his lost reelection bid, the former president won Wyoming by a greater margin than any other state.
Wyo shout outs and shots
Trump took shots at Wyoming figures besides Cheney.
Among those targeted was Gov. Mark Gordon, a fellow Republican, who greeted Trump at the Casper-Natrona County International Airport alongside U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) earlier that day.
“He gave me a beautiful hat,” Trump said, referencing the governor. “But I said, ‘You know, I’d rather not have the hat. I’d rather have Democrats not voting in the Republican primary.”
It was Barrasso who gave the former president a cowboy hat, according to Michael Pearlman, Gordon’s spokesperson. The governor gave him a pair of spurs.
Trump’s frustration with Gordon stemmed from the Wyoming Legislature failing to pass a bill to ban crossover party voting, which many believe could help Cheney. During the 2022 session, Gordon did not take a public stance on the issue. The bill was backed by Trump, but died quietly after failing to get an introduction vote by deadline. Several previous attempts have been unsuccessful at the state capitol.
“The Democrat crusade to gut election integrity is something that nobody has ever seen anything like in this country,” Trump said. “Wyoming, all of America is counting on you.”
Trump advocated for single-day paper-ballot voting.
Wyoming already uses paper ballots in its elections — votes are cast by paper and counted by machines. Park County Commissioners recently denied a request by Republicans to hand-count 2022 ballots after the county attorney advised against it, citing several state statutes and federal law. The commission has asked the Wyoming attorney general to weigh in on the prospect of recounting ballots from 2020 by hand.
In response to a record number of Wyoming voters casting absentee ballots in 2020 the Legislature passed a law giving county clerks the option to begin processing those ballots starting the Thursday before Election Day.
Absentee voting for the Aug. 16 primary election in Wyoming begins July 1.
Trump also took time to praise devotees. Wyoming GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne made the list of those the former president “loves,” and got the label “tough cookie.
“You’ve done an outstanding job,” Trump told Eathorne. “You’ve done outstanding, but this is politics, right? So, Frank, so if [your candidates] don’t win, you did a lousy job … But I think you’re gonna win big.”
Wyoming State Treasurer Curt Meier, Lynn Friess and her late husband, Foster Frieiss, and Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) — who sponsored the failed crossover voting ban bill — were among other Wyoming denizens Trump lauded by name.
In downtown Casper, there was hardly a trace of the Trump rally happening two miles away at the Ford Wyoming Center. Welcome signs for rally goers were absent, and passersby decked out in Trump gear were seldom.
An attempt to organize a protest of the Hageman-Trump rally garnered few participants. Casper residents Britt Boril, Betsy Bower and Jeff Streitmatter were what remained of an already small protest when WyoFile caught up with them Saturday afternoon walking northbound on South Poplar Street carrying anti-Trump placards. “Anybody who’s willing to accept [Trump’s] endorsement, at this point, why would you do that?” Boril said.
Around the same time, a young man hung his head out of a passing vehicle’s window and screamed, “Fuck Joe Biden, bitch!”
That wasn’t the protesters’ first jeering. WyoFile reporters watched a large truck sporting Trump flags blow thick, black diesel exhaust on them, and they said “a few” younger people yelled obscenities and flipped them off. Older people driving by slowed down to read their signs as more of a curiosity.
The protesters’ politics and desires for Wyoming were decidedly different from those of the crowd amassed at the rally. Bower has family members who are Trump supporters, and she described them as having a “different mindset.” Her hope was that the Wyoming congressional race would focus on issues like “beekeeping, gardening, driving fewer trucks [and] moving toward solar power.
“I wish there were a way to convey what it means to make progress and not destruction,” Bower said.
At the rally, WyoFile reporters and other journalists had more pleasant interactions with the vast majority of Trump supporters. The most notable antagonism directed at the media came from the former president himself, who propagated the term “fake news” and whose presidency coincided with accelerating distrust in the press.
“Oh, you got a lot of press back there,” Trump said. “Why are there so many? Why, oh why are there so many?
“Fake news,” he added, as the audience jeered.
But even a man wearing a “Fake media is the virus” T-shirt was happy to give an interview and maintained civility. Adam Radogna, a 33-year-old Cleveland, Ohio, convenience store owner, was there with Trump rally groupies who go by the nickname “Front Row Joes.” He’s spent about $30,000 traveling to Trump gatherings around the country, he said. His group of a dozen was in line at 4 a.m., early enough to live up to their moniker.
Radogna affirmed his belief that the “media is the virus,” but said it’s not cut and dried.
“There’s a lot of media that actually reports the good news,” he said, “but we know how the media is and how they twist things.”
One attendee who was enamored to see Trump and cheered enthusiastically throughout even apologized for the former president’s slights.
“The press takes such a beating, but not all of you are bad guys,” Karen Alvis of Lusk told a WyoFile reporter after one of Trump’s jabs at the press.
Still, Alvis was sold on both Trump and Hageman: “They represent us,” she said.
Views of Trump and his hand-picked Cheney challenger were largely homogeneous — all in support — in the pre-event line that arced around the parking lot. Attendees reported a three-hour wait to get in, which created ample opportunity for local candidates to stump.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Sheridan resident Brent Bien, who’s challenging Gordon in the Wyoming governor’s race, worked the line trying to drum up support for his campaign.
“I’m glad he held this rally for me,” Bien joked. “Cheyenne is a microcosm of D.C., and we need to change that. It starts with electing principally conservative Republicans in place of the RINOs.”
Oilfield trucker Don Odom took a similar tack, intercepting a journalist strolling by in hopes of some press for his own campaign. The Cheyenne resident, a newcomer to Wyoming politics, is running for the open seat in the just-created Wyoming House District 61.
Odom and most of the rally attendees who spoke to WyoFile were unconvinced by the determinations of every state’s election officials, the federal electoral system and — in more than 60 cases — the judiciary system, that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election by more than 70 electoral and 7 million popular votes. Like scores of others in attendance, Odom holds a deep-seated belief that the man he was there to see — in a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity — is the rightful president of the United States.
“I haven’t been in a position to see the proof that they claim was there — so I still don’t know for sure — but in my heart I feel like it was taken from him,” Odom said.
Larsen, the Casper rancher, agreed. Trump was the victim of the “biggest cheating scandal the country’s ever seen … It’s pretty maddening, really,” he said.
Where Odom bucked from the crowd is that he’s not a Hageman supporter. Instead, he said, he favors state Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), another far-right challenger to incumbent Cheney.
Basin resident Larry McCracken, an aircraft refurbisher who’s between jobs, was in line and eager to take in his fifth Trump rally. McCracken, who is a Wyoming newcomer from the Midwest, feels that he’s surrounded by people who fall short of being true conservatives in his new home.
“You’ve got a good crowd here,” McCracken said. “But just from talking to [Basin] people … a lot of them say how conservative they are and then you get to talking to them and find out they aren’t.”
Instead, he said, people in Basin, population 1,400, “they’re more like a Liz Cheney kind of person.”
At the suggestion that his observation might not bode well for Trump’s hand-selected U.S. House candidate, Hageman, McCracken offered up two words.
Maggie Mullen, Dustin Bleizeffer, Tennessee Watson and Rone Tempest contributed reporting.