Wyoming politics has always had more than its fair share of fringe thinkers.  Luckily, we also have a long, proud tradition of pragmatists serving as effective counterweights in both the Legislature and governor’s office. Sure, the radicals make lots of noise, but when push comes to shove, there’s usually been an adult in the room keeping things on the rails. 

Opinion

Heaven help us, it looks like the chaperones have left the building — or at least become outnumbered.

In recent cycles, Wyoming’s House has been where bad Senate bills go to die. But the Nov. 8 election just equipped the lower chamber with a brand-new rubber stamp and I expect lawmakers to use it with abandon, sending every scrap of red-meat legislation that comes along straight to the governor.

Since he no longer needs to worry about being re-elected and pleasing Wyoming Republican Party bosses, I hope Gov. Mark Gordon has his veto pen ready. He’s our last line of defense against the House’s suddenly powerful “We’re Going to Strip Away So Many Personal Freedoms You Won’t Realize What’s Happening Until They’re Gone Caucus.”

You probably know the far-right group by the name its founding members chose in 2020, the “House Freedom Caucus.” My moniker doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s a truer reflection of this voting bloc’s intentions. The caucus has nothing to do with freedom. Its hallmark is restricting the rights of women, doctors, LGBTQ+ individuals, librarians and anyone who’d like to vote early, by mail, or (gasp) via a ballot drop box.

The caucus is also unified in opposing COVID-19 masks and vaccine mandates. Of course it is. Why shouldn’t we have the freedom to infect our neighbors with a deadly virus that’s killed more than a million Americans?

The House Republican Caucus, which has 58 of the chamber’s 63 members, is almost evenly split between the alt-right Freedom Caucus and more traditional main street conservatives. In its recent election of the party’s nominees for the chamber’s leadership, three of the four offices went to the latter wing. That includes Rep. Albert Sommers of Pinedale, the next House speaker after outpolling the Freedom Caucus’ Rep. Mark Jennings of Sheridan, 30-27.

But in the majority floor leader race, the Republican Caucus selected Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Neiman of Hulett over Rep. Jared Olsen of Cheyenne, 29-28. It’s a huge break in House tradition for Neiman, a second-year lawmaker, to upset Olsen, who had been in the leadership pipeline as majority whip since 2021.

As majority floor leader, Neiman will decide what bills get heard on the floor. It’s an extremely powerful position that gives one representative the ability to single-handedly kill bills up to third and final reading.

It’s not difficult to imagine some of 2022’s most controversial Senate bills, including measures to ban teaching “critical race theory” and bar transgender athletes from competing in school sports, would have passed the House with the support of the larger Freedom Caucus.

Both bills deserved to die. It may be a handy way to rile up the base, but CRT is a law school theory not even taught in the state’s public schools. In the few districts where transgender sports contestants have been in the picture, the Wyoming High School Activities Association is doing just fine with considering them on a case-by-case basis without the “help” of right-wing ideologues in the statehouse.

With or without the Freedom Caucus, both chambers passed the “trigger ban” on most abortions in Wyoming that went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The law is on hold pending a court decision on its state constitutionality.

But if the law is upheld, expect the Freedom Caucus to try to remove exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. If it’s struck down, guess who’ll be at the front of the line to write an even more restrictive new version?

Formed by Republicans in September 2020 after that year’s primaries, the Freedom Caucus is modeled after the far-right contingent with the same name in the U.S. House. Led by Reps. Tim Hallinan (R-Gillette) and Dan Laursen (R-Powell), its membership was not disclosed, but likely had between 12 and 16 legislators.

The new mini-caucus didn’t have any real power. Hallinan told WyoFile before the 2021 session that it tried to convince incoming Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) to give chairmanships to some members, but admitted, “we were pretty much rebuffed.”

It’s a far different political environment after the recent election, with freshman lawmakers filling nearly half of House seats. The caucus lost its two former leaders: Hallinan was defeated in his primary, and Laursen won a Senate seat.

A recent letter to U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis trying to convince her to change her support for the “Respect for Marriage Act,” which would provide federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages, had signatures of 12 re-elected Freedom Caucus members and 14 new House members. That’s compared to 12 members of the caucus who sent a letter to Lummis  and Sen. John Barrasso in June 2022 urging them to oppose further restrictions to federal gun laws. If they stick together, the caucus won’t have to recruit many more to push far-right bills over the top. 

The radical leadership of the Wyoming GOP — more closely aligned with the Freedom Caucus than most elected officials — has been frustrated in recent years by lawmakers’ occasional unwillingness to do the party’s bidding. Wyoming’s GOP central committee is particularly upset that the top priority of its legislative agenda, a ban on “crossover” voting in party primaries, has been rebuffed since 2019. 

Neiman led the failed effort last year to get the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee to sponsor a crossover ban. He also co-sponsored the abortion trigger ban.

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) is the head of the House Freedom Caucus, and will join Neiman as the de facto voice of state Republican Party bosses in the Legislature.

Olsen was likely edged out as minority floor leader for several defections from the party platform. He opposes the death penalty and unsuccessfully sponsored bills to legalize medical and recreational marijuana.

Another probable factor is the state party’s war with the Laramie County Republican Party, which is chaired by Olsen’s wife, Dani. The state committee punished the county for allegedly violating its delegate selection rules by chopping the delegation from 37 members to three.

Jared Olsen called out the party’s action, which effectively left 28,700 Laramie County Republicans without a voice at the state convention.

“[The state GOP] have this voice inside of this room today,” Olsen told WyoFile. “But their voice doesn’t carry on into actual policy in the state.”

Oh, but it does. After legislators chose new House leaders, directives of the state GOP and the House Freedom Caucus will be carried out by Neiman, not the more moderate Olsen, now on the sidelines.

The irony is that all this political gamesmanship could potentially give the House’s five Democrats an outsized role in policy decisions when the general session convenes in January. If old-school Wyoming Republicans and the Freedom Caucus split the vote, who the minority party sides with could be key to a bill’s fate.

As speaker, Sommers will preside over House sessions for at least the next two years. He will appoint committees, assign bills to standing committees and manage the Legislative Service Office. He also has the power to kill a bill by simply putting it in his desk drawer.

But unless Sommers decides to run for another term, Neiman will be in line for speaker of the House in 2026.

Unless Neiman’s elected governor, which at least one former member of the House Freedom Caucus claims is its goal.

Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette), who lost his primary bid to unseat incoming Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), told Cowboy State Daily the Freedom Caucus, led by Neiman, wants to hold all five statewide elected offices.

“[The Freedom Caucus] don’t want a political party in power, they want a socialist state,” said Fortner, a far, far-right legislator who actually thinks the caucus is too liberal.

I’m used to being encouraged to leave Wyoming by conservative readers who swear I’d be happier living in a “socialist state.” I never thought I’d see any legislator tie “my kind” with the Freedom Caucus bunch.

Now, that hurts. Politics can indeed make strange bedfellows, but not that strange.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Funny thing about that so-called ” Freedom” caucus. The more they yammer and yoke up to fight for more freedoms and liberties, we actually end up with fewer personal freedoms and liberties ( but more guns ) as they shove the Constitution off to one side…

    Ask any Wyoming resident who might be a gay-lesbian Hispanic prone to vote for Democrats , or a Native American trying to vote at all. But it’s a long list …

  2. It is truly entertaining to witness the effect that a paid provocateur using Alinsky tactics has on a small following of angry fellow Marxists. The overwhelming majority of Wyoming voters are intelligent enough to reject what is sold here, thank God.

  3. With all due respect to the author I take exception to the very basis of his argument. The “far right and far left” are political terms that only serve to divide us. In reality their constructs are arbitrary and capricious and only serve political ends to obtain and or maintain power. There is only true law and the perversion of it. True Law or Natural Law was described very well by Cicero in the last days of the Roman Empire, which was crumbling under immorality and tyranny, as ours is. He described it as “right reason in accordance with nature” with its attributes being “universal, unchanging and everlasting”. It was from the Natural Law that our State and Federal Constitutions were derived. Any Law therefore must flow from this precept and not to it. Our founders knew this well. This is historically accurate and not disputable except to the feeble minded.

    Natural Law and Moral law are one and the same, have nothing to do with “Separation of Church and State” or restrictions on Liberty and it is not within our power to separate Natural Law and Moral Law where therein lies the problem. It is not a division of far right and far left. It is a division between those who accept and understand the Foundations of our Constitution in the Natural Law and those who do not or wish to pervert for their own selfish desires.

    In application and keeping with the above it is self evident that there is nothing natural or moral about killing “a child in development” or homosexual “bedroom practices” to put it politely. Regarding the later and in the case of male union known as sodomy, it is disease ridden, violent in nature and filthy. However, what one does in the privacy of their own homes between consenting adults is one thing. Deciding to kill an un born child is quite another. However, to ascribe Constitutional protections that flow from the Natural Law and not to it for these un Natural acts and link them to the concept of Liberty is reprobate and ludicrous at best.

    1. It doesn’t matter how many words are written. Homophobic is homophobic. You try to use history and religion to justify your bigotry of other groups that are not like you.

      Your religious beliefs dictate your partisan political beliefs.

      1. Essentially what he said was that what consenting adults do behind closed doors is their business, no matter how revolting it might be to society generally.

    2. Ho hum, same old stuff justifying your own bigotry. I must, however, point out your glaring error regarding Cicero.

      He died in 43 BC in the last years of the Republic not Empire. The Roman Empire did not begin until the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR) made Octavian princips in 27 BC and gave him the name Augustus.

      I say that Cicero died but that is putting it too mildly. He was actually brutally murdered during one of Rome’s various proscriptions. These were episodes when roaming bands of thugs were allowed to kill anyone the Roman Senate did not like.

      Cicero’s assasins found him at his villa in Formiae where he was preparing to flee to Macedonia. Cicero was killed and then his head and hands were cut off. These were then nailed on the rosta in the Roman Forum as a warning to others.

      To add insult to injury, Mark Anthony’s wife Fulvia took Cicero’s head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in final revenge against Cicero’s power of speech.

    3. Well said, can’t we just leave each other alone to live life like we chose, I share my private life with person, no other needed!

  4. When do we start holding the “freedom for straight white males caucus” accountable for the fact that the national covid death rate is 1 for every 380 while the toll in Wyoming is 1 in 250. In other words, nearly 600 Wyomingites died because these people value their perceived freedom more than their civic responsibility.

  5. Many interesting comments .. What is missing however is the core issue of the Wyoming voter. It appears that the legislature is a reflection of the predominate Wyoming political and social culture. A reflection or microcosm of a far greater failure symptomatic of a nation in social decline. Clearly evidenced by the effort to take away rights that do not coincide with the positions a large swath of the poorly educated, poorly socialized, and cultified electorate.

  6. As I read this nonsense, I had to laugh just a bit. Seems like the author has a problem with the way people in Wyoming vote. He obviously forgets that the people voted these folks in probably because they liked their ideas. I guess he would be happy if he had the power to vacate the Wyoming citizen’s vote. I call it hypocrisy.

    1. Somehow, they don’t seem to understand that reps and senators are there to represent their constituents. What a novel idea. Cheney stopped representing her constituents, so we got rid of her. The lib’s in the house and senate don’t understand their responsibilities. Chip Neiman has town halls, and asks his constituents what they want him to do. How many town halls has your senator or rep had??

  7. I guess the only way Wyoming people will truly have a voice, is if they decide to take Wyoming back. The Process is simple already in place under W.S 22-4-402.
    Form a Third party along with meeting the boundaries written in the Law already on the books. It is a petition approved by the States Election’s office, before releasing. Then approved before the June 2024. I’m working on it as this opportunity I feel is the only way all Wyoming people could once again believe in a State Vote for our State hood we once had not nationalized agendas.

  8. Hypocrisy… “We’re Going to Strip Away So Many Personal Freedoms You Won’t Realize What’s Happening Until They’re Gone Caucus.” But taking away my personal freedom to decline to wear a worthless mask or take a vaccine with more adverse effects than all vaccines in history combined is just fine with you!

  9. We need more of what Rep Chip Neiman stands for… but as usual the WyoFile hypocrites always support moving further liberal but never further conservative. Different day same story… demonize conservative values.

    1. If WyoFile so obviously annoys you, then why read it? Fox Propaganda Channel annoys me so I don’t watch it, but it has to be intact or Freedom of the Press is threatened.

    2. What are “conservative values” that “liberals” are “demonizing”?
      What is the definition of “freedom” according to the Freedom Caucus?

  10. The Freedom Caucus – No other word than “frightening.” In its philosophies and power-mongering. I “never thought I’d see the day…”

  11. Whoopee!! At long last we have elected some real Republicans. I can readily see that Drake is a liberal extremist in everything he condemns, like mandatory masks, mandatory vaccines, etc. The very word “mandatory” is one that dictators love; one that takes away freedom and independence; the right to live life as you choose. Go away Drake and take your socialist dictators with you.

  12. I suppose we must wait for this crowd to wreck the place before state voters will see the “Freedom Caucus” is not just anti-government but anti-community and driven to take us to some imaginary past where everyone agrees with them.

  13. As I read Kerry’s observations in the column I was reminded of this op-ed from this past Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch … in this case, how will the “responsible adults” in the legislature child-proof the body in preparation for the coming session?

    https://www.stltoday.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-congress-needs-some-toddler-proofing-before-the-gop-house-majority-takes-power/article_12a62e41-0606-5d53-97e0-d9dd2ce3475d.html?fbclid=IwAR1Q6e1Y8MVPVNm3NvN4owg67KAyunlxdM9f_I82JSr5eKSgpHqOuLGc9b0

  14. The Wyoming Republican Party has become a party of extremists, political and historical illiterates, insurrection-supporting, government-hating loonies, MAGAbillies and Trumpflunkies. They think that masks and vaccinations are more dangerous than concealed firearms and science more questionable than religious fundamentalism. There is no longer any “mainstream” Republican Party because the reasonable adults, even highly ideological conservatives like the admirable Cale Case, are subject to censure for not kow-towing to the extremists. Wyoming has gotten what it has voted for: a political freak show worthy of other backwards places like Mississippi and Alabama.

    1. I agree, but I do wonder what the Wyoming Republican Party actually is. Is it the members of the state central committee, or is it the rank and file voter? I suspect that the average conservative voter in Wyoming is not paying much attention to the nitty gritty of the party process. This lack of attention allows the radicals to come to power. Then these few, essentially unelected, members of the party apparatus hold hostage members of the legislature, who are elected.

  15. When the Congressional Freedom Caucus was created over a decade ago, I started calling it the Freedom Carcass, which is a far more accurate appellation. We’ve got a lot of work to do to bury it.

    1. I know some folks in Wyoming that seem to be proficient in critical thinking and ambitious enough to do fact-checking before deciding which politicians support. You will win in the end as all the others will eventually cancel each other out with their diverse and unsubstantiated logic. Truth wins in the end, just takes time.