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.
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.