It’s been a superlative year for Wyoming politics with party operatives and elected officials vying hard for best and worst behaved.
Last week’s meeting of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in Cheyenne, however, looks poised to take the cake for spanning the laudable and laughably inane ends of the political-practice spectrum in a single confab.
It’s worth noting at the outset that laudable carried the day, and thank God for that.
Wyoming Republicans’ perpetual infighting — despite holding every major office in the state — is a riveting spectator sport for Democrats like me. In this bout, the integrity of the state’s elections was unfairly attacked by many in the GOP.
For pure legislative drama, the meeting had it all: revenge-motivated demands, recriminations, defiance, anger and apologies.
But the coup de gras was a devastating defense of Wyoming’s elections system delivered by someone on the front lines: Crook County Clerk Linda Fritz, a Republican.
Why was Fritz’s testimonial smackdown necessary? Because her party’s leaders and a few of its legislators have lost touch with reality. Somebody had to pull the pin on a truth grenade.
In a traditional campaign, Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney would breeze to a fourth term in 2022. But when she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, party operatives censured her, some called for her resignation and nearly all decided she had to go. Loyalty to conscience and Constitution over party and propaganda is not to be tolerated.
Cheney brushed the criticism aside, but like the GOP’s elephant symbol, state party leaders aren’t about to forget her “betrayal.” They know she’s vulnerable in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, but are keenly aware that she may retain her seat all the same. A crowded primary race would almost certainly work in her favor.
The Wyoming Republican Party fully expects the large field (nine challengers and probably more to come) to split the vote. It could give Cheney the nomination despite not getting a majority of votes. Funny, party officials didn’t bat an eye when she won the 2016 primary with 40%.
But now that the rules of the game don’t suit their aims, they want to change the rules. Lying about the integrity of the old system — the system that Republicans have dominated and benefitted from for generations — is part of how they plan to accomplish those changes.
With the state GOP’s blessing, Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) sponsored Senate File 145-Election runoffs during the last session. The bill would have established a primary runoff system, with the top two candidates squaring off if neither reached 50%.
Donald Trump Jr. quickly endorsed the measure, but it died by a single vote in the Senate. The state party picked up the baton and passed a resolution to create a runoff system in time for next year’s congressional primary.
It’s not going to happen. The Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office told the Corporations panel it would require a constitutional amendment, a process that can take years. Even if it was constitutional, the requisite redistricting process prompted by the U.S. Census takes a full year, leaving county clerks zero bandwidth for implementing a new system by August 2022.
Fritz said she explained that to freshman Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), who, as the GOP leaders’ errand boy, sent all committee members a pledge to back a runoff bill.
When the panel met in Cheyenne on June 7, the move blew up in Neiman’s face.
No one was happy that another legislator put them in the middle of the political mess. But Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), committee co-chairman, was the most visibly upset.
“I’m pretty angry,” Driskill, who didn’t sign the pledge, told Neiman. “I caught a lot of heat, just like everyone else. … I’ll be danged if I’m going to be shoved into a corner by some group, or particularly, by a colleague of mine.”
Neiman said he was merely trying to gauge support for the concept.
“It was not a pledge to try and see what kind of a litmus test you could put on there,” he said. “You could or couldn’t sign it. Nobody cared whether you did or didn’t.”
Hogwash. The pledge was an unmistakable ultimatum: Show your support for the election system we want, or you will pay the price.
“It did come off as a litmus test. And it does matter whether you signed it,” retorted Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander). He said his county Republican chairwoman came down hard on him for not signing the pledge. Voters, he added, would not understand that a runoff system is unconstitutional.
Driskill reminded Neiman that his responsibilities as a legislator supersede his commitment to some club, cabal or group.
All kinds of groups pressure lawmakers to “pledge” to vote a certain way on bills, especially for abortion, gun rights and “no new taxes — ever.” Such pledges are usually demanded before such legislation even exists and, if honored, bind a lawmakers hands, preventing him or her from considering the nuances of a given bill, or the complex needs of a given situation.
Case in point: Neiman’s pledge left no room to weigh the enormous cost of a runoff system, an additional $1.1 million per election.
Rep. Shelly Duncan (R-Lingle) signed Neiman’s pledge only to regret it. She apologized to the committee for what she called her “lack of integrity.”
Duncan said she signed under duress. “I had someone literally almost in my face waving it, saying, ‘Why won’t you sign it?’” she said.
Neiman remained unbowed. “As far as pressure being put on, what you’re seeing is real frustration from folks back home,” he said. “If there’s someone up in your face waving [the pledge], there’s a reason.”
The pledge fiasco aside, Neiman made an even bigger mistake when he alleged in his email to lawmakers that his constituents believe Wyoming’s elections lack integrity, despite the fact that election fraud is exceedingly rare in Wyoming.
Fritz issued a stinging rebuke to Neiman, whose email she said was “frustrating and insulting” to county clerks. She was even applauded, which is rare at a legislative meeting.
She said the 23 county clerks “have worked our tails off to make sure that you have good elections.”. Fritz said Neiman’s actions were uncalled for and unprofessional. She feels sorry for legislators who will now likely be smeared as RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — for refusing to sign.
“We have not heard one single, solitary, substantiated complaint that we have done something wrong,” Fritz said. “So until we hear that, I think the legislative body really needs to consider what laws you pass to correct something that isn’t wrong.”
The Corporations committee voted to draft separate bills for an open primary system and ranked-choice elections and table the runoff issue.
Neiman exposed his real motivation when he described “a real angst in the country about the potential for what could happen in our upcoming Wyoming Republican primary.
“Will we have the representation that the people of Wyoming truly want?” Nieman asked.
Questioning the integrity of Wyoming’s elections is just a smokescreen, in line with “the big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. State GOP officials are determined to defeat Cheney at all costs — even if it means besmirching hard-working election officials and threatening legislators from their own party.
As the former president they have pledged undying loyalty to might say: Sad.
I hope there’s no retribution for committee members who refused to succumb. They collectively stood up to the GOP power brokers and should be commended.