LANDER—For motorcycle shop owner and political candidate Jeff Martin, inside-out day at his granddaughter’s elementary school was a bridge too far. 

Tags are supposed to go on the inside of shirts, the 64-year-old Fremont County resident said. For Martin, the spirit-day activity celebrated in schools across the country was a sign that Wyoming is going off the rails and cause to throw a rally for what he considers true conservatives from across Wyoming. 

“Inside-out day was part of it, the things going on in our schools,” Martin said of the provenance of last week’s Save Wyoming rally. “We teach our kids to wake up in the morning on time, get to the kitchen table, get some breakfast. We teach them to dress properly, put their shoes on the right feet and get to school. So what’s changed? What is going on?” 

Martin decided to run for office and is challenging Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) to represent the residents of Wyoming House District 54. He made the announcement Friday at the onset of the all-day Save Wyoming rally he’d organized with fellow Lander resident Karen Wetzel. Four dozen other speakers and performers joined Martin and Wetzel — a mix of political candidates, former officeholders and state and county GOP officials. Organizers said they assembled the roster of speakers organically, through their own research. 

“There weren’t any particular criteria,” Wetzel said. “We asked people that we like.” 

Fremont County residents listen to political candidate speeches at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

But observers and one of the speakers agreed that the invitees all had something in common: They were in the good graces of the Wyoming Republican Party. 

That list starts with Harriet Hageman, a Cheyenne attorney who was picked by Donald Trump to challenge U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney in the Aug. 16 primary election. Other notable names making the cut included Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), who’s vying to be the next secretary of state and Brent Bien, one of the four candidates challenging Republican Gov. Mark Gordon. 

Typically the Wyoming Republican Party does not endorse candidates before the primary, and state statute prohibits political parties from financially supporting — directly or indirectly — “the nomination of any one person against another person of the same political party running in the primary election.” 

Wetzel made clear the rally was not an official GOP event, but absences at the Save Wyoming rally spoke to the fractured state of the party. Gov. Gordon, State Sen. and secretary of state candidate Tara Nethercott of Cheyenne, U.S. Rep. Cheney, Lander’s sitting lawmakers Sen. Cale Case and Rep. Larsen and numerous other Republican incumbents seeking reelection were left off the invitation list. 

The notable omissions all shared something else in common: Each had been accused by their party or party surrogates at some point of failing to toe the party line.

The outcasts 

“There’s some big heavy infighting going on,” said Rep. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston), who’s challenging Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) for her seat in the upper chamber. “The conservatives are fighting and there’s been a fracturing in the conservative element.” 

Wharff wasn’t asked to attend the Save Wyoming rally, though he said he wouldn’t have gone anyway because it would have detracted from campaigning. 

“There’s some big heavy infighting going on. The conservatives are fighting and there’s been a fracturing in the conservative element.”

Rep. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston)

Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) and Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), who are also seeking to hop from the Wyoming House to the Senate, were also not present at the rally. According to a report in the Cowboy State Daily, they had a recent falling out with the Wyoming House Freedom Caucus — a bloc of representatives that aims to disrupt what they describe as moderate control of the Wyoming House. 

An official allegiance between the Save Wyoming rally attendees and Freedom Caucus is unclear — the latter group has declined to make its membership public, though individual representatives often self-identify —  but there’s certainly ideological overlap. And yet right-wing bona fides alone weren’t enough to secure an invite. 

Also missing was staunch Second Amendment supporter Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), who’s running against Cheney and Hageman and lesser-known U.S. House candidates Denton Knapp and Robyn Belinskey. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Brent Bien speaks at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Knapp, a former Army infantry officer from Gillette, said he wasn’t invited to speak at the Lander event. Only one candidate for any given seat, whether in the Legislature, statewide office or for U.S. Congress, was present at the event. 

“It ought to be open to all of us, is the bottom line,” Knapp said of the rally. “I believe there was party involvement.” 

The Wyoming Republican Party fundraised at the event, with Chairman Frank Eathorne cowboy-style auctioning off some “Trump Country”-branded cowboy hats that were leftover from the former president’s May rally in Casper. Fremont County Republican Party Chairwoman Ginger Bennett was explicit, and said that none of the money raised would go to any candidates present. 

But to Knapp’s eye, a common element among the speakers at the Save Wyoming rally was non-financial support from the Wyoming GOP ahead of the primary election. 

“The Wyoming Republican Party and the [Republican] National Committee made their choice — Harriet Hageman — over a year ago,” he said. “If you look at state statute, it says the state political party cannot monetarily support a candidate from the same party [before the primary], directly or indirectly.”

Sen. Case is another Republican lawmaker who’s on the outs with his county party, and who was not invited to Save Wyoming. The snub was no surprise, he said, and party involvement was clear. 

“It seems like a Republican event when you have the chairman of the party and the executive director of the party and precinct people — a committeeman and woman and the local chairman…” Case said. “All the party people are going, they’re not being neutral. State law has a lot to say about that.” 

It violates the “spirit of the law,” he said, for Republican Party officials to attend an event that excludes candidates of their own party before the primary.

La Barge resident Mike Schmid, who’s challenging fellow Republican, Rep. Albert Sommers in Wyoming House District 20, speaks at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Case considered attending and having a “counter presence,” but thought better of it. The 30-year Wyoming Legislature veteran and member of Cheney’s leadership team worried his presence would be “inflammatory” among the crowd and he disliked the optics of going.

“I would hate for people to think that I associated myself with the thinking of that group, because I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t think the election was stolen. I’m not a supporter of Donald Trump … I believe in Medicaid expansion. I think there’s a purpose for government.” 

Rift in action 

During the rally, lawmakers perceived as the moderate establishment were cast as a scourge. La Barge oilman Mike Schmid, who’s challenging Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) for House District 20, described Cheney, Gordon and his opponent as “part-time” conservatives who use “disguise politics” to win elections. 

“These are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Schmid said, “and this country needs some shepherds to come and save the herd.” 

Divisions among the self-styled conservative bloc were also on display. 

Bear River resident Lyle Williams, who lost a bid for Senate District 14 in 2020, scolded the Wyoming Legislature for its disciplinary action against Bouchard during last winter’s budget session. He also wasn’t fond of divisions within the party. 

“To have a conservative on the outs with other conservatives is wrong,” Williams said. 

Uinta County resident and former Wyoming House and Senate candidate Lyle Williams listens to speeches at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

One source of Bouchard and Wharff’s beef with other party factions revolves around competing gun bills. Mark Jones, the national hunter outreach director with the Gun Owners of America, spoke favorably about a version of the Second American Protection Act bill that was supported by the GOP and signed into law, contending the legislation was the target of a misinformation campaign from lawmakers who were jaded that their own competing bill failed. 

“I heard a speaker get up here earlier tonight and say, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ I’m gonna tell you why we haven’t been able to get along,” Jones told the Save Wyoming crowd. “The reason we don’t seem to be able to get along is the folks that push the other bill that failed have been unwilling to let it go.”

Wharff, among those who backed the failed Senate File 87 – Second Amendment Preservation Act, agreed that the fracture “really comes down to” the gun bill drama.

‘A let down’ 

For most of the 10-hour event, the Save Wyoming rally didn’t attract much of a crowd. There were roughly as many public attendees at any one time as there were politicians and candidates invited to speak. 

Lander resident Mike Ockinga showed up early in the day and was “all pumped up” for the event. But within a few hours, he lost interest. Organizers intermixed the candidates speeches with entertainment, including a comedian and music, and he felt those were time-wasters.

“I shouldn’t be so critical, but to me this is a let-down,” Ockinga said. “I’m basically here now to hear Harriet Hageman.” 

Lander resident Mike Ockinga, pictured, intended to attend all of the Save Wyoming rally, but left after a few hours because he lost interest. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

By mid-evening, chairs began to fill ahead of Hageman’s remarks. Former state representative Marti Halverson, who emceed the event, introduced her as “our congresswoman.” 

Although the primary election is still three weeks away, there are indications that Hageman’s poised to dislodge the incumbent Cheney from the seat she’s held since 2016. Results released last week from a Casper Star-Tribune poll that queried 1,100 registered Wyoming voters gives Hageman a 22-point edge, with just 11% of voters remaining undecided. 

On stage, Hageman pushed attendees to educate themselves and get out to vote, railed against party switching to vote and promptly launched into a familiar stump speech motif about being “fed up.” 

“We’re fed up with the January 6 committee,” Hageman said. “We’re fed up with a certain person who wraps herself in the Constitution, but has no regard for fairness, due process or equal protection.”

Of course, the person she alluded to was Cheney, who co-chaired the eighth hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. the night before. 

In her closing remarks for the last hearing until September, Cheney thanked the dozens of witnesses who testified about fellow Republican Trump’s role in inciting a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol. 

“The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies,” Cheney said. “It is instead a series of confessions by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years and his own family.” 

By and large, those witnesses were all Republicans.

Mike Koshmrl

Mike Koshmrl reports from Jackson on state politics and Wyoming's natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures...

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  1. These Trump supporters should let us know their feelings about Putin. Are they as supportive of him as Trump is? Do they support America’s military assistance to Ukraine in their fight against Russia? Trump allowed Victor Orban to send Turkish military forces into Syria where they attacked the Kurds, who were the only allies we had left in Syria. Does that meet with their approval? These are important issues, but you are all quite silent. Speak up. What says ye?

  2. “I am more pure as a real conservative than you.” That’s the essence of the Wyoming Republican Party. The GOP will become ever more extreme, and dwindle in numbers.

  3. It is interesting that the lead title to this article uses “schism”. That word implies a permanent fracture. I don’t see it that way. I see people with different beliefs in the process of hopefully coming to a compromise. Obviously, the author of this article is not focused on that. Instead, he writes as though anyone who does not toe the current semi-left but not quite marxist view of how things should be, should be disregarded as to their thoughts. I think most folks who care about this state and this country are not racist, are not fascist, are not seeking to demean or hurt anyone, regardless of their beliefs. Articles like this do not help heal the divide we have.

    1. I am offering an apology to Mike Koshmrl for my attributing him to having a leftist slant to the article. Mike hunted me down and called my place of business today. I was very busy generating income so I can pay my employees, utilities, taxes etc. and one of the receptionists told me that there was a “reporter from Wyoming wanting to talk to me”. I ask her to get his phone number and I would call him back. Then I wondered why he called. So I re-read my comment. Then I re-read his article, 3 times. I then came to the realization that my attributing that Mike put a “leftist not quite marxist slant” in the article was untrue. I still believe that the Republicans should still be able to fight it out (maybe not to the point of duels), but Mike did a balanced article.
      I called him back and apologized. He did not call to confront me, but to see where I was coming from. I appreciate his “reporter” skills in finding me, but more importantly showing me that he is trying to do what real journalists do, and that is to report what he finds out. I wish him well, and hope that he continues to seek truth, beauty and goodness in what he has chosen to do with his life.

  4. It looks like Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment has been tossed into the political dumpster.

  5. This is too easy to predict.
    Eathorne and his RINO purity test acolytes (Gray and the other pro-Trumpers) will end up just like left’s current Wokesters: they will eat their own, turning on each other over time in the name of Who’s More Republican?
    This will be as fun to watch on the Right as is currently happening among progressives.

  6. Republicans have always had disagreements. But they kept it on a low boil so as to look united. Now, I’d say they are “airing dirty laundry.” The stench drives normal people away.

    1. My father and brother were republicans. My sister and I split our votes. The courage Trump’s staff demonstrated in sacrificing their own carreers to contradict Trump’s lies, gave me renewed hope for a GOP that supports democracy and our constitution. I still like IKE and during his presidency – bipartisanship was appreciated. Sigh.

        1. How about his lying about the election being stolen? I could go on, but you asked for only one instance… In truth, the monster rarely opens his mouth without having lies spew from it. It’s a way of life for him. About what one might expect from a child of wealth who’s been babbling nonsense since the 70s.

  7. So the impetus of this “rally” was because a gullible chrump worshiper took offense with his grandkids “inside out” day during school? Oh the horror!!! I’ll bet the fellow chrump lemmings really get upset at “crazy hair” day as well?

    I’m sure South Park couldn’t have come up with a more asinine premise than these chrump lemmings.

    You people need a get a grip. Offended over a school spirit day called “inside out” day is the epitome of being a delicate snowflake. If there was any attempt at self reflection by these people, they would understand how ridiculous they’ve become.

    But, there isn’t, and they won’t……..

  8. Let’s talk about Mike Schmid. An old story about his family and fairness. A couple came to La Barge and bought the only convenience store. It was doing well. Their son also moved to La Barge and was employed in law enforcement. He erred, he arrested one of the Schmid family members for a DUI. The family, largest employer in the area spread the word don’t shop at the couples store. They in turn opened their own store. The combination bankrupt the couple and of course the son was fired. Nice people and Mike is challenging one the best that we have in the state legislature

  9. I look to these comments for the wisdom and calm observations of folks like Michael Jay Krampner, who rarely if ever disappoints. Lived and worked in the greatness of Wyoming for 39 years, and very sad to see the movement of politics to QAnon.

    1. My model for social and political commentary is H.L. Mencken (at least as he was in the 1920s and early 1930s) who was unsparingly sharp in his commentaries about political foolishness. If you haven’t already, he is worth a read. I hope you are well and enjoying what you are doing now.

  10. These folks are not going to let any Marxist socialist communist RINOs like Cheney and Gordon I’m their party. No siree!

  11. Hageman is just Wyoming’s version of Marjorie Taylor-Greene with a slightly larger vocabulary. The rest of the Republican Party leadership looks like Qanon without the letter symbol on their shirts. That party has become a mish-mash of conspiracy theorists, extremists, and people angry that there are actually some mildly modern policies in America.

  12. “Indications” ? Yes – I would say a 22 lead in a poll by Haggeman is an “Indication”. 🙂

    Particularly with only 11% “undecided”.

    1. It’s sad. I’m sad for my home state. A republican politician displays courage, integrity and speaks the truth and her “party” wants to crucify her politically. This whole trump phenomenon is fascinating. How can so many otherwise sensible, decent folks get sucked in by a person who is so desperately challenged by the truth? Who attained wealth by not paying contractors, cheated on his wife while she was pregnant, lied to America about the pandemic until it had a foothold (“It will be gone by Easter”), discouraged wearing masks, cozies up with other totalitarian dictators who believe that a strongman sort of government is better than an American style democracy?

      Oh, there is so much more. I know, they won’t learn about all this on the favorite “news” outlet of the right, but I just hope enough of the decent people of Wyoming are paying attention to the findings of the bipartisan January 6 Commission and are learning what sort of person he and his enablers are that they idolize. The House is doing their job, now let’s just hope the DOJ does, also.

  13. It must have been a freak show with all the extremists, nut-jobs, conspiracy theorists and other denizens of the Qanon wing of the Wyoming Republican Party- chaired by an attendee at the criminal January 6, 2021 insurrection, Eathorne. Was Bob Ide, a Republican senate candidate who also reportedly attended the insurrectionist riot present too? These days the Wyoming Republican Party is too small to fill a city and too large to fit into just one insane asylum.

  14. We feel sorry for the press. They have nothing in their favorite Party to talk about. Biden? Kamala? Dr Jill? Inflation? Trashed energy and fuel prices? Now food?
    Bottom line is it’s great for Republicans to argue and clamor and make all kinds of noise about going right – to the core of America’s foundations. Just what the media hate.
    Wyoming conservatives of all stripes have had it with DC RINO’s like Cheney. And the interests or the state and our kids and loved ones are too important to bow down to the Obama “TRANSFORMATION”.
    The media hate Trump. Truly, who cares what they think. All the media have is wide distribution of their fraudulent beliefs. That is their ONLY power.
    Wyoming voters want clarity and consistency and decency. And for America to stay true to her Constitution and for elected officials to enforce those rules and stop allowing illegal actions.

    1. You would have to get rid of all the fools in this story for clarity, consistency and decency.

      1. Agree. These people think Trump, the rich pig woman-hater, represents them. Maybe he does. But “clarity, consistency and decency” are not on his list of virtues.