Who needs a primary election? The Wyoming Republican Party’s insiders look like they’ve already picked the winners and losers.
Voters always have the final say, though, and the GOP’s leadership may not like who they select in two weeks to be the party’s nominees for the general election in November.
The party could respond by withholding financial support from the campaigns of any victorious “Republicans in name only,” or RINOs, but handicapping their nominees over ideology doesn’t sound like a really smart political move.
Based on how the party’s power brokers are acting in the run-up to the Aug. 16 primary, I bet they do it anyway. Republican Chairman Frank Eathorne and other party officers and staff actively participated in a July 22 “Save Wyoming” rally in Lander that invited only a single candidate in each race to speak.
That kind of party favoritism toward a candidate in any primary race violates long-standing tradition and even the most rudimentary sense of fair play. If and when material support is involved, it also violates state law: “No political party funds shall be expended directly or indirectly in aid of the nomination of any one person against another person of the same political party running in the primary election.”
Karen Wetzel, co-organizer of the 10-hour Lander shindig, told WyoFile the rally was not an official state Republican event. It wasn’t billed as such, but I can easily see disenchanted candidates who weren’t invited doing some digging to find out if any party funds were spent “directly or indirectly” putting it on. For example, were party officials like Eathorne reimbursed for attending?
Even if the rally didn’t technically violate the election code, it certainly wasn’t in the spirit of the law. The party didn’t even invite some of its own officeholders who are running for re-election, including several incumbent lawmakers. Sen. Cale Case and Rep. Lloyd Larsen — who wouldn’t have been hard to track down, since they both represent the host city — were among the outcasts.
In most states, the governor is considered the head of whatever party he belongs to. But Gov. Mark Gordon wasn’t given the courtesy of being asked to speak; that honor went to one of his three primary opponents, Brent Bien.
Apparently Republicans who want to “save Wyoming” still hold a grudge against Gordon for defeating party favorites Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman in the 2018 primary. They blame Democrats who switched parties, even though not enough crossed over to decide the winner. After four years in office, can’t they bury the hatchet somewhere besides the governor’s back?
The Wyoming GOP censured U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney last year and symbolically kicked her out of the state party for voting to impeach former President Donald Trump, so it’s no surprise she wasn’t one of the honored guests. But there’s no doubt the Republican leadership anointed Hageman as Cheney’s successor immediately after she was endorsed by Trump.
Why else would the other three Republican congressional candidates — state Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne, Sheridan businesswoman Robyn Belinskey and former Army Col. Denton Knapp of Gillette — not be allowed to make their respective pitches to the Lander crowd?
“It ought to be open to all of us, is the bottom line,” Knapp told WyoFile reporter Mike Koshmrl. “I believe there was party involvement.”
Cheney has ridiculously been labeled a RINO by her party, even though she voted for Trump’s position 93% of the time during his tenure. Bouchard, Knapp and Belinskey, though, are at least as conservative as Hageman. Why are they treated as second-class candidates who don’t deserve to share the stage with her?
It’s a rhetorical question. The Republican Party is worried about two things, and one of them is that the trio will slice into Hageman’s vote total enough to open the door for a Cheney upset.
And if that happens, it makes the GOP’s second fear — a massive party switch by Wyoming Democrats to vote for Cheney in the primary — a legitimate concern.
What should be even more of a worry for party leaders is the possibility many of the members they like to denigrate as RINOs aren’t going to play along with the do-as-your-party-overlords-tell-you plan to bounce Cheney from Congress.
A recent Casper Star-Tribune poll indicates Hageman has a 22-point lead over Cheney among likely primary voters. But what if more moderate Republicans than expected — who admire the incumbent’s courage to oppose Trump at the risk of losing her job — actually show up at the polls?
As I wrote in last week’s column, it’s unlikely all the factors that must line up in Cheney’s favor for her to win — strong Democratic turnout, other rivals taking votes away from Hageman, and a positive shift in Republicans’ attitudes about Cheney’s opposition to Trump — will coalesce.
But it doesn’t take a Cheney victory to rain on the state GOP’s parade. Longtime Wyoming newsman and former Friess campaign advisor Bill Sniffin noted in a column last week that a heavy influx of Democrats switching parties could help determine the winner in at least two other important state races.
Sniffin, who lost the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary, estimated at least 15,000 Democrats and independents may cross over to vote for Cheney. That still might not be enough to keep the congresswoman in office.
But Sniffin stressed having so many votes added to the secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction contests could propel two moderate candidates to victory.
I agree with his assessment, particularly because none of the candidates have run a statewide campaign and their loyalty to Trump is not the central issue in either race, which are both likely to be close.
SPI Brian Schroeder is technically an incumbent, but he’s never been elected to any Wyoming office. Gordon appointed the former head of a Cody Christian school as superintendent earlier this year following the resignation of Jillian Balow. Schroeder’s main rival is Megan Degenfelder, who worked for Balow.
Ed Buchanan chose not to run for reelection as secretary of state — he’d rather be a judge — leaving the primary wide open between two current legislators: Rep. Chuck Gray of Casper and Sen. Tara Nethercott of Cheyenne.
Schroeder and Gray lean so far to the right they were naturally on the Save Wyoming rally speakers’ list. Degenfelder and Nethercott — neither of whom could be called RINOs — were on the outside looking in at the party-attended rally.
I’m sure Schroeder and Gray would like to ride Hageman’s coattails, but it won’t necessarily happen. Degenfeder is essentially a surrogate of Balow, who won two terms as SPI, the last one unopposed.
Nethercott, meanwhile, is someone who would continue to run the secretary of state’s office much in the style of Buchanan, who easily won his only SOS contest. Unlike Gray, who continues to trade on debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud, Nethercott takes Buchanan’s position that the state does an excellent job running its elections.
Gray and Schroeder both fit the mold of candidates Wyoming Republican Party executives would love to see in state office. But if either of the elections don’t turn out that way, the state GOP will again blame Democrats.
However, the real culprit would be Republican leaders whose pillorying of Cheney to please Trump will be what led to so many crossover voters. And that nightmarish scenario for them could even get worse if Democrats and independents are responsible for some conservative losses in state races like the secretary of state and the top schools chief.
So, if you hear “Et tu, Liz?” coming from Republican state headquarters, feel free to chuckle.