What’s at stake in the Wyoming Republican Party’s election of officers in Jackson Saturday? Just the future of a confounding political organization that is increasingly awful at uniting its members.
The dysfunctional nature of the state GOP is largely the result of years of leadership by far-right Chairman Frank Eathorne. Eathorne, a Douglas rancher, was elevated to the position in 2017 when the party’s then-chairman unexpectedly resigned. Now he’s running for an unprecedented third full term.
Unopposed two years ago, Eathorne now faces a challenger, former Converse County state legislator Frank Moore, who promises to bring “traditional” conservatives back in the fold.
Even Wyomingites who have been registered Republicans for decades today find themselves shunned by party leaders if they don’t support at least 80% of the state GOP platform. That platform purports to protect individual rights while simultaneously pushing a Christian Nationalist agenda that violates women’s bodily autonomy and tells people who they can and cannot marry. If that’s not government overreach then I don’t know what is.
Those who question the hypocrisy are derisively branded “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — and Eathorne wants them gone.
The Republican “big tent” championed by former President Ronald Reagan is so torn and tattered in Wyoming, Eathorne has washed his hands of it. The chairman doesn’t need everyone on board after he’s carved out so much power by relentlessly pushing an alt-right agenda that opposes abortion, bullies the LGBTQ community and wants to ban books, rewrite racial history and spit at the federal government.
However, Eathorne may need at least a few of those RINOs he’s bashed to vote to keep him as chairman, since moderate members won a surprising number of GOP Central Committee seats in March. Come Saturday, there will be only 69 voters: the county chair, committeeman and committeewoman from each of the 23 counties.
Eathorne’s power base, which he’s built up over the last decade, is in rural Wyoming. He’s still the favorite to win, even though he angered party members in the two largest counties, Laramie and Natrona, by drastically reducing their share of delegates to state conventions because of rules disputes and their failure to pay dues. They only have six votes combined in the election of officers.
Moore, a 70-year-old sheep rancher who left the Legislature in 1996 to pursue his business goals, hasn’t been involved in state party politics for many years. Moore’s conservative credentials are well established and he says he supports the GOP platform “100%.” But given the divisive attitude of his opponent, Moore’s strength — his not-so-secret weapon — is that he’s nothing like Eathorne.
“I think I can bring this party back together,” Moore told Cowboy State Daily. “That’s really why I stuck my neck into this thing.”
Eathorne told the audience of a Casper campaign rally last year that he would “run through barbed wire” for Donald Trump, and I believe him. Eathorne did everything he could in 2020 to give the former president his biggest margin of victory in any state.
No matter what else happens in Eathorne’s career, helping Trump defeat his most despised rival in 2022 will be what he is most remembered for. At both the state and national levels, he orchestrated the censure of former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) for voting to impeach Trump for inciting a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Eathorne, who worked with Harriet Hageman when she was Wyoming’s national committeewoman, was one of her major boosters. He recommended her to Trump, whose enthusiastic endorsement plus the frenzied voter backlash against Cheney carried the Cheyenne attorney to a landslide win to become Wyoming’s new congresswoman.
But Eathorne is also infamously connected to Trump for supporting his attempted coup to stay in power. Eathorne was outside the Capitol during the insurrection, and his role was much different than his initial explanation to the public.
After the unprecedented attack on America’s symbol of democracy, where about 140 Capitol and metropolitan police officers were injured and several people died, Eathorne released a statement. “No violence or property damage was observed during my time there including a brief stop in the vicinity of the Capitol,” he wrote.
Who does he think he’s fooling? In May 2022, NBC News reported it had reviewed images and videos collected by a group called “Sedition Hunters,” and agreed with the whistleblowers that Eathorne was part of a mob that spent at least two hours in a restricted area outside the Capitol beyond several police barricades.
Two hours isn’t a brief stop. Though Eathorne didn’t enter the Capitol and has not been charged with any crime, if he thought his actions were patriotic, why didn’t he brag about the incident instead of sneakily trying to conceal his participation?
Another whistleblower group claims Eathorne is a member of a militant organization, the “Oath Keepers,” whose leader was convicted of sedition for helping organize the Jan. 6 attempt to prevent the peaceful transition of power. Eathorne has described himself as a “passive member” of the group. He apparently can’t bring himself to denounce them, no matter what havoc they wreaked.
At any time prior to the Trump era, the state GOP chairman cheering on insurrectionists would probably lead to his ouster, but not in today’s Wyoming Republican Party. Many members here and throughout the country either view the rioters as patriots or falsely pin the violence on either left-wing protesters or the FBI.
Eathorne’s tenure has resulted in several lawsuits and greatly diminished the party’s ability to raise funds for its candidates. But in a state where all it takes to win most contests is an “R” behind a candidate’s name, Republicans wholly dominate federal, state and local politics.
In addition to holding all three congressional seats and every statewide office, Republicans comprise 93% of the Legislature. Eathorne recently told a “Wyoming Is Right” conservative talk radio show that the upcoming party elections may spark a “red wave” here next year. How can the state get much redder, unless he drives every single RINO out?
That might be his goal, but his successful effort to ban “crossover” voting in primaries could cause it to backfire. Democrats who registered as Republicans to vote for Cheney are now less likely to switch back, and Eathorne’s biggest fear, that a few more moderate GOP candidates are nominated in close primaries, may actually come to pass.
The stakes are high for Eathorne’s possible re-election. As GOP chairman, he’ll help get more far-right Wyoming Freedom Caucus members in House seats. With 26 members out of 62 representatives, they only need six more to take control of the chamber.
That’s a far scarier threat to Wyoming politics than any I can recall. If you think the Legislature wasted too much time this year debating hot-button social issues that don’t even affect Wyoming, buckle up for the horror show that will ensue with that majority.