Following a contentious 2022 legislative session, some worried potential candidates are not running to avoid death threats and vitriol.
About a quarter of legislative races in Wyoming’s 2022 election are likely to be decided by default, instead of voters.
According to list of candidates released May 27 by the Wyoming Secretary of State. Some 56, meanwhile, have at least two candidates running.
Fifty-three of the 78 State House and Senate races are currently expected to be determined by primary elections, as only Republicans are in the running.
Some races will likely see additional candidates in the general election, as candidates from independent and minor parties have until August to file their candidacy. At least two are expected – incumbent Rep. Marshall Burt (L-Green River) and Bob Strobel, who plans to run for a seat vacated by the retirement of Rep. Jim Roscoe (I-Wilson).
Some races are crowded, but most are not, and Wyoming politicians say there are several reasons for that. Long-standing barriers such as financial and time constraints prevent some from running for the state’s citizen legislature. And more recently, the increasingly hostile political climate in the state Capitol and beyond could erect new hurdles, according to some people involved in recruiting candidates.
“You always expose yourself to intense scrutiny […] but it seems now people are, for lack of a better term, meaner,” said Joe Barbuto, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party.
It’s not just a vitriolic spirit that keeps some away, but an added concern for personal safety; at least three lawmakers faced death threats during the 2022 budget session. That’s changing the conversation in Wyoming about who’s ready to run, according to Barbuto and others.
“This cycle, it’s more concerning because they see what’s happening, and who wants it to happen themselves? Nobody,” Barbuto said.
Some say scarcity also contributes to anemic turnout — and it has for a long time in Wyoming.
“In the past there have been races where the members didn’t have an opponent and it’s just because there weren’t enough people ready to serve,” said Rep. John Bear ( R-Gillette).
Bear has worked to recruit candidates for open legislative seats in the past, mostly in his own county. He did not meet anyone who was reluctant to run for office because of the political climate, he said.
“But I can definitely relate to that. It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Bear said.
Before being elected in 2021, Bear said, raising a family and running a business kept him from running. He is now a member of the Wyoming House Freedom Caucus, who formed in 2020 to challenge moderate GOP leadership in the Legislature.
“Although their ranks are thin, they do not hesitate to stand up to the RINO [Republican in name only] in the Wyoming Legislature,” Bear said during his speech to former President Donald Trump’s Rally in Casper over Memorial Day weekend. He was one of three Wyoming lawmakers invited to deliver remarks at the event.
In 2020, the Wyoming House Freedom Caucus grew from six members to 18, according to Bear. Like the House Freedom Caucus in Washington, the group does not disclose its membership. While Bear is open about being part of the caucus, he said keeping membership slates secret is part of a strategy to influence other parts of the body in legislative negotiations.
Bear hopes the caucus can increase its membership in the 2022 election.
“Then these watchmen and women can stop the destructive bills that come from the left,” Bear said during his speech. “We might even convince the governor to pass good legislation.”
Bear will not be contested for his seat, as will other self-described true Conservative members of the House, including Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), Rep. Mark Jennings (R- Sheridan), Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody), and Rep. Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton).
Meanwhile, several of the House’s most conservative lawmakers have asked to move from the House to the Senate, including Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) who will challenge incumbent Senator Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower). Additionally, Rep. Robert Wharff (R-Evanston) will run against incumbent Senator Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston), while Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell) will challenge incumbent Senator RJ Kost (R-Powell).
House Speaker Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), whom Freedom Caucus members have targeted as a considered moderate, is running unopposed for the Senate seat left vacant by the retirement of Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R -Gillette).
Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) received hate emails during the session, he said, including at least one death threat from an anonymous Facebook account. Brown has been a vocal critic of Trump and is among the few lawmakers who publicly support U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). Despite some hesitation, Brown decided to seek re-election and now faces two Republican challengers, Dean Petersen and Alan Sheldon. Stephen Latham, a Democrat, has also applied to represent House District 9.
Like Brown, Rep. Andi LeBeau (D-Riverton) received a death threat, hers from another legislator, Representative John Romero-Martinez. LeBeau and Romero-Martinez will seek re-election. Former Democratic lawmaker Sara Burlingame will challenge Romero-Martinez for her former seat. She was also the subject of threats made by Romero-Martinez.
After having been censored by his own county party For supporting Medicaid expansion and writing an op-ed that criticized the state’s GOP party, incumbent Sen. Cale Case faces challenger Shawn Olmstead.
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) is also expected to face challengers.
“I was surprised” no one showed up to run for the seat, Hicks said. “especially after this session.”
During the 2022 budget session, Hicks received a deluge of angry emails, calls and text messagesmembers of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association. Many of these messages were threatening.
This came after Hicks sponsored a bill, which later became law, that prohibits state officials from enforcing federal gun regulations, with few exceptions. WyGO had a similar bill without exception and called Hicks’ version a “fake SAPA [Second Amendment protection act] legislation.”
One of the messages Hicks received promised to remove him from his post.
However, such an opportunity will not present itself unless a minor or independent candidate is filing for Senate District 11. The lack of WyGO-backed candidates in its run suggests the group is “pretty helpless” despite their chest punches, according to Hicks.
“WyGO is being shown that they just don’t have the influence they think they have,” Hicks said.
WyGo did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.
By the numbers
It’s not uncommon for a score of lawmakers to go unchallenged in Wyoming, at least in the past decade. It is also quite common not to have a Democratic candidate for more than half of legislative elections. This year, this non-democratic party represents 66% of the seats in the Senate and the House in the election.
While the 2022 numbers don’t represent a major shift, the behind-the-scenes machinations point to a troubling change, according to Laramie County Democratic Party Chairman Ben Rowland.
“My experience this cycle was that people were more reluctant to run for office than they have been in previous cycles,” Rowland said.
Concerns about personal safety weigh more heavily in the conversations Rowland has with candidates about running for office. Rowland said it has to do with volatility in national and statewide politics, as well as bullying tactics used by groups such as WyGO. By encouraging its members to harass otherssaid Rowland, WyGo discourages people who don’t completely align themselves politically with the group from running for office.
“It keeps a lot of very qualified candidates on the sidelines – people who have a lot of value to offer Wyoming, but who, in some ways, are afraid of its politics, and […] they fear for themselves,” Rowland said.
Rowland also encountered many people in his recruiting efforts who were typically politically exhausted.
Many spoke of “that feeling of being frankly wiped out, putting in a lot of effort on a regular basis, and seeing very little results in our Wyoming legislature,” Rowland said.
The state is reaching a breaking point, according to President Barbuto. Wyoming was once isolated from the uglier parts of politics, but not so much now, Barbuto said.
“It’s hard to be part of the process as an elected official or even as an activist helping campaigns or even as a voter for that matter,” he said. “It just makes it ugly and difficult, and not worth it,” he said.
There is a noticeable difference in the list of candidates for the primary election. A single legislative race will not have a Republican candidate on the ballot.
This particular race is for House District 45, which is currently represented by Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) who is seeking re-election.
The Wyoming GOP Party did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment on its recruitment strategy for this election cycle.
Independent candidates and candidates from minor parties may also begin to enter the race. Burt, the only Libertarian lawmaker, announced his intention to seek re-election on his Facebook page.
After serving since 2009, Representative Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie), Minority Floor Leader, will retire. Democrat Ken Chestek will run for his seat against Republican Wayne Pinch. Rep. Jim Roscoe (I-Wilson), the only independent lawmaker in the Legislative Assembly, will also forgo a return. The number of uncontested seats worries Roscoe, who said it’s important voters have a choice.
“It just seems like there’s an opportunity for somebody, that if they know somebody’s unchallenged, they could step in,” he said.
Independent candidates have until August 29 to file their case, while candidates from minor parties have until August 15.
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on the people, places, and politics of Wyoming.