WYOMING -- About a quarter of legislative races in Wyoming’s 2022 election will likely be decided by default, instead of voters.
Twenty-two state House and Senate seats are set to go uncontested in both the August primary and November general elections, according to the candidate roster 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 slated to be determined by the primary election because only Republicans are running.
Some races will likely see additional candidates in the general election, as independent and minor party candidates have until August deadlines to file for office. At least two are expected — incumbent Rep. Marshall Burt, L-Green River, and Bob Strobel, who plans to run for a seat being vacated by the retirement of Rep. Jim Roscoe, I-Wilson.
Some races are crowded but most are not, and Wyoming politicos say there are several reasons why. Long standing barriers like financial and time constraints keep some from running for the state’s citizen Legislature. And more recently, the increasingly hostile political climate at the state Capitol and beyond may be erecting new hurdles, some of those involved with recruiting candidates say.
“You’re always opening yourself up to scrutiny […] but it feels like now, people are, for lack of a better term, meaner,” Joe Barbuto, Chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said.
It’s not simply a vitriolic spirit that’s keeping some sidelined, but an added concern over personal safety; at least three lawmakers were the subject of death threats during the 2022 budget session. That’s changing the conversation in Wyoming over who is willing to run, according to Barbuto and others.
“This cycle, that’s been more of a concern because they see what’s been happening, and who wants that to happen themselves? Nobody,” Barbuto said.
Some say scarcity also contributes to anemic participation — and long has in Wyoming.
“In the past, there have been races where members don’t have an opponent and it’s simply because there’s not enough people willing to serve,” Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, said.
Bear has worked to recruit candidates for open legislative seats in the past, mostly in his own county. He has not encountered anyone who was reluctant to run for office because of the political climate, he said.
“But I can certainly understand that. It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Bear said.
Before he was elected in 2021, Bear said, raising a family and running a business kept him from running. He’s now a member of the Wyoming House Freedom Caucus, which formed in 2020 to challenge moderate GOP leadership in the Legislature.
“Though their ranks are thin, they’re not shy about standing up to the RINOs [Republican in name only] in the Wyoming Legislature,” Bear said during his speech at former President Donald Trump’s rally in Casper over Memorial Day weekend. He was one of three Wyoming lawmakers asked to give 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 outspoken about being part of the caucus, he said keeping membership rolls secret is part of a strategy to sway other parts of the body in legislative negotiations.
Bear is hoping the caucus can grow its membership in the 2022 election.
“Then these watchmen and women will be able to stop the destructive bills that are coming from the left,” Bear said during his speech. “We might even convince the governor to pass some good legislation.”
Bear will go unchallenged for his seat, as will other self-described true conservative House members, 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 more conservative lawmakers filed to make the leap from the House to the Senate, including Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, who will challenge incumbent Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. Additionally, Rep. Robert Wharff, R-Evanston, will run against incumbent Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, while Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, will challenge incumbent Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell.
House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, who Freedom Caucus members have targeted as a considered moderate, is running unopposed for the Senate seat vacated by the retirement of Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette.
Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, received hateful emails during the session, he said, including at least one death threat from an anonymous Facebook account. Brown has been an outspoken critic of Trump and is among the few legislators who publicly support U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming. Despite some hesitancy, Brown decided to seek re-election and now faces two Republican challengers, Dean Petersen and Alan Sheldon. Stephen Latham, a Democrat, has also filed to represent House District 9.
Like Brown, Rep. Andi LeBeau, D-Riverton, received a death threat, hers from another lawmaker, Rep. John Romero-Martinez. Both LeBeau and Romero-Martinez will seek re-election. Former Democratic lawmaker Sara Burlingame will challenge Romero-Martinez for her old seat. She was also the subject of threats made by Romero-Martinez.
After being censured by his own county party for supporting Medicaid expansion and writing an op-ed that criticized the state GOP party, incumbent Sen. Cale Case is facing challenger Shawn Olmstead.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, expected to face challengers too.
“I was surprised” that no one filed 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 texts from members of the Wyoming Gun Owners Association. Several of those messages were threatening.
This came after Hicks sponsored a bill, which later became law, that prohibits state officials from enforcing federal firearms regulations with some exceptions. WyGO had a similar bill without exceptions, and referred to Hicks’ version as “fake SAPA [Second Amendment protection act] legislation.”
One of the messages Hicks received promised to vote him out of office.
However, no such opportunity will present itself unless a minor or independent candidate files for Senate District 11. The lack of WyGO-backed candidates in his race suggests the group is “pretty impotent” despite their chest-beating, according to Hicks.
“WyGO is getting shown that they just don’t have the clout they think they do,” Hicks said.
WyGo did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.
By the numbers
It’s not unusual for two dozen or so lawmakers to go unchallenged in Wyoming, at least in the last decade. It’s also fairly standard not to have any Democratic candidates file for more than half of legislative races. This year, that No-Democrat portion accounts for 66 percent of the Senate and House seats up for election.
While the 2022 numbers don’t represent a major departure, behind-the scenes machinations indicate a troubling shift, according to Ben Rowland, Laramie County Democratic Party Chairman.
“My experience this cycle was people were more reluctant to run for office than they have been in past cycles,” Rowland said.
Concerns over personal safety are weighing more heavily in conversations Rowland has with candidates about running for office. Rowland said that has to do with volatility in both national and statewide politics as well as intimidation tactics used by groups such as WyGO. By encouraging its members to harass others, Rowland said, WyGo deters people who do not completely align politically with the group from running for office.
“That keeps a lot of really well-qualified candidates on the sidelines — people that have a lot of value to offer Wyoming, but are, in some ways, fearful of its politics, and […] they fear for themselves,” Rowland said.
Rowland also encountered numerous people in his recruitment efforts that were just generally exhausted by politics.
Many spoke of “this feeling of being frankly wiped out, of putting forth a lot of effort routinely, and seeing very little in the way of results in our Wyoming Legislature,” Rowland said.
The state is reaching a breaking point, according to Chairman Barbuto. Wyoming was once insulated from the uglier parts of politics, but not so much anymore, Barbuto said.
“It makes it difficult to be a part of the process as an elected official or even an activist helping with campaigns or even as a voter for that matter,” he said. “It just makes everything feel ugly and difficult, and not worth the effort,” he said.
There is one notable difference on the candidate roster for the primary election. Only one legislative race will lack a Republican candidate on the ballot.
That 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 their recruitment strategy this election cycle.
More to come?
Independents and minor-party candidates may also start entering the race. Burt, the sole Libertarian lawmaker, announced his intention to seek re-election on his Facebook page.
After serving since 2009, Minority Floor Leader Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, will retire. Democrat Ken Chestek will run for her seat against Republican Wayne Pinch. Rep. Jim Roscoe I-Wilson, the Legislature’s sole independent lawmaker, will also forgo a return. The number of uncontested seats concerned Roscoe, who said it’s important for voters to have a choice.
“Just seems like there’s an opportunity for somebody, that if they know that someone’s running uncontested that they might step up,” he said.
Independent candidates have until Aug. 29 to file, while minor-party candidates have until Aug. 15.
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