Democratic candidates seek balance, civility in Wyoming politics

CHEYENNE — With Democrats running for elected office in Wyoming recognizing that they are in the political minority in the state, some candidates told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle they are helping to provide a necessary balance in perspective and policy. 

“Monoculture isn’t good in horticulture or in politics,” said Ken Chestek, Democratic candidate for House District 13 in Laramie. “If the Republicans didn’t have some Democrats to bounce ideas off of, and to test them out and challenge them a little bit, they would make much worse decisions. So, in order to get a good decision on anything, you need to have all points of view to consider.” 

There are three Democrats seeking the U.S. House of Representative seat, the sole one for all of Wyoming. In total, there have been some 30 people in races for state offices in the 2022 election cycle. 

Many will go without having to face a primary opponent come Aug. 16, but will have to win the majority of votes in a significantly red state. Wyoming was ranked the most Republican state in the nation after the 2020 election, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which is calculated based on how strongly a U.S. congressional district or state leans toward a certain party. 

Although former President Donald Trump lost the presidential election nationally, he won 69.94 percent of the votes in Wyoming. It’s the second-highest percentage win of a state by a presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. 

Albany and Teton County remained blue in the latest presidential election and still hold the majority of Democratic state legislators within Wyoming. Among the 90 seats in the 66th Wyoming Legislature, there were nine lawmakers who identified as Democrats, seven of whom were from the two blue counties.

“One-party rule is not good anywhere in the world, let alone in Wyoming. Diversity of viewpoints is important,” said Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, who is seeking re-election. “And I’ve heard even some of the most conservative Republican voices say that diversity of opinions is important. Because otherwise you won’t know if you’re wrong or right, if there’s only one voice telling you what’s right.” 

Currently no other Democrats are in statewide office. These include the positions of governor, state superintendent of public instruction, state treasurer and state auditor. 

Candidates interviewed this week said this did not deter them, nor did it make their voice obsolete in the political scene. 

Yin has been in the House since 2019, and he said the idea that only Republicans can pass legislation because they hold the majority is incorrect. 

One of the property tax refund programs passed in the 2022 budget session wouldn’t have existed without his bringing forward the amendment, and he said this proves the impact the minority has on the state. 

Rep. Trey Sherwood, D-Laramie, said she sees many legislators working together on partisan issues, and strong two-party systems often achieve more meaningful results. She said after reflecting on her first term in the Legislature that dialogue and disagreement is healthy, especially if it means a better product for residents. 

“I would love to see more Democrats elected; I’d love to see more moderates elected, so that we can continue to respectfully bring those different opinions to the table,” she told WTE. “So that what we pass as law is for the greater good.” 

Despite seeing their role in politics as balancing figures, Democrats are still faced with winning over a vast pool of Republican registered voters. 

Some candidates said they are not concerned there will not be a welcoming campaign environment. 

Ted Hanlon is campaigning against Republican incumbent Lynn Hutchings in Senate District 5, and it is his first time asking for residents to vote blue for him in Cheyenne. 

He said he has been treated very well by those he encounters, no matter what side of the political spectrum individuals are on. 

“I’ve gotten a couple of negative comments, but 99 percent of the people that I’ve talked to have been really encouraging and supportive,” he said. “So far, it’s been a great experience.” 

He said the election depends on building relationships with every voter in his district, because Hanlon said he would lose by a large margin even if all Democrats wrote his name on the ballot in November. He believes he will have to show swing voters and Republicans he is the best candidate. 

Sherwood echoed the importance of connecting with voters of the other political party, because she said it is her responsibility to represent all of her constituents. 

She’s excited to knock on doors, interact with interested voters and understand their needs. 

“I run into my constituents downtown, at the grocery store, or at community events,” she said. “And so being closer to the people helps us be more realistic and responsive in terms of the policies that we work on.” 

Sweetwater County Treasurer and Wyoming Democratic Party Chair Joe Barbuto said he can count the number of negative experiences he’s had on one hand in the past decade. 

He said small points of contention are natural in every political situation. It is nerve wracking to see the response you will get on the campaign trail, for both Republican and Democratic contenders alike, he said. 

“Everyone is nervous to go out there and put yourself on the line like that, but it really is not often that someone is so nasty to you that it turns you off the process or campaign,” he said. 

Not everyone has had a positive experience. 

A Democratic candidate for the U.S. House race, Meghan Jensen, said she has met pushback from those questioning her name on the ballot in the primaries. She said fellow Democrats in Sweetwater County wanted her to remove herself from consideration and instead run for a local seat, or they believe she should switch her party identification in order to vote for incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., during the primary. 

Before she ran for Congress, she said local election environments had already shifted in the past few years. She noticed this as she had a booth at the county fair last summer, and while many people were receptive, she felt the negativity creep in. People hurled insults at her when she attended with her son, and she said she never thought she’d face this kind of treatment in Wyoming. 

Chestek said his own conversations with voters as a Democrat in Wyoming have not been hard, which he believes is due to the respect residents have for one another. He said the culture of Wyoming is to “live and let live.” So he said people can agree, without being disagreeable, and support one another in times of need. 

Where he sees the issue is among state and federal political leaders. 

He said he knows there will be races in Wyoming where the opposition is aggressive and in attack mode, and he doesn’t think it’s good politics. He believes rhetoric should be focused on policy, not personal character. 

“Some of the leaders in the Republican Party have gone so far to the right and have made the political discourse somewhat toxic in places,” he said. 

The difference in the political atmosphere was recognized by other candidates. 

Barbuto said after the 2010 election, there were far more lawmakers coming into the Wyoming Legislature who likely identified more with the Tea Party. He saw those politicians place more emphasis on the letter of political affiliation after an individual’s name. 

“It was more about promoting an ideology than looking for practical solutions,” he said. “And so that was, for me, the beginning of Wyoming politics starting to look a little more like what’s happening nationally, where there is such a deep divide between the parties.” 

He said this split among legislators has contributed to stalling progress or success from the federal government, and it is now more prevalent in Wyoming than ever before. 

For those currently in the Legislature, Sherwood and Yin said there is camaraderie in the House. But Yin said the campaign trail has become ugly due to the tone set in federal races. He said there is a dependance on repeating Trump’s election lies, and playing a “blame game,” rather than problem-solving.

“I’d like to keep pushing back against that,” he said. 

Nonetheless, Yin said there are many issues in the state where partisanship doesn’t matter, and these should take priority.