Jon Conrad was done with sitting on the sidelines.
The Evanston resident had been engaged at the state level for decades. Conrad had served under former Govs. Matt Mead and Dave Freudenthal, as chair of the Wyoming Workforce Development Council and as vice chair of the Wyoming Board of Parole. For the last two years, he’s worked as the governmental affairs officer for his company, Tata Chemicals.
He had been civic-minded at home as well, closely involved in economic development activities across Uinta County.
On paper, Conrad looked like the model of the citizen-politician that Wyoming has so long prided itself on.
But for years, Conrad stayed out of the fray of local Republican politics, preferring to apply his skills elsewhere. Then, two years ago, he decided to become more involved, making his first trip to lobby at the Wyoming Legislature.
At that time, Uinta County GOP membership was scarce and its leadership aligned closely with the more conservative ends of the party, including the state party’s chairman and its executive leadership team. Numerous precinct seats were unfilled and Conrad saw an opportunity to get more voices from the community involved in conversations about the party’s future, he said.
“It became apparent that the credibility and reputability of the Uinta County GOP was in trouble,” he said in an interview. “I started recruiting a bunch of folks that had the same ideological view as I did, people who saw the party not in exclusive terms, but inclusive: including people and having a collaborative approach.”
Over time, Conrad found 22 candidates to run for 36 open precinct seat positions in last summer’s Republican primary elections. All of Conrad’s candidates won, while many incumbent precinct representatives in the county party — including sitting Chairman Lyle Williams, State Committeeman Karl Allred and State Committeewoman Jana Lee Williams — lost their seats. Observers labeled the outcome a significant power shift in the Uinta County GOP.
Conrad, who was fairly confident he had the votes he needed to win, entered the race for the chairmanship of the Uinta County Republican Party earlier this month.
Then state party leadership intervened.
According to Conrad and a complaint filed jointly with the Wyoming Secretary of State and the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, the recently ousted county party leadership — backed by the Wyoming Republican Party — illegally allowed four members of the executive committee who had lost their precinct seats last August, including Allred and both Williams’, to vote in the county’s elections, giving the ousted incumbents an advantage against Conrad’s insurgent regime. Simply put: Conrad alleged that four people who were no longer eligible to vote served as the swing votes in their own re-election.
Conrad lost, and the previous establishment — including Williams’ daughter, Biffy Jackson — were re-seated in leadership positions in what Conrad and his allies claim was a violation of Wyoming law. Unlike the primaries, they argue, in which all registered members of a party are eligible to vote, state statutes hold that only precinct committee members can vote in leadership elections, and those members must have been duly elected to their precinct positions earlier that year.
The four votes that put his opponents over the top, Conrad said, had neither qualification, and were therefore ineligible.
“I am writing you with an eminent request that the Office of Secretary of State determine that the elections of County Chairman, State Committee Man and State Committee Woman were conducted in blatant violation of Wyoming law,” a copy of the complaint obtained by WyoFile reads. “This is blatant vote padding and allowing fraudulent votes to sway an election. Elections have meaning and laws have meaning. Wyoming must hold itself up to a higher standard.”
Neither Frank Eathorne, the chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, nor Kathy Russell, the executive director of the party, responded to a list of questions for this story, including a request for a copy of the legal opinion by the party’s attorney, Brian Shuck, that was used to justify allowing former officers to vote.
Conrad said the move was an effort by the current party establishment to quash a “big tent” approach to the party’s politics.
“At least from my perspective, the Republican Party is in disarray in some areas,” Conrad said. “There are factions that want to drive the party off the charts to the right, who somehow don’t want to come back to some sort of ‘Reagan reality’ we see as a collaborative approach, one that allows people with different views to be heard and not be ostracized. In Uinta County, there’s been many people who’ve just given up and quit wanting to be a part of the party because of this radical faction.”
Intra-party conflict is nothing new in the Wyoming GOP. Observers describe the latest iteration, in the simplest terms, as a power struggle between the older-school, more moderate so-called “big tent” Republicans and the current establishment that demands strict adherence to a party platform primarily determined by centralized leadership.
The infighting was seen during last summer’s Wyoming Republican Party convention, when two competing factions backed different slates of candidates for national committeeman and -woman. It was also apparent in the 2020 primary elections, in which so-called “Republicans in Name Only” — officeholders not aligned with party leadership — were challenged by candidates to their right, attracting thousands of dollars on both sides from some of the biggest names in Wyoming politics. Longtime members of the party like former House Speaker Doug Chamberlain, who served as the party’s treasurer for decades, left leadership positions, citing numerous personal grievances.
Party disunity has persisted into the new year. On March 19, Wyoming Republican Party Comptroller Scott Dickerson announced he would be stepping down, saying some in the party didn’t believe he was “Republican enough,” according to a copy of his resignation letter obtained by WyoFile.
After winning re-election as Johnson County’s state committeeman in January, Bill Novotny — who voted against censuring Liz Cheney for her vote to impeach former President Donald Trump — was informed that the state party, due to a procedural quirk, would not seat their delegation until a new election was held. Novotny, under pressure from his right flank at home, chose not to run again, clearing the way for former State Rep. Richard Tass to take his place. Novotny told WyoFile that Tass had run on his close allegiance to state Republican leadership.
Earlier in the month, the Lincoln County Republican Party censured one of its state representatives — Evan Simpson — for not voting conservatively enough, according to Simpson and members of Lincoln County Republican leadership, though Simpson told WyoFile he was never informed of any formal reason for his censure. That censure was later rescinded for procedural reasons.
“There were people in our party who weren’t happy with his record,” Lincoln County Republican Party State Committeeman Mike Lungren told WyoFile. “They tried to call him and talk to him about it, that they would like him to vote more in line with the party platform. (The censure) was a way of saying ‘we don’t like what you’re doing right now.’”
The disputes have even played out online: After a member of the Campbell County-based group, Frontier Republicans, wrote an op-ed in Cowboy State Daily calling on the party to embrace the “big tent” approach championed by President Ronald Reagan, Lincoln County GOP chairwoman and former State Rep. Marti Halverson answered with an op-ed of her own, definitively declaring “there is no big tent.”
“I read comments in the press that we are ‘united’ but I don’t see it that way,” Dickerson wrote in his letter. “When I first became involved in the state party four years ago, I looked forward to the (state central committee) meetings. That is no longer the case. The dialogue is no longer about issues and good for the whole, but about persons and agendas. Those fully on board are praised, those who may question even the smallest detail are despised and mocked. The ends justify the means.”
As a result, he wrote, he had become angry and bitter. “I was raised better and my feelings would be a disappointment to my parents. The saying that ‘bitterness corrodes the container it’s housed in’ applies. I need to dispose of that container,” he wrote.
Dickerson did not respond to a request for comment.
Efforts by more moderate members of the party to regain a foothold have not been universally successful. After an extensive public engagement campaign in Sheridan County, for example, the party ultimately rallied behind incumbent chairman Bryan Miller — a close ally of state party leadership — over former State Sen. Bruce Burns by a 39-30 vote in one of the most hotly debated elections in recent memory.
“I don’t think there was any drama [in that vote],” said Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, a member of the Sheridan County GOP. “ I mean, it was tense, but just because we have that ongoing, conservative versus moderate kind of push within the party.”
Similar competitions have played out differently in different counties. In its elections last week, the Natrona County Republican Party resoundingly re-elected former chair Joe McGinley and State Committeewoman JoAnn True to leadership positions, despite their separate censures by the Wyoming Republican Party in 2020.
In Laramie County — where members have also sparred with the state party — sitting leadership won their re-election bids in convincing fashion. Some, like State Committeeman-elect Ben Sherman, noted his opponent had supported ceding that county’s power to state leadership at the most recent convention, and called instead for his colleagues to maintain their independence from the doctrines of state leadership.
The biggest surprise, however, may have been in Campbell County, where “moderate” groups like the Frontier Republicans have grown up alongside more conservative factions like the John Patriot Republicans and the Republicans of Campbell County, which count several sitting lawmakers as members. After an extensive recruiting push there, traditional conservatives seized power to elect “big tent” Republicans like local businesswoman Heather Herr to leadership in what some longtime party members say is a true reflection of the community’s politics, not just the state party’s.
“Everybody from every point of view went out or recruited candidates to run,” Tom Lubnau, a Frontier Republican and former Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, said. “There were contested elections and what we eventually got on our central committee was a reflection of the community’s values, electing people from every neighborhood or every precinct.”
It’s that “big tent” approach people like Herr — and the people who supported her — believe should define the party moving forward.
“I truly want to be an unbiased welcoming voice. I really want everybody to feel welcome,” Herr said in an interview. “I know sometimes the outward appearances are that we are split within our party. But I think if you get out and talk to people, I think maybe there’s just a few voices that are really loud who have been guiding things for a while.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.