A former chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party said Erik Prince and his anti-establishment backer, Steve Bannon, don’t understand Wyoming, and their entry into a senate race could damage political discourse here.
“Sell chaos theory somewhere else,” Matt Micheli wrote in emailed comments to WyoFile last week. “Leave Wyoming out of those ugly agendas.”
Micheli was referring to inter-party political battles in which Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and chairman of conservative media outlet Breitbart, has publicly announced he seeks to back candidates against U.S. Senate leadership and establishment lawmakers. Among the most prominent targets in national media of late is Sen. John Barrasso, who is up for reelection next year.
Erik Prince, a political novice and former Navy SEAL who made a fortune in contracting security services to the U.S. Military, said in an interview with Breitbart that he will announce in the coming weeks whether he will challenge Barrasso in the Republican primary.
“He’s a very nice man,” Prince said of Barrasso in the Breitbart interview. “But from the state of Wyoming where the Republican wins with 75 percent of the vote, typically year to year … The delegation from Wyoming should be the most rock-ribbed conservative. They should be leading the charge on these issues and not going along to get along.”
Prince is not wrong about Wyoming’s reliably Republican voting record. The GOP holds every statewide elected office and 78 of 90 seats in the State Legislature. But Barrasso has been Wyoming’s junior senator for ten years and is not short on conservative credentials himself.
If Prince does enter the race, his success will depend on whether Wyoming’s Republican politics reflect the clear divisions of the national party, and whether anti-establishment sentiment overrides trust of a long-time senator. It’s likely he’d bring the populist rhetoric of Bannon and Trump, political observers say, perhaps to a level Wyoming has not yet seen in a statewide election. Meanwhile, while popular, Barrasso may be vulnerable if seen as a crony of embattled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and part of an establishment “swamp” that far-right conservatives blame for inaction in Washington.
But some of the same politicos said Prince’s assertion about how the state’s delegation should be voting reflects his Wyoming naiveté. Barrasso is reliably conservative without being a firebrand in a state known for understated politics. If his association with McConnell is a weakness, his long association with Wyoming and well known voting record is considered a near-insurmountable strength. Prince, in contrast, was exploring the possibility of establishing residency in the state just two weekends ago, according to a report in the New York Times.
If Prince is new to the state, so are the style of politics he and Steve Bannon might bring. Regardless of Prince’s chances, that concerns Micheli, who places a high value on what he described as interpersonal politics in a state where everybody knows everybody.
“Yes — I worry for Wyoming,” he wrote. “I can’t help but think of the irony of an outsider coming to Wyoming and thinking here is a place to carve people up.”
“Wyoming is not for sale, regardless of what political operatives may assume or think,” Micheli wrote. “What they don’t understand is that because we are small in population, we expect more, we look our folks in the eye and we take measure of them.”
Prince has personal wealth and, potentially, the backing of a donor network Bannon is building, according to reports in the New York Times and elsewhere. But Barrasso won’t need to rely wholly on looking folks in the eye, either. The incumbent senator’s campaign committee, Friends of John Barrasso, had a war chest approaching $3 million in June, according to a Federal Elections Commission filing. He likely has the ability to raise far more, both at home and through Republican establishment Political Action Committees.
If Prince does challenge Barrasso, “the U.S. Senate race will be the most expensive campaign that Wyoming has seen thus far,” said state Rep. Daniel Zwonitzer. The Cheyenne Republican is a veteran of several statewide campaigns and Chairman of the House Corporations Committee, which works on election laws. The cost of the race would only grow if Prince is joined by conservative Jackson Hole philanthropist Foster Friess, who has also expressed an interest.
Wyoming also is a state with relatively short election cycles — primary campaigns, which are often the most heated, begin in the spring and end in August. But a massive influx of money, and a contentious battle fought by national forces, could change that as well.
“Wyomingites aren’t as used to what other states have endured in campaigns,” Zwonitzer said, “having a long, drawn-out five or six months of the television ads and the newspapers and the flyers … I think it’ll turn off Wyomingites really quickly.”
In power but divided
Barrasso has been in office for 10 years, since being appointed to the Senate in 2007 by Gov. Dave Freudenthal upon the death of Sen. Craig Thomas. Barrasso won a special election in 2008 to retain the seat. In 2012, he handily won a Republican primary against two challengers with 90 percent of the vote, and then won the general election against Democrat Tim Chestnut with over 75 percent.
Today, Barrasso has risen through the Senate to become the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, making him the fourth-ranking Republican in the body. He is chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, chairman of a subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, and sits on the Committee on Indian Affairs and the Committee on Foreign Relations.
Barrasso’s prestige and power in the Senate creates disproportionate opportunities for the least populated state in the union, Zwonitzer said. “When people start talking at the coffee tables, at the bars,” he said, “those are the kinds of things that over a six month campaign are going to be discussed and rediscussed over and over.”
Like the national party, however, the Wyoming GOP has a political divide that has become sharper in recent years. Last legislative session, for example, the state house was pulled farther right by a growing block lawmakers who adhere more fiercely to pro-gun, pro-life, and anti-tax conservative ideologies. Some in the state’s growing far-right wing could be energized by a Prince candidacy and a chance to shake things up.
A significant portion of Republicans in Wyoming want to go even further right, Zwonitzer said, and believe electing more staunch conservatives is the best way to break gridlock in D.C.
In Prince’s interview with Breitbart, he offered a preview of the line of attack he might take against the incumbent.
“You know the five wealthiest counties in America surround Washington, D.C.,” Prince told Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow. According to the magazine Forbes, it’s actually the four wealthiest.
“It’s like a big gravitational field,” Prince said. “When you send people there, they get sucked into the Beltway madness. A winnowing, a housecleaning, does have to occur. All these people that don’t go with what their districts or their states sent them to do, but instead are pulled into what the Beltway has them do, they need to be sent home.”
Marlow agreed. “There’s just not a good enough track record of people even on the right side of the aisle being able to stay intellectually honest and pure for too long in Washington,” he said.
Such rhetoric is in line with traditional challenges to incumbents, said UW Political Science professor Dr. James King. “Ignoring the state, a voting record too far afield, those are the things we generally associate with a successful challenge to an incumbent.”
Prince’s target, however, may be misplaced. “I don’t see them there with Barrasso,” King said.
The professor pointed to the polling website FiveThirtyEight, which tracks how lawmakers’ vote in line with President Trump’s priorities. Wyoming voted for Trump by a large margin, and Barrasso has voted in line with Trump’s priorities nearly 96 percent of the time. The president offered Barrasso the position of Health and Human Services Secretary after scandal drove Tom Price to resign. Barrasso declined, according to a report in the Casper Star Tribune.
Besides his support for Trump, Barrasso is also known for remarkably frequent visits to his home state, both Zwonitzer and Micheli said. A photo gallery on his website documents how Barrasso has been home at least once and sometimes more every month since 2010, with the exception of just a few months.
“We see him everywhere,” the former state party chairman wrote, “we know that he is doing everything within his power to help our state.” Barrasso is also known for being available to help his constituents navigate government on a more personal level, Micheli said; “Folks that need help with the VA, with insurance companies, with federal permits. That stuff matters to people.”
The chairman of the Wyoming Democratic party, however, said a possible primary between Barrasso and Erik Prince would be a showdown of ideological purity on both sides. “John Barrasso is more interested in working for the Republican party than for the people of Wyoming,” Joe Barbuto said. “When I see him talking on TV I don’t hear him talking about Wyoming issues I hear him bashing our party and our former president.”
While Zwonitzer said Barrasso’s powerful senate position helps the state, Barbuto said it was more indicative of Barrasso’s person ambition. “His first goal when he got in the Senate was to start climbing that leadership ladder,” Barbuto said. “And I don’t know if that’s good for Wyoming.”
A heated Republican primary that focuses more on ideology than Wyoming issues could be a boon for the state’s long-suffering minority party, Barbuto said. He believes voters in the state want to hear about issues like public lands and fixing the healthcare system, he said, and that they wouldn’t get that from a Prince versus Barrasso primary.
“It’ll be a race to see who can get farthest to the right,” he said.
A McConnell compatriot
If Barrasso does have an achilles heel with Wyoming voters, it might be found in the ubiquitous photos of him standing behind Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky.
“Every time you see a picture of Mitch McConnell you see the three Johns behind him,” said Bonnie Foster, a Casper resident who directed Trump’s Wyoming election campaign. She was referring to Sens. John Barrasso, John Cornyn (Texas) and John Thune (South Dakota). All are members of the Republican Senate Leadership.
Last week, prominent conservative activists called on McConnell and the rest of his leadership team to resign, according to a report in The Hill. As efforts to advance the conservative agenda through Congress have failed — most notably repealing the Affordable Care Act, a longtime campaign promise for Republicans — some outside the party establishment have heaped blame on senate leadership.
McConnell isn’t very popular in Wyoming, Foster said, where he is seen by many conservative voters as too moderate.
“People want results,” she said, “the reason people elected Trump is he’ll get things done, because that hasn’t happened you could see resentment.” In Wyoming, some of that resentment will spill over onto Barrasso, even if political pundits attribute inaction to Trump’s shifting priorities and bombastic nature, or even to hard-right senators like Rand Paul who refused to compromise on a healthcare repeal.
“I don’t think it’s justified,” Foster said of blame being placed on Barrasso, “but people don’t always look at the justification.”
King, the political scientist, agreed. “The biggest weakness he has is if people feel the leadership is the problem,” King said.
There’s a catch, however. Congress has had abysmal approval ratings for years, King said, but at the same time it has also had high retention rates for congressmen. That’s led to a saying popular amongst political scientists: “We hate our Congress and love our congressman.”
“I could see people in Wyoming saying it’s McConnell or Cornyn who are the problem,” King said. “Our senator may be part of the leadership but he’s not the problem.”
Zwonitzer said he was surprised to see Prince’s name surface in the New York Times over the weekend as a Barrasso challenger. “I was unaware that he had any ties to Wyoming, or that Betsy DeVoss had any ties to Wyoming,” Zwonitzer said. Prince is the brother of Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. Education Secretary. The DeVos family have been prominent conservative donors for years, often in line with the Koch brothers, according to New Yorker reporter Jane Meyer, who tracks money in politics.
It would have been noticed if the founder of Blackwater — a well-known private security company that worked for the United States in Iraq and elsewhere — had made a public appearance in Wyoming, Zwonitzer said. “I hadn’t heard that he’d even been in the state ever.”
But Prince told Breitbart he has had connections to Wyoming since 1992. “I actually have a house here, was a Wyoming resident for many years while I was in the SEAL teams and later,” he said. The Prince family has a large ranch near Wapiti, and Erik Prince has a house on the property, according to a report in the Powell Tribune.
Prince sold Blackwater in 2010, after changing the firm’s name to Xe in an effort to distance the company from a high-profile incident in which employees killed 14 unarmed civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle.
After selling the company, Prince helped establish a mercenary force for the United Arab Emirates, according to a report by National Public Radio. He was a strong supporter of Trump’s candidacy and most recently received media attention when he began advocating for the use of private contractors in Afghanistan instead of more U.S. troops. In the Breitbart interview, Prince expressed disappointment that Trump had decided to escalate the number of troops, seemingly based on the advice of generals in his administration and against Prince’s own urgings.
Marlow, the Breitbart editor, awarded Prince credit for averting a larger escalation. “Largely thanks to your alternative plan put forward in the Wall Street Journal, we only got an additional 5,000 troops,” Marlow said.
Marlow asked Prince what issues he’d consider most pressing if he entered the Wyoming senate race. Prince responded by describing a trip he’d made to the Texas and Arizona borders along with Breitbart reporters — “it’s a gaping hole,” he said, and endorsed Trump’s controversial idea of a border wall. “It is required,” he said.
Prince said he is considering the senate run as he looks for “the best way I can try to help my country be safe and secure and prosperous.”
The former Navy SEAL wouldn’t be without assets in a Wyoming race, Zwonitzer told WyoFile. The Cheyenne Republican compared Prince to Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the Interior and a SEAL veteran who has been successful in Montana state politics. Prince “certainly appeals to the Wyoming demographic that is very strong on the second amendment, is very pro-military,” Zwonitzer said.
On the campaign trail that would contrast with Barrasso, a Casper doctor, who is known for keeping a quieter profile and differs in some ways from his Wyoming electorate. “Barrasso is not known as a prolific hunter, or fisherman or marksman,” Zwonitzer said.
Combined with the money Prince could bring, Wyoming republicans would be ill-advised to write off the outsider.
“It’s a legitimate challenge,” Zwonitzer said.
Barrasso isn’t Strange
The challenge to establishment Republicans heated up on the heels of a special election in Alabama. Judge Roy Moore — a firebrand who brandished a handgun on stage at a campaign rally — defeated Luther Strange, who had been appointed in February to the former seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Strange was backed by McConnell and the Republican leadership, which poured money into the Alabama race. He was also endorsed by Trump. His opponent, Moore, was backed by Steve Bannon. Following Strange’s defeat, Bannon spoke to a jubilant crowd.
“You’re going to see in state after state after state, people that follow the model of Judge Moore,” he said.
But King, the political scientist, says taking on Barrasso is a different challenge from the Alabama race. “Luther Strange had six months,” to sell himself to his electorate, King said. Barrasso has been in D.C. for a decade. Moore is a controversial figure — he has twice been suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court, called homosexuality “an inherent evil” and has argued that “God’s law” supersedes the court system. But controversy aside, King said, “Moore has been a prominent figure in that state for decades.”
In Wyoming, Prince remains a largely unfamiliar entity, despite some national name recognition, King said.
That’s what’s got Micheli so confounded by the challenge. “I can’t say what Mr. Bannon is thinking,” he wrote. “To me this has nothing to do with Senator Barrasso.”
The most recent, and arguably the most successful, example of an “outsider” in Wyoming politics is Rep. Liz Cheney, who moved to Wyoming shortly before launching a failed challenge against U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi. Following that 2012 campaign, Cheney spent three years in the state before she won Wyoming’s empty House seat in 2017.
Cheney was often painted as a carpetbagger, and still is by some detractors. But she comes from a well-known Wyoming family, and Micheli said she spent significant time working to create a connection with the state.
“If Mr. Prince wants to run for office in Wyoming, I would suggest that model,” Micheli wrote. “Come to Wyoming. Actually live here and get to know us, what makes our state work, what our challenges are. Approach Wyoming with a healthy dose of humility and don’t presume from another state you understand us.”
“When you kick off your effort by exploring ways to establish residency,” he added, “maybe your heart is not in the right place.”