I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the news that the Wyoming Democratic Party re-elected nearly its entire slate of state officers. Is the move a sign of confidence in the current track, or resignation about Democrats’ chances to win more legislative seats?
After all, the 60-member House has only seven Democrats, and the party is outnumbered 28-2 in the Senate.
So, to get a better sense of the mood, I spoke with three party operatives from different parts of the state — folks out there talking with voters on a regular basis.
Debbie Bovee first ran for Natrona County’s House District 36 in 2016. The reception from registered Republicans was generally cordial, she said, even if they told her she wouldn’t be getting their vote because of her party affiliation.
Bovee won the race and became the only Democratic representative in the county’s 12-person delegation, and the only woman, too. By 2018, when she sought a second term, the political landscape had dramatically shifted.
“Running the last time was really ugly,” Bovee recalled. “I think Donald Trump and ‘Trumpism’ has made it especially difficult to run. People are meaner now.”
Bovee lost her second House contest to Republican Art Washut, a former Casper police chief. She said her opponent and the NRA mailed a brochure to HD 36 voters a few days before the election that claimed she was anti-gun rights. The last-minute smear job left no time to set the record straight.
“One thing Republicans do really well is label all of us,” she said. “People believe that every Democrat wants to take your guns away. But in our party platform, we believe in the Second Amendment. We just want to find ways to keep people safe from gun violence.”
Bovee, a retired teacher, became disillusioned. While she no longer wants to be a candidate, she’s channeled her enthusiasm for politics into a new role as chairwoman of the Natrona County Democratic Party. Now she tries to find candidates to take on Republicans like Washut.
Bovee tries to convince young people they can have a voice to help determine their future, she said. “I ask them, ‘What are the things you care about and want to see changed?’” she said.
Trey Sherwood asked herself those same questions last year, and decided to run in Albany County’s House District 14. Her experience on the campaign trail was much different than Bovee’s two years earlier. She said guns weren’t an issue, in part because her Republican opponent, Matthew Burkhart, had received an “F” grade from the NRA.
Knowing she would need to enlist GOP voters because Democrats are a minority in her district, Sherwood said she only knocked on doors of registered Republicans in the final campaign weeks. She introduced herself as a hunter uninterested in taking their weapons.
“I said, ‘My gun safe is full, I don’t need yours,’” she recalled. “I would ask them about their favorite hunting or fishing spots. We shared wild game recipes.”
Republican voters had more on their minds than just the Second Amendment, Sherwood said. Some wanted to talk about taxes.
“I thought, ‘oh man, this is where I’m going to lose them,’” she said. “I’m very much for tax reform and removing tax exemptions. I told them the things I want to look at, and they would say: ‘good.’”
Some voters even told her they studied Wyoming’s tax structure and found it unsustainable, given the downturn in the minerals tax base. “They said, ‘We need to go further and do an income tax,’” Sherwood said. “I was always floored by those conversations, because I thought I was going to get the door slammed in my face.”
Like her Natrona County counterpart, Sherwood also won her initial House race. The margin of victory was slim, only 75 votes, but she became the first Democrat to win the district since the early ‘90s.
Maybe she can chalk it up to a secret weapon. Her mother, a Republican who lives in Tennessee, came to Laramie and helped her campaign.
“My mother is pretty shy, and this was definitely getting her outside her comfort zone,” Sherwood said. “We would be on opposite sides of the street and I could hear her: ‘Uh, um, I’m a Republican, but I was wondering — would you vote for my daughter? She works really hard.’
“And I could hear people laughing with her and just giggling and it was just so funny,” she said. “She’d wave me over if they wanted to talk.”
Once elected, Sherwood joined forces with two new House Democrats, Reps. Karlee Provenza of Laramie and Chad Banks of Rock Springs, for “Freshmen Fridays” on Facebook Live, updating viewers about happenings in the Legislature. The group plans to continue the shows once a month during the interim.
Banks is the luckiest Democrat in the Legislature. He didn’t have primary or general election opponents in his House District 17 contest.
But he also doesn’t have any Democratic company in his Sweetwater County delegation. Once a Democratic stronghold, in recent years Republicans have come to dominate. In 2020, two popular party members — Rep. Stan Blake and Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton — lost their re-election bids.
“A lot of our Democratic backbone was the union component,” Banks said. “We still have a fairly strong [miners’] union, but we also have a lot of non-union employees in the oil and gas industry and other businesses.”
Banks said he’s seen some Sweetwater Democratic candidates hurt by the same false anti-gun claims that wounded Bovee in Casper.
“Social media can be a double-edged sword,” he said. “It helps us communicate, but it’s also very easy for people to talk about their neighbors in a way they wouldn’t do in person, or spread disinformation. The political climate has become so divisive.”
Banks said Democrats “tend to get painted as this extremely liberal, far-left contingency, and I don’t think that’s the case in Wyoming. Some of that messaging has to improve.”
“A Wyoming Democrat is not a Washington, D.C., Democrat,” Sherwood agreed.
Bovee said her party must remind voters that on most Wyoming issues, there aren’t many differences between moderate Democrats and Republicans. They can form coalitions and counter whatever the far-right fringe elements of the GOP push.
Banks estimated he votes the same way as the House Republican sitting next to him about 95% of the time. The problem in 2020, he thinks, is that too many Democrats were swept up in the tidal wave of opposition to Joe Biden and local perception of the party’s national platform.
“Despite the strides we’ve made [in Wyoming], folks just went the other way,” Banks said.
Trump won’t be on the ballot next year, but if the Wyoming Republican Party has its way, “Trumpism” isn’t going anywhere. It’s their best weapon, and it’s no secret: the GOP has 69.8% of the state’s registered voters, and Trump won 69.9% of the popular vote here in 2020.
After talking to Bovee, Sherwood and Banks, I believe the Wyoming Democratic Party still has a pulse. But does it have the backbone, leadership and party loyalty it needs to win more legislative seats next year?
It won’t come easy. Any Democratic recipe for future success would do well to combine some of the trio’s separate strengths: Bovee’s desire to whittle down the GOP’s dominance in her county, Sherwood’s ability to difuse anti-gun attacks, and Banks’ reasonable call for a renewed civility in state politics.
Bottle that and ship it statewide, and the party has a fighting chance to make some inroads at the Capitol in 2022.