GOP rifts show in Wyoming House primary races
By Gregory Nickerson
— July 15, 2014
The 2014 primary races for Wyoming House have all the signs of being a litmus test for the future course of the state’s GOP, in an era when tensions in the Republican Party run high. Several senior GOP members of the House face challenges from far-right conservatives who have backing from grassroots groups. The outcome of the August 19 primaries will provide a glimpse into whether the conservative wing of the GOP will continue to gain traction.
The majority-GOP House took a turn to the right after the 2012 elections, which brought an influx of new Republicans variously aligned with the Tea Party, libertarians, social conservatives, and constitutionalists. That brought about some tense moments in the 2013 legislative session, when nearly two-thirds of the House voted to transfer the duties Superintendent of Public Instruction and Tea Party favorite Cindy Hill to an appointed director of the Department of Education.
Throughout the 2013 session, the 14-or-so far-right Representatives — many of them in their first or second term — introduced a flight of bills on social issues and gun rights that Democrats, many mainstream Republicans, and the Wyoming Senate voted down.
In the 18 months since, right-leaning members of the Wyoming GOP have voiced their discontent through numerous resolutions to censure legislators and the governor.
In this year’s House primary, the far-right Republicans seek to unseat a number of established GOP politicians, while rallying support for their own key incumbents who face challengers. Often their campaigns seek to harness anti-federal sentiment and discontent over a few high-profile state policies, while labeling incumbents as “Republicans in name only” (RINOs). Many incumbents consider themselves to be Second Amendment supporters, social conservatives, and fiscal hawks in their own right.
“There is very little difference between what you would qualify as a Tea Party candidate and a mainstream Republican candidate,” said Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper) who is running unopposed this year. “When you hear these challengers, they are talking about federal issues, not state issues, and that gets mixed up in the political process. … It will be interesting if they can use that frustration for the federal government that we all feel to get into some of the legislative seats.”
Some incumbents aim to underscore the differences between politics in Washington and Wyoming. “The good news is Wyoming is one of the best run states in the country, and it’s not by accident,” said Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), who is facing a challenge on the right this August. “Wyoming has a long-standing reputation of being conservative, protecting property rights and balancing our budget and using some common sense.”
The far-right conservatives may not be a majority of voters, but their organization and participation could provide them a potential edge over established Republicans.
Meanwhile, Democrats may pick up several seats in races in Cheyenne, Laramie, and Jackson, home to several districts that could swing either Democrat or Republican. Currently the House has eight sitting Democrats and 42 Republicans.
“Honestly, I think the House will moderate,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie).
In this state where 60 percent of voters register as Republicans, the winners of the GOP primary have a strong chance of prevailing in the General Election in all but a few districts.
Challenges to committee chairs and legislative leaders
When it comes to races against House leadership, the most significant primary race is Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) against Gregory Flesvig in Natrona County District 37. In the 2013-2014 legislative sessions Harshman served as Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees Wyoming’s $3.5 billion General Fund.
If Harshman is reelected he would have a major role to play in setting budget policy in the 2015-2016 sessions. A win by Flesvig would eliminate Harshman from the Appropriations process, and potentially alter progress on Harshman’s plan to save $8 billion in the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund by 2018.
Flesvig’s platform promises to push back against the federal government. “Recently we have seen how the federal government has run roughshod over the citizens of this great state and of other states,” he wrote on his campaign website. “This encroachment would not happen on my watch.”
Another notable race is between Rep. Matt Teeters (R-Lingle), a seven year veteran of the House who chairs the Education Committee, and Cheri Steinmetz of Lingle, a citizen lobbyist who has been active on property rights issues. She is involved with Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming and Wyoming Watchdogs, and opposed United Nations Agenda 21 and the High Plains Initiative land-planning project in Platte and Goshen counties. She made an unsuccessful run for the seat held by Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) in 2010.
During the 2014 session Teeters introduced the budget footnote that prohibited the State Board of Education from adopting Next Generation Science Standards. That move might endear Teeters to conservatives who oppose adopting education standards developed out-of-state. However, many of the same voters dislike Teeters for co-sponsoring the bill that removed Superintendent Cindy Hill from the Department of Education.
The same issue could pose a challenge for Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo), who faces artist, gallery owner, and rental property owner Jenny Wuerker in the primary for House District 40. Wuerker says she is running against Madden because he co-sponsored Senate File 104 and championed raising the gas tax by 10 cents as chair of the House Revenue Committee.
“I value the qualities of life here on a very deep level, and I don’t want to see that change,” Wuerker said. “I was seeing decisions being made that are effectively going to change the state, and I didn’t want to lose what Wyoming is.”
Madden called for the tax to help cover shortfalls in the state highway department budget. Lawmakers projected the tax would cost Wyoming families $120 per year, and raise $72 million annually after going into affect July 1, 2013. One-third of that money goes to county roads, city streets and state park boat ramps and trails for motorized vehicles, while the rest goes to state highways.
Wuerker is involved with the Johnson County GOP, and attended this year’s state convention where she served on the resolution committee. She did not vote to censure Gov. Matt Mead, saying she viewed the language in the resolution as a personal attack against Mead, even though she believes he made the wrong decision to sign Senate File 104.
In Casper, the chair of the House Minerals Committee Rep. Thomas Lockhart faces radio broadcaster and conservative talk show host Chuck Gray. Lockhart is a retiree from the electric utility industry, and a strong supporter of developing the state’s mineral resources.
Chuck Gray owns and operates the Rushmore Broadcasting network or radio stations, a company founded by his late father. He is a board member of the Wyoming Family Coalition and a precinct committeeman. His campaign chair is Holly Loucks, Natrona County GOP committeewoman and daughter to Rep. Bunky Loucks (R-Casper).
Gray’s campaign website notes his concerns over Lockhart’s representation of District 57, focusing on points many challengers are using this primary season. “Just in the last two years, he has voted to increase taxes on working families with a 10-cent increase in the fuel tax, to weaken a gun rights bill, and to take away the people’s vote with SF 104 in violation of the Wyoming Constitution,” Gray wrote.
Challenging an incumbent
One of the most closely-watched GOP races puts Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne) against Donn Edmunds and gun lobbyist Anthony Bouchard, who lives in Burns and directs the Wyoming Gun Owners Association. The winner of the GOP primary for House District 10 faces Democrat Gaylan Wright in November.
Eklund defeated Edmunds in the 2012 election to win the House District 10 seat, while Bouchard lost to Sen. Wayne Johnson (R-Cheyenne) by just 44 votes in the 2012 race for Senate District 6.
“With Anthony Bouchard you have a different brand of politics that is much more slash-and-burn and solutions oriented,” Stubson said.
During the 2013 session, Bouchard recorded voice votes using a camera, and called legislators to task in reports to his organization’s email list, actions which he viewed as holding lawmakers accountable. Bouchard’s critics in the legislature say he has built a career out of self-described “no-compromise” gun advocacy, while dispensing with the civility they expect in the Wyoming Capitol.
“If you have a guy like Eklund lose to Bouchard, I think it changes the House significantly,” Stubson said.
Other races with high-profile challengers include the House District 24 primary in Park County, where Rep. Sam Krone (R-Cody) faces Bob Berry, a major player in the Big Horn Basin Tea Party and leader of the Park County GOP. Berry ran against Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) in the 2012 primary for Senate District 18, but fell 117 votes short of the 2,149 tallied by Coe.
Also in Park County, Rep. David Northrup (R-Cody) faces Charles Cloud, husband of State Auditor Cynthia Cloud. In the 2012 primary Northrup won election with 613 votes over Cloud’s 519.
Challenges against conservatives
The conservative Wyoming Watchdogs website lists three races of concern in Uinta and Natrona Counties in which it’s preferred incumbents face challenges.
In the House District 19 primary in Uinta County, Rep. Alan Jaggi (R-Lyman) faces Dan Jay Covolo, also of Lyman. The winner will run against Democrat Pete Roitz.
In the 2013 and 2014 sessions Jaggi led the charge on several bills to protect gun rights and do away with gun-free zones. He also led freshmen legislators on the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee to vote against license fee increases for the Game & Fish Department. Leaders of the agency say they need the increases to keep up with rising costs and inflation, while Jaggi felt like the committee hadn’t seen enough evidence of cost-cutting measures in department.
Covolo says he supports modest raises to Game & Fish Department license fees so the agency can maintain wildlife and “out way of life,” and stay independent of the General Fund appropriations process. He said he is running to make his district more effective at working with other members of the legislature. “You can’t go down and be a bully and make things work,” Covolo said. “You have to develop relationships with people and let them support you or not — but you can’t be against them all the time.”
Like Jaggi, Covolo says he is a Second Amendment supporter. He’s concerned with new EPA rules about waterways, and ensuring the future of the state’s mineral industries to avoid a state income tax.
In Casper’s House District 35 race, two-term incumbent Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R-Casper) faces former county commissioner and city councilman Ed Opella.
Kroeker, who owns a power-sports retail business, is an outspoken social conservative and gun proponent. Opella is running on a slightly more moderate platform than Kroeker. In the 2012 primary race Kroeker won reelection against opponent Patrick Bishop by just three votes.
Unita County teacher Rep. Garry Piiparinen (R-Evanston) will go up against GOP challenger and mathematics educator Rick O’Driscoll in the August primary. The winner will face opposition from Democrat Larissa Sneider in November.
Piiparinen is a freshman legislator who has established himself as a Conservative voice and Cindy Hill supporter on the House Education Committee.
O’Driscoll says he is running to help kids get the academic preparation they need to be ready for college, and find work opportunities without leaving the state. He sees the budget amendment that rejected the Next Generation Science Standards as a setback to standards from 2008 that makes Wyoming fall behind other states. For him, the issue doesn’t turn on the standards’ approach to teaching climate change, but on his view that lawmakers didn’t take time to debate and be “rational about what to do, and what not to do.”
“They snuck in a clause to prevent the science standards from being adopted,” O’Driscoll said of the budget footnote passed at the end of the 2014 session. He compared the footnote to the way Congress attaches amendments to unrelated bills. “That’s the stuff that drives me crazy about Washington. … If we want to stop something, by all means try to stop it, but lets be open and honest about what we are going to do.”
Contested races for a vacant seat
With Rep. Patrick Goggles (D-Ethete) stepping down in House District 33, two Republicans who unsuccessfully challenged him in previous elections will face off against each other. Jim Allen of Milford will run against Daniel Cardenas of St. Stephens. Allen lost to Goggles in 2012, while Cardenas ran against Goggles in 2010 and lost by just 19 votes. In the Democrat primary, Andrea Clifford faces Wilfred Ferris of Fort Washakie.
House Agriculture Committee chair Rep. Mark Semlek (R-Moorcroft) is retiring from the legislature. That sets up a race between Bruce Brown, Ted Davis, and Tyler Lindholm. Brown ran for state auditor against Cynthia Cloud in 2010, and formerly worked for Nieman lumber companies. Lindholm is chairman of the Crook County GOP and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2012.
The retirement of House Judiciary chair Rep. Keith Gingery (R-Jackson) leaves that seat vulnerable to a Democrat takeover in Teton County, a strongly blue part of the state. The winner of the primary between Republicans Jim Darwiche and Wallace Ulrich will face Democrat Andy Schwartz in November.
In Cheyenne, Rep. Lynn Hutchings’ decision to run against Sen. Fred Emerich in Senate District 5 leaves open House District 42. Republicans Theodore “Jim” Blackburn and Tom Jones are running for the seat, as is Democrat Gary Datus. Jones formerly served in the House from 1977 to 1986, and served for a time as chair of the Appropriations Committee. See the Casper Star-Tribune for more on Jones.
Other races will fill in the seats vacated by Speaker of the House Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), Rep. Greg Blikre (R-Gillette, and Rep. Cathy Davison (R-Kemmerer). Click here to see the candidates for these and other House races.
Twenty three uncontested races
Nineteen Republicans have no challenger in the August Primary. These include: Rep. Hans Hunt (R-Newcastle), Rep. Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater), Rep. Sue Wilson (R-Cheyenne), Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), Rep. Kermit Brown (R-Laramie), Rep. Don Burkhart (R-Rawlins), Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson), Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), Rep. Robert McKim (R-Afton), Rep. Elaine Harvey (R-Lovell), Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland), Rep. Nathan Winters (R-Thermopolis), Rep. Norine Kasperik (R-Gillette), Rep. Tom Walters (R-Casper), Rep. Rosie Berger (R-Big Horn), Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), Rep. David Miller (R-Lander), Rep. Tim Stubson (R-Casper), Rep. Tom Reeder (R-Casper).
Uncontested Democrats include: Rep. Lee Filer (D-Cheyenne), Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie), Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River), and Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne).
Also on Capitol Beat: Top races to watch in the Wyoming Senate primaries
Note: this story was updated to correctly state Chuck Gray’s career.
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY.
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