The big tent that once held all Wyoming Republicans is shrinking at an alarming rate. State party leaders are now operating a one-ring, right-wing circus.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask any moderate GOP member what they think about the state party’s executive committee launching secretive investigations of several Republican county chairmen, and you’ll likely get an earful of dissent.
Gail Symons of Sheridan has been a proud Republican for 45 years. She told me another member likened belonging to the Wyoming GOP to attending church.
“She said, ‘If you don’t like what the church is saying, you should go find another church,’” Symons recalled. “Well, you don’t get to hijack my church and tell me I need to go somewhere else. That’s what it feels like.”
Nick Reynolds, who covers politics for the Casper Star-Tribune, has done an excellent job in the past two years documenting the ever-widening rift between party leaders and members who don’t toe their rigid line. His reporting about the recent GOP State Central Committee meeting in Lusk shows that the party’s imposition of disciplinary measures has reached a disturbing new zenith.
Reynolds obtained a copy of a resolution — drawn up and passed by the central committee — giving the party the right to dictate the stances of all its members. Natrona County Republican Chairman Joe McGinley told Reynolds he was surprised to learn from other committee members that he was being investigated.
Who wouldn’t be — especially if you were told the reason you landed in the state party’s crosshairs was “confidential”?
The committee tried to justify its actions by stating that while “the First Amendment applies to all Americans in affairs public, governmental and social, it does not supersede the conduct and expression within the confines of a private organization made up of voluntary constituents.”
How can a party impose this kind of iron-fisted rule on its own members?
If you’re surprised by this escalation of “our way or the highway” rules, you haven’t been paying attention.
The incident that indicated to me all things GOP were about to go off the rails occurred in the summer of 2016.
Rep. Rosie Berger (R-Big Horn) had been elected to serve seven terms in House District 51 and was one of the leading lights of the party. She was in line to become the first woman Speaker of the House since Verda James in 1969.
But the GOP’s extreme right wing placed a target on her back. Her crime? She was a moderate who too often voted with Democrats (who numbered fewer than a dozen). An anonymous, deceptive brochure proclaimed she didn’t adhere to Wyoming Republican values.
In addition to not backing the repeal of gun-free school zones, Berger was accused of favoring “discrimination against women’s privacy [by] allowing transgenders [sic] to use restrooms, lockers and showers of choice.”
In reality, Berger had voted for a bill to prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But chalk one up for the GOP bathroom police: Berger lost the Republican primary by about 300 votes. Winner Bo Biteman of Sheridan, a staunch no-new-taxes, pro-gun-rights-at-all-costs conservative, won the general election. He moved on to the Senate last year after just one House term.
“What happened to Rosie was kind of a wake-up call to some people, but not everybody,” Symons said. “People who aren’t civic wonks and not from Sheridan County don’t realize how ugly and really perverse that movement to get rid of her really was.”
The state party did disavow a new anonymous website aimed at outing “RINO”— Republicans in name only — legislators. Still, the information it contains is pretty spot on with the GOP executive committee’s legislative priorities and how it ranks the chosen few.
The site selected 10 conservative bills from this year’s session and the party’s preferred vote on each one. Any Republican lawmaker who failed to vote the “right” way on at least seven bills was labeled a RINO.
Only 21 House and nine Senate members were deemed “real Republicans.” That’s one-third of the 90 total members.
Now, like Will Rogers famously quipped, “I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” I don’t mean to speak out of turn and criticize the self-ordained cheerleaders of a party that has long held a super-majority in both Wyoming legislative chambers.
But it strikes me as foolish to try and bolster the Republican ranks by denigrating so many members of the same flock.
If your goal is to put more conservatives in the state Capitol, it seems like trying to run the alleged “RINOs” off the cliff risks giving moderates a great reason to band together and throw YOU out.
The Republicans who believe they have earned their conservative spurs apparently want to only share their sandbox with people who look exactly like them.
I get the reason why. The state GOP failed to accomplish its top legislative priority of 2019 — outlawing “crossover” voting in the primary. The far-right demanded an extreme conservative as governor, and thought they had two candidates who fit the bill — Jackson billionaire Foster Friess and Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman. They lost to the decidedly more moderate Mark Gordon.
Friess’ followers blamed his loss on Democrats who switched party affiliation at the polls, even though the math didn’t add-up. They bullied their party’s legislative leaders into advancing several bills to ban the practice, but they all failed.
I call it sour grapes, while Symons views the effort to move the entire party farther to right as a blatant, wrongheaded attempt to consolidate power. She is one of the leaders of a grassroots group called “Frontier Republicans” that’s organizing in all 23 counties to bring diverse views back into the fold.
“We’re not looking to kick out the far right,” she said. “But we are saying any organization that encourages different ideas is actually a stronger one. We need to make a commitment to finding solutions to our problems.
“We’re in a horrible position in the state from a financial perspective, and we’re simply not going to recover to where we were with the extractive industries,” Symons added. “We’ve got people whose primary considerations are some social issues that simply don’t affect the state.”
Last session Wyoming Republican officials threw their weight around and told “their” lawmakers at committee meetings they must vote against any new or increased taxes. The implied threat, as Berger’s experience proved, is very real. Go against the party and you will face a far-right primary opponent.
If that doesn’t get “RINOs” to shape up and play party ball, perhaps a secret probe will do the trick.
The situation reminds me of a Bob Dylan song from the early 1960s called “Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues.” It’s about a right-winger musing about a fate that may befall the Wyoming GOP someday:
“Well I finally started thinkin’ straight
When I run out of things to investigate.
Couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
So now I’m sittin’ home investigating myself!
Hope I don’t find out anything.”
I genuinely hope it doesn’t come to that. No resident in Wyoming — Republican or otherwise — should put up with being told how to think or vote.
The change that’s taken over the Republican Party here came from within, even if it had existed on the fringes. And if the mainstream is going to take back the party, it doesn’t have any time to waste.