Recent election cycles in Wyoming have seen a string of new campaign tactics reflective of trends at the national level.
Wyoming, historic home to powerful energy and railroad industries, is no stranger to lobbyists and political action committees seeking influence in Cheyenne. On both the liberal and the conservative side, well-funded individuals and groups are dipping into types of electioneering made legal as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided that case in 2010, ruling that funds spent on politics but not on a specific candidate “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” and should be protected as free speech. Since then, large sums of money have found a variety of new points to enter politics.
Lower court cases based off the Citizens United ruling went on to eliminate spending limits, leading to endlessly well-funded “super PACs” that bundle donations and spend on political advertisements, mostly negative, targeting candidates across the aisle. Much has been written about the political-money arms race this has set off between super PACs of both conservative and progressive bents. PACs, however, are required to disclose their contributions.
Another offshoot of Citizens United was the idea of “dark money.” A related court decision made it possible for certain nonprofits, registered as “social welfare” organizations, or 501(c)(4)s, to spend money campaigning on behalf of issues. This allows such groups to distribute campaign literature against candidates whose votes do not align with their ideologies, provided they do so independently, and don’t coordinate with any candidate in the race. As non-profits, they don’t have to disclose their funding. Hence the term “dark money.” Much of the money spent nationwide on elections by the well-known billionaire conservative brothers, Charles and David Koch, is spent through these “social welfare” organizations.
That result of Citizens United has had the bigger effect on Wyoming, as groups with both conservative and progressive ideas have followed the Koch brothers’ model in a small way. As WyoFile reports in related stories, Republican and Democratic candidates have become both beneficiaries and targets of such groups.
Behind each side is a wealthy heiress, one who built an organization to push libertarian policies in the the state legislature, and one who hopes to see progressive causes finally emerge with a strong, well organized front in Wyoming.
Susan Gore, who founded the Wyoming Liberty Group, is heir to much of a fortune derived from the company behind Gore-Tex fabric. WyoFile has previously profiled Gore and her entry into Wyoming politics. In the 2014 election cycle, some Republican candidates benefited from the “political issue” spending of Republic Free Choice, a 501(c)(4) which followed the model laid out by Citizens United. That nonprofit, founded by Gore and the Wyoming Liberty Group, has since become inactive.
Some of the candidates backed by Republic Free Choice in 2014 have been backed this year by wealthy individuals enjoying new freedoms from spending limits since Citizens United. Two wealthy Chicago investors and others have supported a wave of ideologically motivated primary contenders. Their spending aligned with ranking lists compiled by Gore’s Wyoming Liberty Group think tank and other far-right voices in the Republican party. In the primary these candidates challenged — successfully in some cases — experienced legislators in the House and Senate, taking advantage of anti-establishment fervor at the national-level in campaigns that often turned negative.
The only official campaign finance information publicly available for the 2016 Wyoming legislative races is information on the August primaries; general election contributions and spending must be reported to the Secretary of State’s office today, Nov. 1.
Across the aisle, Liz Storer is president of the philanthropic George B. Storer Foundation, founded by her grandfather, a radio and broadcast television pioneer. [The foundation is a major funder of WyoFile.] Acting on her own and not as president of the foundation, Storer said, she was a founding investor in 2013 of a small and previously below-the-radar consulting agency called ELLA WY. The agency has been hired by Democratic candidates who hope its youthful, data-savvy staff can break open conservative Wyoming politics. But a complaint recently filed by the Republican party has brought a spotlight to bear on connections between the consultants, their candidates and Forward Wyoming Advocacy, a 501(c)(4) that spends undisclosed money to attack Republican candidates.
This election cycle Forward Wyoming Advocacy began to engage in the kind of independent mailings about political candidates allowed since Citizens United. The Republican party complaint, made to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, alleges that candidates paying for consulting from ELLA were also receiving the benefits of political mailings sent out against their opponents and payed for by Forward Wyoming Advocacy.
“Wyoming Democrats are now hiding behind a Washington D.C.-style dark money smear campaign directly out of the Obama playbook,” Republican Chairman Matt Micheli wrote in the complaint.
All told, it’s a long way from the days, as former Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau told WyoFile, when policy was hashed out in the bar at the Hitching Post Inn, a Cheyenne landmark and longtime second home for legislators.
Lubnau served nine years in the House and has been both majority leader and Speaker of the House. He was Speaker in the 2014 general session.
He remembered his first campaign, in 2006: “We all just went out and knocked on doors and met our friends and neighbors and it took two weeks and then we were done. I don’t think I spent hardly anything,” he said.
Watching recent election cycles, he worries about the decline of civility in the face of ever fiercer campaigning and spending without accountability. As in the Congress in D.C, the new politics in Wyoming could detract from the Legislature’s purpose.
When the Legislature meets in Cheyenne on Jan. 10, 2017, it has 40 days to go through hundreds of bills and perhaps act on budget changes. As former speaker, Lubnau knows keeping the Legislature on task and on track to be productive is a finely tuned business. “The logistics of doing that kind of business and handling that volume of stuff in 40 days — it doesn’t happen by accident,” he said.
Political rancor left over from negative campaigns clogs the process, Lubnau said. Add to that a fear of votes being later misconstrued by superficial campaign literature, what Rep. Rosie Berger (R, HD-51, Sheridan), in a statement to WyoFile, called “the litmus testing of candidates on single, complicated issues.”
Berger, a 14 year veteran of the Legislature, was considered likely to follow Lubnau as Speaker of the House in this general session. She lost her primary race against Bo Biteman, an outside candidate backed by wealthy supporters of Libertarian causes. During the campaign, an anonymous mailing was circulated that took her voting record out of context to paint her as untrue to conservative values.
“Supporting a bill because the name sounds good or because it has a few nice concepts is easy. Reading bills, doing your homework and spotting unintended consequences is hard,” Berger wrote in a rebuttal.
As veteran Sen. Michael Von Flatern put it, successful politics is the art of compromise. He thinks that art is not appreciated by groups with ideological agendas.
The Hitching Post Inn is no more. The Smith family, which opened the hotel in 1927, sold it in 2006 after the death of Paul Smith, the Inn’s longtime owner.
Since then, Lubnau noted that there are few places where legislators end up congregating during their time in Cheyenne. While a small detail perhaps, that lack of a binding agent allows the divisions fostered by political parties and outside interests to permeate the face-to-face politics treasured by Lubnau and other observers of Wyoming’s political past.
For its part, the Hitching Post Inn burned down in 2010, victim of an arson and insurance fraud scheme perpetrated by out-of-state hoteliers.