The Party Lincoln Built and Trump Destroyed, which I’ll refer to as the PLB&TD, isn’t doing itself any favors in Wyoming.
Then again, it may be doing the only thing that will keep together the people who possess the party’s real values.
What’s happening in two Wyoming counties — Laramie and Park — is a microcosm of the infighting in the national Republican Party since the divisive Donald Trump became its presidential nominee.
In Laramie County, far-right members of the PLB&TD want several officials censured for what amounts to a clever attempt to elect moderate Republican Kym Zwonitzer to the Wyoming Senate to replace Wayne Johnson, the retiring moderate senator who has held the seat for the past decade after serving 12 years in the House.
Rabid conservative Anthony Bouchard, director of Wyoming Gun Owners, won the Senate District 6 Republican primary by only five votes over Rep. Dave Zwonitzer (Kym’s husband), 1,137 to 1,132. Third-place finisher Lindi Kirkbride had 978 votes.
Moderate Republican Dave Zwonitzer was making a bid for the Senate after serving four terms in the House representing House District 9.
Bouchard, who actually thinks the National Rifle Association is way too soft on defending the Second Amendment, lost the 2014 primary for HD 10 by more than a 2-to-1 margin. He had angered legislators the year before by taking pictures from the gallery of those who voted against a gun rights bill he favored.
“They don’t like what I’ve done, which has been shining light on them like cockroaches,” Bouchard told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle when he announced his SD 6 candidacy. “That’s why some of these guys in leadership will donate to my opponent’s campaign. I won’t go (to the Legislature) to be silent and to pull wool over people’s eyes.”
While Dave Zwonitzer and Kirkbride ran clean, positive campaigns, Bouchard filled SD 6 mailboxes with offensive fliers that featured derogatory pictures of President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and outrageous statements about the federal government’s alleged seizure of personal rights.
Moderate Republicans were rightfully aghast at Bouchard’s primary victory. In an effort to keep him from getting a free ride to the Senate, since there is no Democratic candidate, Dave Zwonitzer’s wife Kym successfully petitioned to run as an independent. If she wins there will still be two Zwonitzers in the Legislature — Dan, who is Dave and Kym’s son, is unopposed in his bid to keep his HD 43 seat.
Kym Zwonitzer logically believes that if she is able to obtain the votes that Kirkbride got in the primary, she can unite moderate Republicans. It shouldn’t be too difficult, since her husband and Kirkbride combined earned nearly two-thirds of the primary vote.
“I am a lifelong Republican and I’m proud to be a Republican volunteer at the grassroots level,” Kym Zwonitzer told me last month. “I will run as an independent but I will serve as a common-sense Republican. With my background in small business and financial management I want to help our state navigate our declining revenue situation without missing any opportunity to attract new industry and help small businesses grow.”
Not surprisingly, Bouchard and his supporters are crying foul. According to Casper Star-Tribune political reporter Laura Hancock’s excellent account of the conflict, Bouchard went to the Secretary of State’s Office to get a copy of Kym Zwonitzer’s petition to get on the ballot so he could see who signed it. His backers complained to the Laramie County Republican Party, which at their request is now considering a motion to censure the father-and-son Zwonitzer team as well as Johnson, who endorsed Kym Zwonitzer as his successor.
The motion to censure the three state lawmakers also seeks to punish three Laramie County commissioners and other Republican officials who signed the petition to get Kym Zwonitzer on the ballot by censuring them as well.
Amazingly, even Kirkbride, who holds no public office, is a target for censure just because she endorsed Kym Zwonitzer. She correctly notes that the process is pointless.
“What does it mean? It means nothing,” she told Hancock. “There’s no legal thing. Other than shake their finger at us, ‘Oh, you naughty, bad Republican.’ … What do I do, go around with a big C on my forehead?”
Independent challengers are far reaching
Far-right Republicans have tried to censure other Wyoming politicians in recent years, but their unsuccessful efforts have only made them look silly. In 2014 they even tried at the state party convention to censure Gov. Matt Mead for his support of the Legislature’s effort to replace then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill, another member of the extreme right.
Laramie County isn’t the only place in the state this year where Republican primary winners are being challenged by independents who are also unapologetic Republicans. In Park County two races are playing out in a similar way, but the goals are reversed. Veteran Republican Sen. Hank Coe was unopposed in his party’s Senate District 18 primary and doesn’t have a Democratic opponent. Tea Partier Cindy Baldwin of Cody went from being a Republican to an independent so she could take on Coe in the general election.
Coe received 2,801 votes, but there were 372 write-ins for other candidates, and 1,031 Republicans who didn’t bother to vote at all in the primary. Many Park County residents are still upset that Coe led the effort to oust Hill, which leaves an opening for Baldwin to mount a realistic challenge as an independent.
In House District 24 in Park County Republican Scott Court didn’t even campaign but had the good fortune to be running against incumbent Rep. Sam Krone, who is facing criminal charges for allegedly embezzling funds from the Park County Bar Association. Krone has denied all charges. There is also a Democrat in the race, Paul Fees, former senior curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, but he only garnered 150 votes in the primary.
And finally, longtime Republican Sandy Newsome decided to enter what appears to be a wide-open HD 24 race as an independent.
Could the sudden influx of Republican candidates who are identified on the ballot as independents become a trend in future elections? It largely depends upon how this trio and the official head of the PLB&TD, Donald Trump, fare on Nov. 8.
The new mainstream
The Republican Party has been splintering for several election cycles, both nationally and in Wyoming. GOP moderates have become increasingly frustrated by the emergence of right-wingers driven by social issues such as abortion and gay marriage who are willing to go to any extreme to make a political point.
Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson has expressed that frustration. He and his wife Ann were so concerned about the influence of the Tea Party in Park County that in the spring they successfully ran to become precinct officials. They go door-to-door urging voters to support establishment Republican incumbents or those running as independents who face opposition from Tea Party Republicans.
Believe it or not, Tea Party members have said that the conservative Simpson is “too liberal” to represent the GOP. Simpson says he wants to keep the extremists out of office and “take back the Republican Party.”
These once-out-of-the-mainstream Republicans are threatening to become the new mainstream, as witnessed by their increasing ability to pass flawed social legislation in the Wyoming House that has fortunately been killed by the Senate thus far. But if they gain membership in both chambers this year, they could transform their faction from a pesky annoyance to a real threat to change the core values of the party from fiscal conservatives to wacky but dangerous hard-liners on social issues that drive a devastating wedge through their own party.
The emergence of Donald Trump as the national Republican leader is the biggest threat the party has faced in years. Since it comes from within it has caused many splinter groups inside the GOP, including Republicans embarrassed by Trump’s daily brand of absolute craziness who want nothing to do with him, to Republicans who feel they can’t distance themselves from Trump for fear of losing favor if Trump actually wins.
Democrats have a choice to make that could determine whether the Wyoming Legislature becomes a more effective lawmaking body or is bogged down in obstructionism. Democrats obviously want to increase their own paltry representation of only nine House members and four state senators, and the best way to do that is to recruit more candidates so no Republican can be elected without a challenge. But where they have no candidate of their own it’s imperative for Democrats to support more moderate Republicans, who have become independents-in-name-only, to keep extremists like Bouchard out of power.