The Wyoming Republican Party’s recent convention in Gillette demonstrated that the radical right’s takeover of the GOP is now complete.
It wasn’t just that officials ramrodded through wholesale bylaw changes that punish county organizations and candidates who don’t follow the orders of the party’s central committee.
Or even that the party’s last-minute Senate-race straw poll — taken after many delegates walked out in disgust following the bylaws fiasco — selected a little-known, far-right candidate over a staunchly conservative, four-term Wyoming congresswoman.
For most of the four decades I’ve covered Wyoming politics, either incident would have been unthinkable at a Republican convention.
It was the party’s choice of keynote speaker that convinced me the Republicans’ “big tent” — which was once open to people with different views — is, in fact, closed to all except the far-right. The true-believers kick conservatives who don’t pass their litmus test to the curb. Moderates, meanwhile, aren’t even allowed to stand in line for admission to this circus.
Charlie Kirk, founder of the alt-right college student group Turning Point USA, gave a speech torching the GOP establishment for not being loyal enough to President Donald Trump.
That is a ludicrous notion to posit, after all but a lone Senate Republican voted against impeaching Trump. And after many GOP governors recklessly sacrificed people’s health by blindly caving into presidential pressure to rush businesses to re-open during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Both the 26-year-old Kirk and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden contend the 2020 election is about restoring “the soul of America.” The difference in their definitions of that couldn’t be starker, though.
In an Independence Day speech, Biden said, “We have a chance now to give the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, the oppressed, a full share of the American dream. We have the chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country.”
According to Kirk, the marginalized, demonized and oppressed in this nation are Republicans — even though the party controls the White House and U.S. Senate, conservatives hold a 5-4 Supreme Court majority and GOP governors outnumber Democrats 31-19.
Kirk threw the Wyoming crowd plenty of red meat while somehow managing to declare with a straight face, “We as conservatives haven’t engaged in the culture war for a long time.”
It was an outrageous claim, especially as he relentlessly railed about antifa, the activist media, Planned Parenthood, Marxist states, abortion, shutdowns due to the “Chinese virus” and the toppling of Confederate statues. He even derided lesbian poets for good measure.
For a supposed inspirational speaker, his tone was often one of gloom and doom. Kirk complained that the Republican establishment is against him, liberals on college campuses despise him and people regularly send him death threats.
Kirk addressed a Wyoming controversy that has the far-right livid. Without mentioning him by name, he blasted Republican Gov. Mark Gordon’s decision to veto a “born alive” bill. To wild applause, Kirk said, “It’s an absolute moral outrage that that bill was not signed into law in this state.”
Gordon has been widely criticized by far-right Republicans as not being a “real conservative” even after the governor’s landslide victory in 2018. That divide is apparently still alive in GOP circles, and Kirk pounced on it.
It must be maddening to be a Wyoming conservative today. Those who grew up watching politicians like former senators Alan Simpson, Cliff Hansen and Craig Thomas — statesmen who were willing to listen to Democratic ideas and forge alliances to pass good legislation — find few remnants of their former party in today’s crowd Under no circumstances should Republicans ever compromise with Democrats, Kirk said, “because every time we do, we lose.”
Wyoming’s modern GOP leadership has wholeheartedly embraced that political philosophy. By distributing 11 pages of new bylaws and passing them in one fell swoop — while silencing delegates who wanted some of the proposals considered separately — state party officials showed their intolerance for dissent.
Now, the party can withhold financial support for any Republican candidate who does not vote in line with at least 80% of its platform. The party has the authority to punish any state or county official who violates the bylaws. The state party also gave itself additional oversight over policy changes at the county level.
At the convention’s end, officials held a straw poll for the U.S. Senate primary. To avoid even the appearance of favoring any primary candidate, the state party typically does not conduct such polls. State law prohibits political parties from directly or indirectly spending any funds to promote one primary candidate over another.
Fewer than half of the delegates participated. Many who represented the state’s largest counties left before the poll, after the central committee changed the bylaws. On top of that, dozens of delegates didn’t attend due to COVOID-19 concerns — and virtual attendance wasn’t an option.
All those factors made the straw poll results dubious at best, but it was still a shock when the party announced that Bryan Miller of Sheridan garnered nearly twice as many votes as Cynthia Lummis.
Miller clearly wants to portray Lummis as a D.C. insider and himself as a hard-line conservative who would better represent Wyoming’s values. He helped craft the state party’s far-right platform, which makes him the darling of the central committee.
But it’s laughable to suggest Lummis isn’t conservative, or that contributions or endorsements from anyone outside Wyoming proves she won’t work on behalf of the state. Lummis was one of the founders of the House’s Freedom Caucus, whose members are as hard-core conservative as they come. Republicans like Kirk should love her — I can’t think of a single time she’s criticized Trump.
I don’t think Kirk did Republicans any favors by stoking party leaders’ fears that Democrats are desperately trying to infiltrate the GOP. The central committee already acts like nearly half the party’s members are “RINOs” — Republicans In Name Only. They don’t need encouragement to look over their shoulders for new enemies, because they do a pretty good job of it on their own.
“The left destroys everything it touches. They’re like locusts. … And they’re coming for Wyoming, if they’re not already here,” Kirk warned. He topped his dire message by adding that unless Republicans fight on every single front, “You guys are probably six years from Wyoming becoming a blue state.”
The only way Wyoming is going to turn Democratic in a few election cycles is if the GOP alienates a lot of their members by saying they’re not conservative enough to be “real Republicans.” The maligned won’t join the blue team, but they could be dismayed enough to sit out a few elections until the current leadership loses control.
The central committee’s blatant power grab and keynote speaker choice represented a shot across the bow to convince members to toe the party line, or else.
I can’t see it working out in any way that benefits the GOP, but it may have to learn that lesson the hard way.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Freedom Caucus. —Ed.