This is one of a series. See the introductory story for links to the set — Ed.
Daniel Brophy is against Common Core curriculum in Wyoming schools. He thinks it cedes local control of education to a rigid, colossal national bureaucracy and that if implemented “Wyoming students will now march with the crowd into uniformity, rigidity, conformity, and in the end, mediocrity (at best).”
Brophy believes that “gun free zones,” like those in place in Wyoming’s public schools and the halls of Congress, attract murderers. He wonders if “any unarmed victims in San Bernardino or Paris, realizing their last breath was at hand as the gun barrel swung toward them and the bullets tore through their flesh, felt a flash of regret that they had no gun to fire at their assailant?”
He thinks medicaid expansion for Wyoming would be “a path to disaster” and hurt the impoverished.
Brophy does not approve of homosexuality, but he “would never claim the right to deny a homosexual freedom of belief in his or her own life.”
By themselves, Brophy’s beliefs are not particularly remarkable — he shares some of them with many of the Wyoming people who make up the state’s traditionally conservative voting majority.
However Brophy is distinct from your average Wyoming person, in the traditional, ancestral or hardscrabble sense of the word. He first purchased a home in the town of Wilson, just outside Jackson, in 2011. And Brophy’s political beliefs, compiled above from his postings online and various letters written to Wyoming newspapers — he did not respond to interview requests — are backed by the weight of considerable wealth.
A former commodities trader in Chicago, Brophy was Wyoming’s biggest single donor in the primary elections in August. He was a one-man version of a political action committee in a state where even donations under the $1,500 cap for primary contributions can go a long way. Almost all donations by Daniel Brophy are matched by his wife Carleen. That means most beneficiaries of his wealth receive up to $3,000 for their primary elections, which in many cases becomes the bulk of their spending money. As one candidate put it, that’s a mailing to every registered voter in his district.
While the spending by the Brophys in the primary season was remarkably high, it was also a telling sign of the new Wyoming politics — where the dollars spent climb upwards, campaign strategy sophistication grows and the rhetoric gets tenser and ever farther from the “town with one long main street” politics of just a few years ago.
In the 2010 election cycle the average candidate for the Wyoming House received $4,800 in contributions. By 2014 that number was up to $7,284. Thus far in 2016 the average is already hovering around the 2010 total figure — but just for the primary campaigns. Contributions for the general election have not yet been made public.
So campaign contributions for the primary season alone in 2016 matched those of six years ago for the entire election cycle. Political Action Committees, which are able to spend larger amounts of money on a candidate than private individuals like the Brophys, are usually more active in the general elections, and so that number is bound to go up.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case in 2010, a variety of new apparatus for participating in political campaigns has sprung up.
The court ruled that funds spent on politics but not a specific candidate “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” and should be protected as a right of free speech.
Wyoming, home to energy and railroad interests basically since its conception, is no stranger to lobbyists and Political Action Committees seeking influence in Cheyenne. However, recent election cycles have seen a string of new campaign tactics reflective of trends at the national level.
Campaign finance records and interviews with candidates and political organizations show that both parties are beneficiaries as well as targets of outside spending and sophisticated campaigning.
On the Republican side, primary spending by wealthy individuals like the Brophys supported a wave of ideologically motivated primary contenders challenging experienced party voices in the House and Senate. Campaigns turned negative as these candidates took on “the establishment” in an effort to push the Legislature ever further right.
The Brophys’ choices
The Brophys’ donation choices include most lawmakers favored by the libertarian think tank the Wyoming Liberty Group. The Brophys contributed to more than 30 candidates in the 2016 primary elections. Their choices closely align with the Wyoming Liberty Group’s “Liberty Index,” which ranks lawmakers based on how well their votes in previous legislative sessions either “supported or inhibited liberty.”
Lawyers from the Wyoming Liberty Group represented the Brophys in a 2014 court case, which pushed the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office to stop enforcing a $25,000 aggregate limit on how much individuals could spread among campaigns for state office. Thus while the Brophys are still limited in how much they can contribute to an individual candidate, they are free to contribute to as many candidates as they please.
In the case, the Wyoming Liberty Group successfully pointed to a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission, that eliminated an aggregate limit on spending by individuals on candidates for federal government offices. In that case, the Supreme Court justices drew heavily on the Citizens United case for their ruling on McCutcheon v. the FEC.
Legal victory in hand, during the 2016 primaries the Brophys spent close to $75,000
Of the top 20 ranked candidates on the Liberty Index, nearly every one who faced a primary challenger received a donation from the Brophys. There were two exceptions. One was Eric Barlow of House District 3 in Campbell and Converse Counties, who ranked number 20 on Liberty Index. The other was Tyler Lindholm, who handily won House District 1 in Crook and Weston counties with 70 percent of the votes.
In Barlow’s case, the Brophys supported his opponent, Frank Eathorne, whose son was on the board of WyWatch, a now defunct ultra-conservative website that provided lawmaker rankings in the past, based on its own criteria.
On such rankings the question of adherence to the party platform, several Republican legislators told WyoFile, was interpreted through an extremely conservative lens.
However, for those seeking to shift the makeup of the Republican party, lists such as the Wyoming Liberty Index appeared to affect funding choices in the primaries. While there’s no way to know how wealthy donors like the Brophys made their choices, incumbent legislators who scored highly on the Liberty Index received their donations, while legislators who had scored poorly faced opponents suddenly flush with cash.
Selected Republican races
Rep. Rosie Berger (R, HD 51, Big Horn) who had served 14 years in the Legislature and was considered likely to be the Speaker of the Wyoming House in 2017, found herself in one such race. Her opponent, Bo Biteman, received $2,900 in cash from the Brophys. Daniel Brophy also paid for Biteman to set up his website, according to pre-primary campaign filings.
The primary was an expensive one, and Rep. Berger outspent her challenger, topping all other candidates’ primary expenditures across the state. She spent more than $32,000, while Biteman spent $10,300. Berger lost by 300 votes.
During the campaign, anonymous mailings circulated that attacked Berger’s voting record on select conservative issues. She has said the attacks were misconstrued, and took votes out of context to paint her as deviant from Republican principles.
One line said Berger voted for “Discrimination Against Women’s Privacy: Allowing Transgenders to Use Restrooms, Lockers, & Showers of Choice.” The bill in question dealt with anti-discrimination in the workplace and in public facilities.
“All persons of good deportment are entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of all accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of all places or agencies which are public in nature,” read one line of the bill. It was the only line which came close to mentioning anything regarding use of restrooms, lockers or showers.
“Supporting a bill because the name sounds good or because it has a few nice concepts is easy,” Berger wrote in a counter to the mailing. “Reading bills, doing your homework and spotting unintended consequences is hard.”
Rep. Berger responded to WyoFile’s questions for this story with the following statement:
“Over the past couple of years, I think Wyoming has definitely seen an uptick in the number of interest groups exerting influence in both policy discussions and elections. This includes both groups led by out-of-state interests, and those that have grown and gained legitimacy by active — and very vocal — Wyoming leaders.
“Making direct donations, as well as funneling money to particular candidates by asking supporters to donate to them, is one piece of the puzzle, but there are other factors that make them a force in the Wyoming political landscape. It’s how they target particular legislators to go after; how they seek out, groom and guide the candidates they choose to back; it’s how they communicate to voters and often provide misleading information on legislators and particular votes. It’s the inflammatory tone. It’s the litmus testing of candidates on single, complicated issues. All of this contributes to a perfect storm come election time.”
Berger’s narrow defeat at the polls was probably indicative of more than just alleged dishonest mailings or targeted donations. In the era of Donald Trump, widely popular in Wyoming according to a recent University of Wyoming poll, Berger as a veteran lawmaker was part of the political establishment being derided in both statewide and national rhetoric.
Rep. Mark Kinner, (R, HD 29, Sheridan) faced a challenge from Steven Cain, a restaurant and gun-shop owner who registered as a candidate a week before the deadline and used attacks on Kinner’s voting record similar to Biteman’s mailings. On the Liberty Group Index Berger and Kinner were ranked 35th and 45th, respectively, out of the 60 representatives in the House.
Like Biteman, Steven Cain received the maximum donations from Dan Brophy and his wife. So too did incumbents Rep. Tom Reeder (R, HD-58, Casper) and Rep. Mark Jennings (R, HD-30, Sheridan) ranked third and tenth on the Liberty Index, respectively. Reeder lost by thirteen votes to businessman Patrick Sweeney, whose campaign was almost entirely self funded, while Jennings won his race.
Cain, Biteman, Jennings and Reeder all received money from the Brophys. Other notable donors to their campaigns included Sheridan area ranchers William and Theresa Doenz. In addition to a $1,500 donation by her husband, Theresa Doenz paid $772.50 for campaign fliers and a staffer to support Biteman’s campaign.
In his first primary campaign, in 2014, Jennings was the beneficiary of fliers attacking his opponent, Kathy Coleman, that were paid for by a nonprofit called Republic Free Choice. That primary was pointed to by several legislators as the predecessor to this year’s races. Like the Wyoming Liberty Group, Republic Free Choice was founded by libertarian Susan Gore, the heiress to wealth derived from the inventing of Gore-Tex fabric, as has been laid out in previous WyoFile reporting.
The Wyoming Liberty Group has a tax structure that does not allow it to participate in political campaigns. But Republic Free Choice was set up as a “social welfare” organization, using language that Citizens United allows it to participate in campaigns. Registered as a nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization, Republic Free Choice dealt in what has been called “dark money,” by funding campaign mailings without disclosing where the money came from.
In the 2016 primary, as in past elections, Gore herself donated relatively small amounts of money, including $400 to Bo Biteman. Republic Free Choice had been rolled back into the Wyoming Liberty Group before 2016, and does not appear to have been active during the primaries.
That many within the Republican party are not happy with the direction wealthy libertarian donors hope to push it became clear after the primaries were over. Two members of the Republican party — Charles Curley, then an employee of the Liberty Group and a former analyst for Republic Free Choice, and Doug Gerard, a Gillette-based software engineer — combined several previous Liberty-Index-like rankings into a master list. Curley then emailed the rankings to all Republican legislators, taking care to note the list was a project he and Gerard completed as volunteers, and was connected with neither his role with Wyoming Liberty Group or his position as 2016 secretary of the Republican party.
The reaction within the party was swift, with chairman Matt Micheli sending an email to reassure legislators that Curley and Gerard’s rankings had no association with the Republican Party itself. The ranking had no effect on the party’s official funding distribution process, which is largely for the general election, Micheli wrote: “There was no purity test of rankings in that process.”
The Casper Star-Tribune reported that Curley has left the Liberty Group, and that for now the organization has discontinued the Liberty Index. In a wide-ranging interview with the paper, the new CEO of the Liberty Group, Jonathan Downing, said the organization also is trying to recast its public image. Downing has long worked in Wyoming GOP circles, including as a staffer for both U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi and Gov. Jim Geringer, and he also worked for Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
Funding the groundwork of libertarian thought
Gore and Brophy aren’t the only wealthy libertarians interested in Wyoming’s Legislature. There is also E. Davison Massey. A Chicago resident, Massey and his wife Rebeca also donated the maximum amount to Cain, Biteman, Jennings and Reeder.
One set of Massey donations, to Mark Jennings, comes from Jackson Hole. The rest come from Winnetka, Illinois, an affluent North-Shore suburb of Chicago, where the Masseys own a stately, white stone home with a tree-lined driveway. Like Brophy, Massey is a retired commodities trader and investor. Both men at one point worked at the Chicago Board of Trade, the United States’ largest venue in the commodities market.
Again like Brophy, Massey spreads money to libertarian candidates around the country. Federal filings show that between 2012 and 2014 he gave close to half a million dollars to libertarian or far-right conservative PACs. Newspaper reports from Tennessee in 2010 and New Hampshire in 2015 have linked Massey donations to PACs seeking to create more conservative state legislatures.
Reached by phone, Massey declined to speak with WyoFile about why he is involved in Wyoming political races, and how he picks his candidates. “There’s no reason to discuss such things,” he said.
For his part, Daniel Brophy’s Wyoming home is in the Teton Pines subdivision, a gated enclave also home to former Vice President Dick Cheney. But the money he spends on politics reaches far beyond the state. His wealth is spread to a variety of political organizations, think tanks and educational institutions that further libertarian ideals across the country.
In 2015 he and his wife committed a $1 million donation to the Arizona State University’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership, which seeks to ground students in the roots of intellectual thought behind the Constitution’s founding fathers, free markets and political liberty.
“There’s growing recognition with people who have had a good education that students today are missing exposure to basic elements of the American experience,” Brophy said in a press release at the time.
He is also listed on the board of directors for the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank founded in the late ’80s to further the ideas of 1964 republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
While in some races Brophy’s giving was matched by other donors, for other candidates he made up the great majority, giving them spending abilities they would not have had otherwise.
Rep. Michael Von Flatern (R, S-24, Gillette) faced a challenge from Don Mathis, co-owner of the My Made in America Store in Gillette. Of Mathis’s $3,418 in expenditures, $2,900 came from Brophy and his wife.
Much of Von Flatern’s primary contributions came from traditional PACs, including several connected to the energy business. He is a former coal miner who has lived in Gillette since the 1970s.
The 12-year legislator said it was the most money he’d seen spent in a primary election, by both him and his opponent. Von Flatern said the campaign was free of negativity, and Mathis ran it “like a gentleman.”
Von Flatern believes the House is getting increasingly tough to do business in, with a growing block of ultra-conservative voters who are mostly interested in hardline votes on social issues. It’s the kind of stuff that looks good on campaign literature, but meanwhile issues important to the state will be overshadowed, he said. Politics is the art of compromise, and newcomers looking to influence elections often aren’t interested in compromising, Von Flatern said.
Of the Brophys and other wealthy libertarian donors he said: “I think every one of them came from a different place, and they’re making a concerted effort to shape this state in their likeness.”