There’s nothing like knocking off a few bruised and battered “Republican in name only” incumbents in a Wyoming primary election to make self-proclaimed “real conservatives” whoop and holler
Four-term moderate Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) had the biggest target on his back, with several groups and well-heeled conservative donors out to end his political career. They helped Troy McKeown trounce Von Flatern by more than 1,000 votes last Tuesday.
He wasn’t the only high-profile GOP legislator to fall out of favor with voters. House Majority Whip Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance) won his 2016 general election race with 90% of the vote and was unopposed two years later.
Lindholm ran into a buzz-saw in this year’s primary, though, losing to Chip Neiman by 219 votes. It was a shocker, given his rapid rise in the Republican ranks. Neiman successfully campaigned as “the true conservative” in the race, pledging to protect the Second Amendment and vote against all tax hikes.
It was the common theme of extreme-right candidates who also managed to oust a trio of House Republican lawmakers: Reps. Bill Pownall of Gillette, Dan Kirkbride of Chugwater and Thomas Crank of Diamondville.
In many races, things got nasty. Von Flatern was the victim of a brutal assault by the Wyoming Gun Owners, whose manager, Aaron Dorr, posted a video declaring him “the worst back-stabbing, lying-to-your-face piece of trash” in the Senate.
Wyoming is only a part-time gig for Dorr, who runs a network of similar gun rights groups with his two brothers in other states.
Despite that, WYGO is laughing in the face of the Frontier Republicans, a group of traditional conservatives and moderates who called for a civil discourse of ideas in the wake of the far right’s takeover of the Wyoming Republican Party’s top offices.
Von Flatern has never opposed safe gun ownership, he told the Gillette News Record, adding that WYGO was trying to raise money by attacking him.
Both U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi and Wyoming Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) rushed to Von Flatern’s defense against WYGO’s claims. “They don’t go after most of the people on raw facts,” Driskill told the newspaper. “They use slander and innuendo to try to impinge their character.”
Despite that, Von Flatern was defeated. Following the election, Dorr put down his weapons long enough to declare on WYGO’s website that the group “obliterated gun grabbers” and will “terrify anti-gun Republicans in Cheyenne for years to come!”
But WYGO was hardly the only group to have Von Flatern and others on its hit list. WyoRINO — a group that claims to unmask “Republicans in name only” — rated legislators based on their votes on 10 issues during the 2020 budget session. Its assessment deemed only 18 of the 77 Republican lawmakers as upholding the party’s conservative values.
Von Flatern received a “0” score from the group, as did Crank. Kirkbride earned a 20, and Pownall doubled that. Lindholm voted with the group on half the issues it claimed truly mattered.
Evidence Based Wyoming, a blog written by former Campbell County Republican Chairman Doug Gerard, rates each legislator based on his or her entire voting record each year. Along with all 12 Democrats, he ranked Von Flatern, Crank and 10 other Republicans “very liberal.”
As a progressive Wyoming voter, I consider that absolutely absurd. There isn’t a single Republican who now serves in the Legislature who merits that rating. Heck, I wouldn’t put all the Democrats in that extreme-left category, either.
“This election has been a reasonably brutal one,” Gerard wrote. “There is a battle being waged openly for the first time in my memory for the Republican Party’s soul.”
The battle appears to have ended in a split decision. Casper Star-Tribune political reporter Nick Reynolds, who has faithfully tracked the rise of the far right in the GOP and Legislature, analyzed the 2020 results. He found that 10 of 22 candidates funded by Wyoming Liberty Group founder Susan Gore won their races. The Brophy family, another powerhouse in Wyoming’s ultra-conservative circles, triumphed in more than half of the 27 races they invested in.
I’d ask the people behind the website wyorino.com to explain how the hundreds of votes lawmakers cast during the year are cherry-picked for the ratings system, but there’s no one to ask. The group is anonymous.
Crank was the site’s “RINO of the Month” for August, while Von Flatern and Pownall received that dishonor in May and June, respectively.
But not all of its recent targets lost their competitive primary contests. Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) defeated Lyle Williams and Rex Rammell, while Rep. Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment) easily won a four-way race.
The incumbent that WyoRINO reserved most of its vitriol for, Rep. Pat Sweeney of Casper, nearly doubled the vote total of his far-right opponent, Burton Schoenwolf. Sweeney, bless his moderate heart, provoked the ire of the right by voting for Medicaid expansion and against so-called pro-life bills.
Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody), apparently a villainess in the eyes of ultra-conservatives, saw opponent Nina Webber put up billboards that depicted a rhinoceros on the left side (naturally). On the right was Webber, wearing a red, white and blue outfit and brandishing a rifle. The sign declared she was “going western on Wyo RINOs.”
Webber will have to put the billboards and weapons in mothballs until the next election, because Newsome easily beat her and House District 24 third-place finisher Scott Court —who had previously held the seat and was aiming to retake it.
Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne, former WYGO executive director, was the election’s biggest mudslinger, hands down. In a mailer sent out about a week before voters went to the polls, Bouchard claimed that his opponent, Erin Johnson, had been fired from Gov. Mark Gordon’s staff “because of her incompetence and unethical behavior.”
In a statement, Gordon quickly rebuked Bouchard for his baseless claims, calling Johnson a valued member of his team while she served in his office. “I hope voters will make their decisions based on issues, not careless insinuation,” the governor wrote.
Johnson told the Star-Tribune that Bouchard has “resorted to flat-out lies in a desperate attempt to defame me.” She said his slanderous and unethical behavior should disqualify him from representing Senate District 6.
It should, but so far it hasn’t. It’s impossible to know how many votes the smear may have cost Johnson, but she lost by 161. Bouchard faces Democrat Brittney Wallesch in the general election.
In addition to inter-party squabbles for the Republican Party’s soul, one of the main reasons for the ascension of the extreme right in the Legislature is that few Democrats even want to get involved in red-state politics. No Democrat filed for 10 of the 15 Senate seats up for grabs, or in 41 of the 60 House districts.
That leaves it up to moderate Republicans like Barry Crago to fill the void and offer some resistance to the extreme faction of his party. The Johnson County deputy attorney handily defeated incumbent Rep. Richard Tass of Buffalo, possessor of a “real Republican” crown bestowed by wyorino.com.
Tass pledged to keep saying “no” to all tax increases, but Crago refused to take such a vow in an interview with Big Horn Mountain Radio.
“I’m not going to say I’m never going to raise taxes,” said Crago, who is unopposed in the general election. “Because I don’t think that’s a logical way to approach the problem. If I go to Cheyenne with preconceived ideas and I’m not willing to [look at] solutions or suggest my own, then I probably shouldn’t go.”
Wow! His brave, common-sense declaration ensures he will be instantly denounced as a RINO by GOP ranters and raters, but as a passenger on the good ship “Very Liberal,” may I heartily say to Rep.-elect Crago, “Welcome aboard, sir.”