Tensions rise between top leaders and some lawmakers

By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com

After two days of sometimes testy testimony by Wyoming Republican Party stalwarts in favor of a bill to close off primary elections, Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) started pushing back.

“I think there’s been a challenge of groupthink happening within the party,” she said at the Jan. 22 hearing.

The bill to block independents and Democrats from voting in Republican primaries, Nethercott said, was a “knee-jerk reaction” by some party members to moderate Gov. Mark Gordon’s election win over more conservative opponents.

“You have worked very hard to push a candidate, to push a platform and to push a belief in this state,” the Cheyenne senator and attorney said. “And you feel that’s being thwarted.”

A moderate may have won the Republican gubernatorial primary, but moderates have lost control of the Republican party itself. As the 2019 legislative session plays out, the demands and tactics of party officials and the disciples that push their initiatives are meeting friction from lawmakers.

Recent interviews, along with internal party documents and communications, depict a party apparatus obsessed with conservative purity and untrusting of Republican lawmakers clashing with a Legislature that, despite its conservatism, remains more focused on grappling with the minutiae of Wyoming policy problems.

Members of the GOP’s State Central Committee, Chairman Frank Eathorne and other party operatives are lobbying the Legislature in ways they haven’t before, lawmakers said. How effective their tactics are remains to be seen. As the Senate Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee showed not once, but twice last week, many lawmakers push back when the party makes demands. At the same time, party focus on ideological purity and worries about “RINOs” — “Republicans in Name Only” — might stint lobbying efforts, according to both a lawmaker involved with the party apparatus and those who are not.

Comments by both party leaders and GOP lawmakers reveal the philosophical and practical divide between them.

“We took an oath today not to our party allegiances but to the people of Wyoming,” Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) told his chamber in a speech on the opening day of the session.

The party is only informing policy makers of its position, Eathorne said in an interview. “The Wyoming Republican Party serves its interest and so does any other party,” he said. “We have as much right to voice that as any other private individual or special interest groups.”

Tensions are more pointed on social media. On Jan. 22, Michelle Sabrosky, a Natrona County party delegate at the April 2018 GOP convention, posted an email exchange with long-time lawmaker Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) to Facebook.

In the email, addressed to numerous lawmakers, Sabrosky cited 1800s politician and newspaper editor Gideon Tucker: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

Wasserburger responded in kind. “I would reply to you that the same is true every time the Natrona County Central Committee meets,” he wrote.

Eathorne, a soft-spoken rancher who sometimes reads from the party platform at committee meetings, pushed back on the idea that party members were creating tensions with lawmakers. No lawmakers have brought concerns to him, Eathorne said. “That’s really what I based my administration on is being respectful, professional and courteous,” he said. “It’s the Wyoming way of doing business.”

The party has taken official positions of approval or disapproval on 42 pieces of legislation, according to a chart obtained by WyoFile. The chart is marked “Republican Party Sensitive Document – For GOP Use Only.”

Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs), who is both a lawmaker and longtime party official, was part of the meeting where the State Central Committee chose what bills to support or oppose, he said. Stith has served on the State Central Committee since 2002 with some breaks in that service, he said.

He could not recall another session during which the party compiled a list of bills to support or oppose. Stith called it a “good exercise,” akin to votes taken by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and other groups that lobby the Legislature.

“As I told the chairman of the Republican party I’m not always going to vote exactly in line with that list,” Sith said. “But it’s certainly useful for me to know what they care about and what they don’t care about.” 

As a member of the Central Committee, Stith agreed that a pledge should be circulated to Republican elected officials asking them to vote in accordance with the planks of the party platform 80 percent of the time. The pledges were to be circulated among elected officials at the state, district and local levels, according to minutes of a Nov. 17 state central committee meeting obtained by WyoFile. Stith also signed the pledge, he said. 

The pledge evokes Ronald Reagan, Eathorne said. Reagan is quoted as having said “My 80-percent friend is not my 20-percent enemy,” as he worked to bring together disparate factions of the national Republican Party.

Stith did not know if the State Central Committee would tie campaign funds to votes on specific bills, as they did last legislative session on a bill to spend $15 million to boost the state’s air service. “I don’t know what will happen in the future,” he said. “It’s an interesting question.”

A new executive committee chosen in May will decide whether party campaign funds are tied to votes, Eathorne said.

Meanwhile, inquiries to lawmakers in the House of Representatives show the GOP bill list hasn’t made it to all Republican lawmakers. Several lawmakers had not heard of the list when questioned by WyoFile. If there is a strategy behind the secretive nature of the list, it puzzled Stith.

“To me it would make sense frankly for the chairman of the Republican party to distribute it to at least every Republican legislator what bills their party has taken a vote to support or oppose,” Stith said. He has given copies to lawmakers who have asked for them as word of the list has spread, he said.

Eathorne provided the list to legislative leadership, he said, and has also provided a copy to any lawmaker that asked for it.

An email from a party official to State Central Committee members to push support for Senate File 32 – Change in political party affiliation sheds some light on why the GOP might not have  provided all its lawmakers with the list of bills it favors or opposes. The party is reaching out to those who back its positions, not all Republicans, the email obtained by WyoFile suggests.

The Jan. 17 email from party Secretary April Poley provided contact information for Nethercott and other Corporations Committee senators, along with talking points. “The majority of Republican voters that do not regularly switch their party affiliation, strongly support this bill,” read one talking point.

The email also claimed it “was clear the majority of the state” supported closing the GOP primary elections to independent or Democrat voters.

Poley also indicated which Republicans should be counted on to push it.

“Please forward this email to every ‘red’ Republican you know in this state,” Poley wrote at the bottom of the email.

To Nethercott, the party today is close-minded, she said in an interview.

“There’s a lack of acceptance of critical thinking and a lack of disagreement and dialogue,” she said. If problematic at party meetings, the rigidness of party beliefs also demonstrate a lack of respect for how a legislature works, she said.

“A marketplace of ideas is the concept,” Nethercott said.

According to the list, the party opposes every bill to bring in more revenue through tax changes. Opposed bills even include House Bill 69 – Collection of sales tax by marketplace facilitators, which requires vendors to collect an existing tax but does not impose a tax increase or new tax.

On other issues, the party opposes legislation ranging from a bill for national certifications to be applied to Wyoming teachers to a bill to raise the per-diem allowance for lawmakers and other elected or appointed officials.

It supports measures across a range of areas, from a bill dealing with optometrists to a bill to improve Wyoming public records law to Senate File 75 – Repeal gun free zones, which was stymied in committee. Following national conservative positions, the party supports a ban on sanctuary cities and a photo ID requirement for elections.

Of all the measures, SF32 became the hotspot for friction between party officials and lawmakers. Though the bill is dead for now, the debate over primary elections will continue with a similar bill in the House and a revamped Senate version in Senate File 160 – Change in political party affiliation-2.

On social media, self-described conservatives contend they’ve been shut out at the ballot box in Wyoming. They complain that lawmakers adhere to the party line in Republican primaries — often against challengers from the right — and then vote a different way in Cheyenne. Limiting party primaries to the most dedicated Republican party members would open a path to election wins for those candidates most committed to party ideology.

The effort to close primaries this year began with Foster Friess. The day after his Aug. 21 loss in the gubernatorial primary, Friess called for the GOP to change election laws in an email to Eathorne and all the Republican gubernatorial candidates except the victor Gordon.

“What do you think of increasing our chances … of getting a conservative elected four years from now?” Friess began his email. The Jackson Hole millionaire also suggested he would remain involved in Wyoming politics, which he has. He established Foster’s Outriders, a section of his website devoted to pushing for transparency both in government and the healthcare industry.

“God has blessed me with resources that I’m sure He would like to be put to use to further our Founding Father values and His values,” Friess wrote. The Freiss website makes clear his personal and political values are based in conservative Christian ethics.

Now, the priorities of Friess and the Wyoming Republican Party appear to be aligning. In addition to the party switching bills, Foster’s Outriders and the Republican Party together are backing a bill to strengthen public records law. At the Nov. 17 GOP meeting, Eathorne “commended” three Friess initiatives after they were presented to the State Central Committee “as worthy of supporting through county parties,” according to the minutes.  

The initiatives, listed in the minutes under the subheading “Consideration of major donor initiatives,” included two national Friess initiatives and Friess’ fundraising for victims of the destructive Roosevelt fire in western Wyoming.

This past week the Republican National Committee held its annual strategy meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eathorne was unable to attend because of prior commitments. Friess went as his proxy. Friess’ concerns about party switching did not drive the party’s stance, Eathorne said. “We watched the primary and it really has nothing to do with candidates. It has everything to do with the integrity of the electorate,” he said.

Ultimately, Nethercott voted to advance SF32 on Jan. 22. Though opposed to the proposed legislation, Nethercott said she wanted it to be considered by the full Senate. But three other senators, including Senate Corporations Chairman Bill Landen (R-Casper) voted against the bill.

During committee hearings, opposed senators had disputed the idea that a majority of Wyoming voters, or even a majority of Republican ones, wanted to see election laws changed. The party leadership in attendance included Moses Hasenauer, a former Laramie County commissioner and tea party organizer, and Laramie County Republican Party Chairman Darin Smith.

Eathorne had testified at the first committee meeting on SF32, where the number of ‘red’ Republicans testifying in favor required the committee to delay testimony against the legislation for a second meeting.

But senators suggested the people testifying were a vocal minority.

“Sometimes I feel, and this is my personal feeling of course, that leadership doesn’t always represent the bulk of Republicans that have chosen to go under that banner,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said.

Case labeled the bill as designed to “strengthen the people that organize and work in parties,” but not legislation that led Wyoming towards a more representative form of government. “It’s not for us to have rules so that one small segment ends up being king,” he said.

The close vote appeared to block SF32 in committee, leaving lead sponsor Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) to file a new bill to keep the measure afloat.

Republican voters in Landen’s slice of Natrona County weren’t crying out for the change, the Casper Republican said. “I can’t hardly find anybody in my district that sees this as an issue,” he said. In fact, he said, he had heard more from people opposing the bill and saying he was trying to take away their right to vote.

“I’m kind of a liberty and freedom guy,” Landen said. “And that’s the problem I have with this bill. It just doesn’t seem like the Wyoming way.”

When Landen cast the tie-breaking “no” vote on the bill, Hasenauer stomped from the committee room.

If the Jan. 22 committee vote against SF32 was a rebuke to the party leadership, events a day later showed the GOP still had some clout.  

On Jan. 23, Landen decided his committee would reconsider its vote on the bill. Landen reconsidered his vote after consulting with several senators who wanted to debate it on the floor, he told WyoFile, while also acknowledging the party’s interest. The measure had been “deemed an important enough bill by a major constituency that maybe it deserves to be heard on the Senate floor,” he said.

On Jan. 24, the motion to reconsider the bill also failed. Landen voted to reconsider the motion and was joined by Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston). Case and Scott held to their ‘no’ votes. Nethercott changed her vote to join the opposing senators and again ensure the committee voted against the bill.

“It was a difficult vote and it failed and it was time to stand with the decision and move forward,” Nethercott told WyoFile.  

Party officials aren’t done pushing the effort to prevent “crossover” votes, and with four weeks left in the legislative session they still have significant options.

In the Senate, Biteman’s Senate File 160 – Change in political party affiliation-2 would stop voters from registering in a new political party beginning two weeks before absentee ballots are distributed. Perkins assigned the bill to the Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands Committee. On Friday he told reporters he would not assign the bill to the Senate Corporations Committee, because he wanted to see it make the floor.

House Bill 106 – Party affiliation changes, sponsored by Rep. Jim Blackburn (R-Cheyenne), awaits a hearing from the House Corporations Committee. It would bar changes in political party registration after May 1.

When pushing their legislative initiatives, Republican party officials enjoy an advantage that’s not afforded to ordinary citizens or lobbyists for industries or advocacy groups. When the Republican lawmakers — a voting supermajority — retreat behind closed doors to discuss legislation in the party caucus, Eathorne and the party’s executive director can attend.

When it comes to primary election concerns, Eathorne isn’t the only one lobbying lawmakers. The state’s top election official, Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, also appears interested in restricting party registration during primaries.

During a Jan. 10 interview with WyoFile, Buchanan said his office did not support or oppose the bill. “We don’t take a position on it,” he said. But the former lawmaker expressed interest in the idea.

“There are good reasons for legislation like this and I suppose other folks have reasons for saying we should stay with the status quo,” he said.

In Friday morning press conferences, Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) and Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) told reporters Buchanan talked to them about the issue on a recent trip to Las Vegas.

The legislative leaders, along with Wyoming’s five elected officials, flew to Las Vegas last week to visit the SHOT show, a convention for the firearms and hunting industries. Wyoming has had some success luring such businesses to the state, and the convention was a frequent stop for former-governor Matt Mead.

On the trip, Buchanan talked to legislative leaders about primary switching, Perkins said. Buchanan told them that the primary election had concerned him. Buchanan spoke to the State Central Committee about crossover voting at its November meeting, according to the minutes.

Buchanan spoke about a “concerted effort” by donors on the left, Perkins said. He was likely referring to the Switch for Wyoming campaign, which spent around $31,400 on advertising to encourage moderates and Democrats to vote for Mark Gordon and against Foster Friess. It’s not clear what impact the group had on the election, with all its ad spending coming in the last week of the primary.

Buchanan labeled the campaign as “significant outside interference … trying to affect a Wyoming election,” Perkins said. Buchanan assured the House and Senate leaders that “there was interference” in the primary election.

Switch for Wyoming disclosed the name of some donors in filings with the Secretary of State, while other major backers disclosed themselves in response to WyoFile inquiries following the primary election. [Two of the backers of that effort — Liz Storer and Paul Klingenstein — are financial supporters of WyoFile.]  

The Republican gubernatorial primary also saw significant election spending by other groups, many attacking Gordon as insufficiently conservative. The source of the money behind those efforts has never been revealed.

Harshman also talked about “dark money” encouraging party switching.

He wanted to see lawmakers find a compromise on the length of time in which to bar party switching, he said. He called a May deadline excessive. “The biggest issue is kind of what happened this year,” Harshman said. Like Perkins, he referred to a “concerted effort” to encourage crossover voting.  

A week earlier in the session, the speaker had told reporters concerns about crossover voting wasn’t worrying constituents. “That thing is not filling up my emails by people in my House District,” he said. “It’s not.”

Some of that sentiment remained on Friday.