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Primaries set most of Legislature, general will decide balance of power

The Wyoming State Capitol Building in Cheyenne. (File Photo)

By Maggie Mullen,

When the 67th Wyoming Legislature convenes in January, more than one-third of the House of Representatives will be brand new. The Senate will have five new members, two of whom came from the House.

But the degree to which the new faces bring an ideological shift remains to be seen — in part because of contested House races in the November general election.

Challengers who ran anti-RINO — Republican in name only — campaigns defeated seven incumbents last week in the Republican primary.

Among the fallen incumbents is former Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper). Most high-profile legislative targets of the party’s right wing survived, however. Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) and Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), both of whom serve in leadership roles, retained their seats.

With Democrats absent from 10 of 16 Senate contests and 43 of 62 House races, the Republican primary determined much of the Legislature’s make-up. Several Libertarian candidates are expected to appear on ballots in November, and independent candidates have until Aug. 29 to file — both factors could influence the body’s make-up. Meantime, other critical races will come down to a more traditional contest between a Republican and a Democrat.

Three members of the House Freedom Caucus — a coalition formed in 2020 to challenge what it described as moderate GOP legislative leadership — gambled their House seats for a shot at the Senate. Only one was successful.

Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell) beat incumbent Sen. R.J. Kost (R-Powell) and Kost’s predecessor, Ray Peterson, for Senate District 19.

Reps. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston) and Bill Fortner (R-Gillette), meanwhile, fell short. Wharff failed to oust Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Powell) from Senate District 15. Fortner was unable to dislodge Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill from District 1.

About one-third of Wharff’s fundraising came from Dan and Carleen Brophy. The wealthy Jackson couple have developed a reputation for funding anti-establishment candidates in Wyoming. So far this cycle, the pair has spent more than $152,000, mostly on legislative candidates.

Out of 51 Brophy-backed legislative candidates, 21 lost their races, including incumbent Sen. Tom James (R-Green River) and Roger Connett, former chair of the Crook County GOP Party. Connett joined Fortner in challenging Driskill, who won the three-way race with about 40% of the vote.

The Brophys did not respond to WyoFile requests for comment.

As majority floor leader, Driskill is in line to be Senate president. The anonymous website labeled Driskill the June, 2022 “RINO of the month.”

Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) was the only other state representative to win a seat in the upper chamber. Senate District 23 was an open seat after Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) — July’s “RINO of the Month” — did not seek re-election. Barlow won handily against a write-in campaign by Patricia Junek.

The biggest upset in the Senate came in District 29. Challenger Bob Ide unseated Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) by 302 votes. The race was the costliest legislative contest in the state’s history with about $115,000 in contributions between the two candidates, according to campaign finance reports.

Perkins has served in the Senate since 2007, including as president of the body from 2019-2020 and more recently as co-chair of the powerful Joint Appropriations Committee. During his long tenure, he played a key role in crafting important legislation, said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander).

“That’s where Perkins was a star,” Case said. “He was always a builder. He could understand where legislation had to go, and the nuances.”

Case is less confident in Ide, who has not held public office before. Ide challenged Perkins before, in 2014, but lost that race by about 300 votes. Videos and photographs show Ide — who ran on a pro-freedom, small-government platform — in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, and close to the Capitol during the insurrection. Ide did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.

Case, a 29-year veteran of the Wyoming Legislature, fended off his own primary election challenger, retired Colorado law enforcement officer Shawn Olmstead, with about 55% of the vote. Olmstead had the financial backing of the Brophys and was among the candidates invited to the all-day Save Wyoming rally in July.

The Fremont County GOP censured Case earlier this year for supporting Medicaid expansion, among other things.

“I stand tall, and the people in my district are going to decide whether I need to be thrown out or not,” Case said at the time. He won by about 480 votes.

Despite his victory, Case is concerned about the quality of legislation that will come out of this new Senate, he said. He’s also uncertain the body will get much done.

“I guarantee it’s harder. It’s harder when it’s this polarized,” Case said.

Concerns over quality and effectiveness have bubbled in recent years, especially as the success rate of committee bills has declined. In 2022, only 59% of introduced committee bills survived to become law — a 23-year low, according to the Legislative Service Office.

House incumbents who lost to anti-RINO challengers were concentrated in central Wyoming. Reps. Aaron Clausen (R-Douglas), Joe MacGuire (R-Casper) and Pat Sweeney (R-Casper) all lost their races for reelection, as did Reps. JD Williams (R-Lusk) and Shelly Duncan (R-Lingle).

Two open House seats in northeast Wyoming also went to candidates expected to bolster the ranks of the Freedom Caucus — Abby Angelos and Ken Pendergraft.

A whistleblowers’ list obtained by WyoFile identified Pendergraft as a member of the far-right anti-government Oath Keepers group.

Angelos campaigned closely with Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), a vocal member of the House Freedom Caucus, who ran unopposed this year. Bear did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, Reps. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody), Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne), Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), John Eklund (R-Cheyenne) and Steve Harshman (R-Casper) all fended off Brophy-backed challengers.

Notably, so did Rep. Albert Sommers, who defeated Mike Schmid. As House majority floor leader, Sommers would traditionally be expected to become speaker of the house. But given some of the losses by moderates, that may not be a slam dunk, according to Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne).

“I think it’ll be probably the closest leadership votes we’ve ever had in my 20 years,” said Zwonitzer, who also fended off primary challengers after his party  targeted him during the last session. His father and former lawmaker, Dave Zwonitzer, also won his primary bid for House District 8, which redistricting left open.

While the House Freedom Caucus did not come out of the primary with a resounding sweep, Zwonitzer said, the group appears to have gained at least two more seats. The caucus does not disclose its membership, but Zwonitzer and others estimate its members occupy 20 seats, nearly a third of the 62-member House. Should it pick up more seats in the general election, Zwonitzer said, the bloc could wield significant power, especially during budget sessions, like 2024, when bills require a two-thirds majority vote for introduction.

Because the Freedom Caucus operates behind the scenes, Zwonitzer said it is difficult to suss out aligned candidates. Plus, candidates that run anti-RINO campaigns sometimes come to different realizations in Cheyenne, Zwonitzer said.

“When they really get to see what we’re like and [that] it’s not super, liberal RINO-ville, and that things are pretty conservative here … a number of new legislators realize that it’s not as bad as it was made out to be believed every term,” Zwonitzer said.

A handful of general-election contests will determine the final composition of the 67th Wyoming Legislature and with it the balance of power between traditional establishment Wyoming Republicans and the anti-establishment new wave.

In Albany County, Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie) will face Republican Bryan Shuster for House District 14. Recently considered one of the safest Democratic seats in the Legislature, HD 14 has been redistricted to include the small town of Rock River, making it more competitive.

Former Democratic lawmaker Sara Burlingame is running for her old seat, House District 44, in Cheyenne against Republican Tamara Trujillo. Trujillo defeated Burlingame’s successor John Romero-Martinez in the primary. Legislative leadership had investigated Romero-Martinez for making death threats against Burlingame and Rep. Andi LeBeau (D-Riverton).

LeBeau, whose district encompasses the Wind River Indian Reservation, will face Sarah Penn, who beat two other Republicans in the primary.

The Senate was already further to the right than the House, according to Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson).

“And they’ve gotten even more further to the right than they were before. So I think there’s a higher risk in the Senate than there is in the House for crazy power dynamics,” Yin said.

Despite what he sees as a shift to the right, Yin said he thinks there are still plenty of Republican lawmakers that have “shared goals” with Democrats, such as education, keeping young people in Wyoming and lowering healthcare costs.

“What that looks like moving forward I think is going to involve a long discussion with a lot of people and will depend for sure on how these general elections turnout,” Yin said.

The general election is Nov. 8.

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