CASPER, Wyo. — After a year of turmoil between mainstream Park County Republicans and Tea Partiers that almost resulted in the censure of a state GOP senator, a record number of people are running for grassroots county positions that can change the makeup of local party leadership.
The positions are precinct committeeman and precinct committeewoman.
Many of Wyoming’s most prominent establishment Republicans are running for the positions, including former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson; his wife, Ann Simpson; his son, Colin Simpson, who was speaker of the Wyoming House in 2009 and 2010 and a gubernatorial candidate in 2010; and Colin’s wife, Deborah O. Simpson; state Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody; and state Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell.
Precinct representatives are elected during the primary and are members of the county central committee, according to state law.
The representatives elect the county party’s executive board. They propose and vote on party platforms and resolutions every two years at the county convention. They knock on doors and remind Republicans to vote for Republican candidates, said Terry Hinkle, a Cody precinct committeeman for the past dozen years who is running for another two-year term.
At the Park County Republican Convention in March, tea party members led an effort to censure Coe, in part due to his role in 2013’s Senate File 104 that temporarily removed Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill as head of the Wyoming Department of Education. While a majority of the convention voted in favor of the censure, it didn’t win a supermajority necessary for the measure to succeed.
Tea Party members took out an ad in the local paper that said “Coe must go.” Coe responded with his own ad.
Many Park County Republicans are members of the Big Horn Basin TEA party, one of the state’s most active Tea Parties.
Hinkle’s wife, Tonia Grdina, said most of the precinct committeemen and committeewomen who will be on the Aug. 19 ballot will represent the establishment wing of the party that supports incumbent Republicans.
“There’s been widespread dissatisfaction with current leadership, much concern among mainstream Republicans at what’s going on at the local party,” she said. “I think people have realized that if they’re not happy with what’s going on, the way to fix it is to run for precinct rep.”
But Park County GOP Chairman Larry French cautioned that each person running should be interviewed to determine whether they’re part of the establishment, or what French describes as members of the party’s liberal or progressive wing.
“I would suggest to you the liberal wing or progressives or establishment will not prevail over the conservatives,” he said.
Grdina said half the Central Committee is made up of Tea Party Republicans and half is mainstream or establishment Republicans.
But French disagrees with that assessment, noting Coe’s censure received a majority of votes. French also disagrees with the term “mainstream Republican” to describe establishment Republicans. The conservatives in the party represent the mainstream, he said.
Hinkle said since Tea Party members have become active in the Central Committee, quarterly meetings have become monthly meetings with discussions by members of the conservative John Birch Society or discussions about how the governor or lawmakers are wrong. Many precinct reps view themselves as “mini legislators,” Hinkle said.
“It’s just crazy,” he said. “They bring John Birch Society people in. The current leadership is doing this, Larry French.”
There’s nothing wrong with more meetings or more political participation, said French, who added that he is carrying out many of the changes in the Central Committee after a majority vote implemented them.
“The John Birch society is a very constitutional-oriented thing,” he said. “And the gentleman who brings us some literature, I’ve never seen him to be obnoxious. He’s never taken more than several minutes.”
Northrup said he has served as a committeeman in the past. He’s running this year “to bring the party to the middle,” he said.
Coe said Republicans in Wyoming’s northwesternmost county have reached out in support when the Tea Party newspaper ad was published. They are running to change the party, he said.
While Coe has no interest in sitting on the executive board, he would like to see new Republican faces on it. The board election is next year.
In Park County, there are 29 precincts. There are 45 pairs of precinct committeemen and committeewomen up for election, since some precincts have more than one pair, said Jerri Torczon, Park County clerk.
The number of reps per precinct changes every two years and is based on population and the number of people who voted for U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis in 2010, she said.
This year, 121 Republicans will be on the ballot. In 2012, 56 Republicans ran.
Democrats also have 29 precincts. They will receive a committeeman and a committeewoman because of the number of registered Democrats who voted in 2010, among other factors. This year, 12 Democrats are running as precinct reps for their party. That’s up from two years ago, when only three people ran, she said.
Robin Van Ausdall, executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said Democrats in Park County are trying to build up their organization.
“It doesn’t mean that Cody’s going to turn blue and elect Democrats up and down the ticket,” she said. “But I think there are a lot of people who are really unhappy with how extreme things have become in the area, and this is a response to that.”