CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming Republican Party leaders considered demanding that three state legislators remove themselves from the party because of their involvement with a bill that stripped powers from Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill.
The move by the GOP Central Committee, one they eventually refused, underscores the division bubbling up in the Cowboy State’s dominant political party -- a division a University of Wyoming history professor says mirrors previous political party splits in the state.
During a February meeting in Cheyenne, Republican Central Committee members debated asking Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody; House Speaker Tom Lubanu, R-Gillette, and Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, to remove their names from party rolls “for their part in disgracing the Republican Party by their actions against the people of Wyoming” with Senate File 104, according to the resolution that was debated.
Central Committee member Karl Allred of Evanston said he introduced the resolution because he thinks average Wyoming Republicans oppose the so-called Hill Bill and the Legislature ignored them.
“The biggest problem that the Republican Party has, whether it be nationally or in the state here, is the people feel like the party has lost their credibility,” he said. “… Whether you’re talking about John Boehner nationally or our local legislators in Wyoming, they seem to ignore what we as a party say we stand for.”
Lubnau said he is saddened that the Central Committee debated the measure without allowing legislators to defend their actions. Coe called the resolution offensive. Teeters never responded to messages from the Casper Star-Tribune.
Over the long term, Wyoming Democrats could gain power as a result of the infighting, said University of Wyoming history professor Philip Roberts.
“I think what happens is that sometimes the majority party becomes such a huge majority that egos start clashing within the party and factions start developing and all kinds of splits occur,” he said. “It’s happened in both parties in Wyoming.”
When the Central Committee first read Allred’s resolution on Feb. 9 at the Little America Hotel in Cheyenne, only 11 days had passed since Gov. Matt Mead signed SF104.
Legislators from both parties said the bill was necessary for public education. They pointed to audits that said Hill, a Republican, wasn’t directing her office to make progress on an education accountability system developed by the Legislature. More recently, legislators have said the bill was about difficulties they’ve had with the Department of Education for decades, not just about Hill.
But some Wyoming Republicans thought legislators were interfering with a public official who Wyoming voters, overwhelmingly Republican, had voted in. They didn’t like that the bill went into effect immediately after it was signed. Hill and two Platte County residents sued Mead over its constitutionality. The case is currently before the Wyoming Supreme Court.
Hill did not return a message to comment for the story.
After some discussion at the Little America in Cheyenne, committee member Miles Dalby suggested an amendment to remove from the resolution the paragraph about asking the three legislators to leave the party.
Dalby, who is no longer on the Central Committee because he didn’t seek re-election to his county GOP position, said he was disappointed with the Hill Bill. But he didn’t entirely agree with the resolution, either.
“Going to the level of actually asking someone to resign was a little too far,” he said. “It didn’t really fit the congenial way that we go about doing business in Wyoming. Also, realistically, there is no litmus test. There is no actual creed, so to speak, that determines whether someone is a Republican or not. One becomes a Republican by declaring themselves a Republican.”
After more discussion, the Central Committee agreed to table the resolution and consider it again at a later date.
Allred was OK with tabling the resolution.
“People wanted to do a little more research into it, check with their counties and come back a little more informed,” he said.
By the next Central Committee meeting, April 6 at the Hampton Inn in Buffalo, the Legislature had adjourned and a petition was underway to get a referendum vote on the ballot that, if successful, would repeal the Hill Bill.
The Wyoming Constitution Party began the petition but it gained traction among some Republicans. The Central Committee passed a resolution to support the effort.
Allred voluntarily pulled his resolution and threw his support behind that new resolution, which he described as “better-worded.”
But he said he didn’t regret introducing his petition in February.
“It basically got the discussion going in the Central Committee,” he said.
Lubnau hasn’t seen the resolution but he has heard plenty about it. He said it saddens him that the Legislature never got the chance, either at the February or April Central Committee meetings, to explain their actions.
He said that the resolution may have been an attempt to silence him, but there’s no way to throw a Republican out of the party.
“It’s up to the voters of House District 31 whether I’m sent to the Legislature and it’s up to the members of the House of Representatives whether I’m elected to leadership or not,” he said. “This is the Republican Central Committee taking action for which it has little authority.”
Coe had harsher words: “I find it offensive and I’m sure it came from one of those fringe organizations, either the Tea Party or WyWatch or the Constitution Party."
Republicans freely admit they incorporated the petition from the Constitution Party. Some members of the Tea Party movement are Republicans.
Becky Vandeberghe of WyWatch Family Action told the Star-Tribune in an email that she wasn't involved in the resolution to ask the legislators to resign. WyWatch is an organization that wants more conservative Christian principles in government, including support for traditional families and limits on abortion.
Roberts, the UW history professor, said political infighting has caused both parties to lose elections in the past.
In 1922, then-Gov. Robert Carey, a Republican, lost a primary election, despite a Republican majority in the Legislature. Personality conflicts and disputes such as Carey’s support of Prohibition fractured the party, Roberts said.
The Vietnam War split Wyoming Democrats into two camps at a time when the party held a majority in the state. Each camp rallied around a popular politician who was either for or against troop withdrawal. The warring factions caused Democrat Gale McGee to lose his U.S. Senate seat to Republican Malcolm Wallop, Roberts said.
“I see the Cindy Hill case as an interesting combination of what happens with the majority party when it gets so dominant that it gives up worrying about the other party,” Roberts said. “And the result is, internally, all kinds of things happen, mostly with respect with individuals’ egos that cause problems like this one. After all, I don’t think there was a lot of voter attention paid to the competence level. The issue was not competence but was there an ‘R’ after the person’s name.”
If GOP members continue to squabble, the winners of their primary elections may not appeal to the average Wyomingite and Democrat opponents may be able to defeat them.
"I think it will be a little more balanced,” Roberts said. “In the long run, it will be better for the Republican Party as well as for the state of Wyoming.”