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Wyoming's GOP is working to expand its dominance. But the effort could have consequences.

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GOP Power

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, goes over bills during the first day of the 65th legislative session on Jan. 8 in Cheyenne. 

CHEYENNE -- In a Legislature as jam-packed as Wyoming's, it's hard for things to go unnoticed. Controversial bills steal headlines, large personalities vie for influence, influential lobbyists dash from hearing to hearing and travelers flock to the Capitol from around the state in hopes of swinging major votes for their towns.

Behind it all -- the big debates, the major battles -- is a group of the Legislature's most powerful members known as the Management Council. Made up mostly of the floor leadership for both chambers, the Management Council dictates the flow of debate in the Legislature, one designed to empower even the lowest of the rank-and-file members. This is the group that decides when and where meetings are held, the pace and workflow of the Legislature, even the rules of decorum that all members must follow while in session.

In short, the Management Council sets the rules for the lawmakers, influencing the way Wyoming does government.

“It affects legislators’ day-to-day lives in ways they don’t understand,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, the Senate Minority Leader and a member of the council.

The Republican Party this session has made moves to seize a greater portion of that power. Sponsored by 19 Republican senators, Senate File 161 would remove a set quota for members of the minority party to be elected to Management Council. Passed by the Senate 25-4 in what was a rubber-stamped vote from the start, the bill would further undercut the already dwindling influence of Democrats in both the House and Senate, according to the measure's opponents.

It's one of multiple steps taken by Republicans to consolidate power in Wyoming, even as they already dominate the state's political landscape.

Behind the scenes and on the floor of the Legislature, lobbyists and representatives from the state's GOP have flexed their muscles on certain pieces of legislation, such as an effort to pass an employment nondiscrimination bill, which was killed after intense Republican pressure. Meanwhile the party -- which observers say has grown increasingly conservative in the past decade -- has pursued aspirations of greater purity by pushing to close its primaries and ban crossover voting. That effort has resulted in stoking fears that Democratic-led interference has forced the party to elect more moderate candidates -- like Gov. Mark Gordon, who won a tough, contested 2018 primary against several hardline conservatives -- rather than candidates who toe the party line.

Some, however, believe these efforts will backfire.

In several interviews with the Star-Tribune, moderate Republican lawmakers and political insiders describe a party infrastructure that -- while at the height of its powers -- is becoming increasingly narrow in scope. The party could be on the cusp of alienating broad swaths of voters, they say, through its increasing overreach into the structure of state government -- enough so that it might threaten the supermajority the party has amassed over the past several decades.

Cale Case

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, talks with a colleague at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne. 

“There’s a lot to this," said Sen. Cale Case, a Lander Republican. "Are we becoming redder just because other areas of the country are becoming bluer? It feels a little bit like that. There is a rural divide. But there is a big group in the middle that is more fragile than Republicans realize. And when you go to the conventions or the precinct committees, it’s always the same people making the same appointments. There’s a universe of people turned off of it who are registered Republican or vote Republican, but I can’t say that rank and file is the same as (Chairman of the state Republican Party Frank) Eathorne.

"I don’t think they have much in common. And I think that’s going to show up one day.”

“There will be a reaction down the road," he said.

Growing power

Around Cheyenne, many would say that Wyoming’s Republican Party is more powerful than it’s ever been.

Across the state, two out of every five people of voting age are registered Republicans, a number that has been growing annually. In the Legislature this year, the party has wielded its power like an iron mace, killing bills pushing for a nondiscrimination law -- a stance originating from a line in the party’s platform opposing the creation of new “protected classes" -- and successfully advancing a bill to ban crossover voting despite numerous defeats. Members of the party also succeeded in passing through the House of Representatives two bills it supported on abortion, both by large margins, and narrowly missed passing a measure in the same body that would have required a state or federally issued photo ID at the ballot box.

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Another policy goal for Republicans this year, Eathorne said, was changing the makeup of the Management Council, a goal in the party’s crosshairs since its November central committee meeting in Sheridan.

“We were looking at the proportion of Democrats to Republicans on the Management Council, and we thought it presented a disproportional number compared to the number of Republicans in the Legislature,” Eathorne said. “We looked at legislative wins the party has worked on that we thought best represent the values of the residents of Wyoming, and when you look at the supermajority in both chambers, the party’s sentiment has been that the Management Council should represent that balance as closely as possible.”

In 2019, the state GOP seems at peak form. In conversations around the capitol this session, even Democrats are quick to admit that many of the state’s elections are decided in the primaries -- usually on the Republican side –- and in the Republican Party itself, the level of engagement seems to have grown.

“The democratic process is really active in the Republican Party. We have layers of voices that are in the smallest political subdivisions up through the state party and on to the elected,” Eathorne said. “I’m pleased to say the activity level and engagement level is higher than I’ve seen it, with more grassroots activity than I’ve ever seen on these issues. That’s why we’re seeing the successes in the Legislature and in the national party. Those silent voices have risen up, and we’re listening to them now.”

“We know that when Republican values win, Wyoming wins,” he added. “And we’re seeing quite a bit of that this session.”

Influence and control

A six-year member of the Management Council, Rothfuss understands well the mathematics facing a minority member among the Legislature’s elite.

Wyoming's Democrats were once a formidable group. In 1965, the then-23 person House of Representatives elected 17 Democrats to the House and, in the five years following the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, dozens of Democrats were elected to their first terms in the Legislature, according to a review of legislative membership numbers maintained by the state archives. In the years since, that membership has slipped. Today, just three Democrats sit on the 30-person Senate. Only nine are serving in the 60-person House of Representatives.

Chris Rothfuss

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, sits at his desk during the 2018 legislative sessino. 

Existing in a legislature where a single party has had “veto override” powers (more than two-thirds majority representation) for the better part of half a century, the 13-member Management Council is designed to give the Legislature’s minority voices an amplified voice.

Though Democrats are outnumbered in the Legislature, it only takes them two flipped votes to change the course of a vote in the Management Council.

Rothfuss remembers one occasion where the council discussed a shortage in availability of staff in the Legislative Service Office -- which crafts bills, conducts research and provides back-end support -- and whether the council should restrict access to them to only committee chairmen and party leadership. If passed, Rothfuss said, the flow of power in the Legislature would have fallen to the whims of a select few, and the ability for lower-ranking members’ voices to be heard would have been severely limited.

“It would have further concentrated power to the majority leadership and marginalized the opposition voices within the majority party,” he added. “That’s a place where having a strong minority voice isn’t just for the minority, it’s for the rank-and-file members of the chamber, to speak up for them in the conversations nobody is even aware are happening.”

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In a Legislature long controlled by Republicans, any change in the dynamic of the Management Council could close the door on dissent, he argued, and further marginalize the voices of Democrats not just in the Legislature but around the state. Rothfuss noted that many lawmakers have constituencies with their fair shares of Democrats and, while the Management Council could be representative of the Legislature itself, doing so would not represent the makeup of the state they’re meant to represent.

“The Management Council is very leadership focused,” said freshman Rep. Mike Yin, a Democrat from Teton County. “Even the other floor members who are Republican can’t necessarily get their voices heard when the leadership makes all the decisions there.”

“As one party consolidates control more and more and more, it makes it difficult for anyone else to get elected,” Case, the Lander Republican, said in a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor. “And that eats at people inside. And over time, you get a shift. And it’s a surprising one. I actually think this bill is probably good for the minority party. It really is. Because in years to come, if the majority party continues to consolidate and runs things in the state, people will get tired of that. It’s a natural, human tendency.

"It’s also a tendency for people in power to let it go to their heads. Having balance, and allowing people to pursue that balance, is a good thing.”

A shrunken, shrinking minority

Wyoming’s Democrats -- by nature -- are tough, state chairman Joe Barbuto said. They have to be, as they are outnumbered in the Legislature and in voter registration.

As such, Democrats aren’t always losers in legislation, and this year they have managed to win a number of small victories, including winning bipartisan support to get a nondiscrimination bill to the floor of the House, making significant headway with legislation to improve wage conditions in Wyoming (though most of the five bills related to that subject eventually died) and getting a ranked-choice voting bill to the Senate floor, where it was also voted down.

Most of the bills that died, as observers will note, never had a chance. But they were, at least, debated -- a victory, particularly for a party facing such steep opposition.

Numbers matter, however. Legislative leadership and committee chairmanships are not necessarily granted by a meritocracy of one’s adherence to party virtues, but one’s values -- and how they align with the values of the party in power -- do play a role.

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“I haven’t viewed the party as having much influence on the leadership,” Case said. “It is true with (Republican lawmaker) Michael Von Flatern -- he was in line for leadership, didn’t get it, clearly because he wasn’t fiscally conservative enough."

Rothfuss says that effort is more transparent than Republicans are willing to say and that they have been actively working to marginalize the opposition.

“We know the GOP itself has been pushing for more party purity and party loyalty and shrinking the tent in a way that isolates and alienates members of our chamber who may belong to that party,” he said. “That does lead to serious concerns among members of both parties in our chamber, but not enough.”

Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, see the shifts in power as an inevitability in a system where groups like the Management Council are intended not to be representative of the people, but of the body they control.

“Ultimately, when the Legislature as a whole only has 15 percent of the seats in the legislature as the minority but have 40 percent representation in the Management Council … every Democrat in the Senate is on the Management Council," he said. "All the other 27 (Republican) members only have four. It’s just so out of proportion.”

Whether it’s fair or not, he added, is a separate question.

“I remember when we had a senator and a congressman who were Democrats, the governor was a Democrat, and it wasn’t so long ago the Senate was split down the middle,” Perkins said. “Things change. The majority party ought to be careful, because the majority party might not always be the majority party.”

Blind, loyal partisanship

Partisanship is a learned mechanism of political systems the world over, a concept wrestled and wrangled with throughout American history. Though the concept earned no mention in the United States Constitution and was, in fact, explicitly opposed by founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the necessity of one faction joining to oppose another was justified as a necessary vehicle of debate.

However, early proponents of the system argued that balance was required. Thomas Jefferson was once quoted as saying it would not benefit the public good to maintain a party majority in Congress greater than two to one, hailing an effective minority’s purpose as censors for the worst impulses of their opposing party.

The ability to maintain an open mind within one’s party, Jefferson later said, was also important to remember.

“Such an addiction (to partisanship) is the last degradation of a free and moral agent,” he said. “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

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“As we move toward this desire of a one-party system, you have less and less a diversity of ideas, and the majority party becomes more and more capable of controlling the outcome, the message," Rothfuss said. "And things in this instance become more conservative in a detrimental way.”

“If you think the problem the state of Wyoming has at this point is there are too many Democrats in the Legislature, then I don’t think you’re analyzing the history of the state correctly,” he added. “Obviously, the problem isn’t a lack of GOP -- the problem is not a lot of ideas being brought to the table that can solve this problem. A stronger minority voice will strengthen that much more so than more of the majority voice. That creates an echo chamber once it grows large enough.”

Some have seen symptoms of something similar in Wyoming’s GOP, with the arrival of a hyper-partisan line in the sand that has enjoyed growing success in some areas of the state.

While good for the brand of some legislators, Case said, it hurts others.

“If Republicans keep putting polarizing people out there, the Democrats will gain ground,” said Case, a self-described libertarian who is fiscally conservative but offers a stark contrast to the state GOP on social issues. “It can happen in the Legislature, too.”

“I don’t know if it’s all a result of the party meddling, but it does seem to be more difficult for moderate Republicans these days,” he added. “And that will have consequences over time.”

Whiplash and dissent

Representatives of the Republican Party have referred to the primary system as a mechanism of their right to exercise political speech. With a principled, conservative platform, many have felt the party's moderates are not representative of the platform. Allegations that Democrats are purposefully switching parties to elect more moderates have galvanized those conservatives, who have pursued tighter restrictions on party primaries this session in an effort to ensure that the Republican Party remains as conservative as the party believes it has a voter-granted mandate to maintain.

On the other hand, some have expressed fears that moving to a closed primary system -- while practiced in other states like New York -- will have one of two consequences: It will either lead to single-party rule in Wyoming or create a GOP litmus test so strict it will lead to an exodus of Republicans from the party.

Legislature Day One

Rep. Art Washut of Casper sits at his desk in the Wyoming House of Representatives chambers Tuesday during the opening of the 65th legislative session. Washut is serving his first term in the Legislature. 

Republicans, in their arguments, have maintained such a practice is within their right, and they have made the case that a closed primary could actually lead to a stronger Democratic Party, helping to restore the state’s long-neglected two-party system.

“I think that’s a little difficult to predict, but I would say the argument for a more robust Democratic Party certainly exists,” said Eathorne, the GOP party chairman. "And I think that’s needed. The differentiation between the ideals of the parties nationally is growing further and further apart. Wyoming, we are smaller, a group of friends and neighbors with different political ideologies -- we work together -- but to respectfully discuss differences, I think, gets muted in the system we have.”

“I think whatever risk there is lies with whether or not the electorate sees it as worth it -- let’s give it a try,” he added.

However, in conversations on the House floor, skeptics like Case have speculated such a strategy could actually backfire. Some have hinted that the state party leadership -- despite managing an impressive and enthusiastic ground game -- could be sitting on a throne of air that will begin to deflate as it moves further right, alienating not just moderate Republicans but the jaded Democrats who joined the party just to have a say in an election that mattered.

According to an analysis of data from the Secretary of State’s office compiled by longtime Republican and former legislative candidate Gail Symons, this possibility is quite real, supported by figures implying the current state GOP strategy is not representative of its entire membership. 

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Symons, who now lobbies in Cheyenne for a civic education organization she recently founded, has been a regular at meetings regarding crossover voting, sharing data that shows it’s not “mischevious voting” that is the issue in the state’s elections: It’s participation.

The narrative to the contrary, however, is actually a symptom of the bottom-up structure of the central Republican committee, she said, which sets the platform for the entire state. Out of nearly 14,000 registered voters in her home of Sheridan County, just under 60 percent of all registered Republicans participated in the 2018 primary elections, state elections data shows. However, of the 60 percent of people in Sheridan County who actually voted in that election, just under 40 percent of that group voted for the 45 candidates there running to become Republican precinctmen and women: the people who set those policies from the bottom up.

To put that number in perspective, with 29 precincts in Sheridan County accounting for 84 openings for the state committee, just over half of those positions had candidates ready to go. The seats they don’t fill are filled by appointments of the members of the local party, according to party bylaws, meaning nearly half of the Republican leadership in that county could, hypothetically, be appointees.

“There’s just not participation in the precincts,” Symons said. “And yet the precincts are the people determining the county policy, and the counties are determining the state party’s platform, and the state GOP is lobbying and sending information out. The point I was trying to make when I was testifying on this is that we’re focusing on the wrong thing; we need to focus on why it is that people who say they are Republicans don’t participate. The second thing we need to think about is whether or not we’re reflecting their voice.”

“Let’s be clear,” she added. “The Republican Party is going to die out because we are not bringing in the young. Most who I know in the 20 to 30 age either don’t care or aren’t in line with the social platforms of the current Republican Party, and in doing so, they are being shut out of the party. That’s not the way to ensure its long-term viability.”

The Democrats, meanwhile, smell blood. Republicans across the state, Barbuto noted, faced several tough races in 2018, with Democratic candidates managing to flip Republican-controlled seats in places like Fremont County and managing to come within 100 votes of defeating Republicans in others, like Lorraine Saulino-Klein's Albany County race.

“Speaking as a citizen of Wyoming, I would hope that (the Republicans’) goal would be to seek out a variety of ideas and to have conversations about these important topics," Barbuto said, "to make sure the direction of the Legislature is one Wyoming wants to go in and is representative of our values, not our party affiliations."

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