In Wyoming and Washington, a Fractured GOP Ponders What Comes Next (Part 1)

National Republicans see in Wyoming both the promise and the problem with unified GOP control

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Mar 30, 2023

Lifelong Wyomingite and GOP politico Jackie Van Mark says she's found herself disillusioned with the state of the Wyoming Republican Party in recent years: “We’re being called RINOs because we’re not conservative enough, because we don’t want to punish people for not being conservative enough.” (Courtesy photo from Eastern Wyoming College)

By Jacob Gardenswartz and CJ Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This week, the Wyoming Truth is running a four-part series reflecting on the political debates central to this year’s general session and exploring what’s to come for Wyomingites at home and in Washington.  

Governor Mark Gordon speaks to a joint session of the 67th Legislature in the House Chambers at the Wyoming State Capitol on January 11, 2023 in Cheyenne. Photo by Michael Smith

Jackie Van Mark knows Wyoming GOP politics.

For over 100 years, since her great-grandfather first homesteaded the dryland wheat and sunflower farm she now manages in Torrington, Van Mark and her family have been enmeshed in local and national government. 

Her father, Jack, represented Goshen County in the Wyoming House in the mid-1960s before going on to work in the administrations of former Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Her sister Ruth worked for former Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) for three decades and served as the public records ombudsman for the State of Wyoming. Her sister Lois worked for former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump. And Jackie herself worked for former U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and in the Department of Labor during George W. Bush’s administration.

“We are very involved, and we talked politics at the table growing up. So sometimes, I’m not always the funnest at a party,” Van Mark conceded.

She believes in fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less government and a strong national defense as the best offense, she said. But despite her strong ties to Equality State Republicanism, Van Mark in recent years has found herself increasingly disillusioned by and distanced from the state’s hard-right, populist turn.

“I am a traditional Republican. My dad helped build up the Goshen County Republican Party,” Van Mark told the Wyoming Truth in a wide-ranging interview. “We have a strong Republican party today because of traditional Republicans like my father. And yet we’re being called RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] because we’re not conservative enough, because we don’t want to punish people for not being conservative enough.”

Being labeled as something other than a real Republican, “that’s repugnant to me,” she added.

Wyoming a warning for national Republicans?

In Washington, many Republicans look to Wyoming as a model for GOP power. With 92% of state legislators identifying as Republican, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, it boasts the reddest statehouse in America. It’s been a “trifecta” state — with the GOP controlling the state House, Senate and governor’s mansion — since 2011. In party registrations, Wyoming Republicans outpace Democrats eightfold, and voters haven’t sent a Democrat to D.C. in nearly 45 years.

In their recent legislative session, Wyoming lawmakers overwhelmingly passed some of the country’s most stringent restrictions on abortion and barred transgender females from playing girls’ sports in middle and high schools, policies which drew significant national attention.

Representatives John Winter, R-Thermopolis, and John Bear, R-Gillette, talk before the morning session January 25, 2023 in the House Chamber. Photo by Michael Smith

And yet the end of the legislature’s 2023 general session was engulfed by GOP infighting that subsumed headlines. Frustrated by the failure of other bills that they favored – including legislation related to school choice, transgender issues and gun rights – those further on the right accused the majority of the Republican lawmakers in the House of actually being liberals.

While longtime party members like Van Mark describe themselves as traditional Republicans, state Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) and others in the more conservative wing of the party contend they are the true “old school Republicans.” Bear, who chairs the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, argues it’s not the GOP that’s changed direction, but the Democratic Party.

“Some of the stuff that’s on the Democrat platform now is just so crazy, it’s hard for any Wyomingites to go there,” Bear said at a March 14 town hall. “Unfortunately, that means that those people found a home in the Republican Party — and now it’s very difficult for the voters to tell, who am I voting for? Am I voting for an old school Republican, or somebody that had to leave the Democrat Party because the party left them?”

This split within the GOP is not new. Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson (R-Wyo.), who’s firmly in the party’s more moderate or traditional camp, recalled that Wyoming’s delegation to the 1952 Republican National Convention was bitterly divided between presidential candidates Dwight Eisenhower and the more conservative Robert Taft. And different factions have sparred for control of the Republican Party at the county and state levels for years.

But the rift escalated following the rise of former President Trump and, later, the growing prominence of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus. The caucus, which operates solely in the state House, officially formed after the 2020 elections with about 17 members, Bear said. The group made further gains in the 2022 election cycle and entered this year’s General Session with about 26 lawmakers aligned with the cause. It also gained more resources by joining the newly launched State Freedom Caucus Network, which seeks to “take on swampy State Capitols” and push legislatures further to the right.

Thanks to the Wyoming caucus’s connection to the national network, recent legislative spats drew coverage and criticism from conservative media outlets and activists on a national scale never before seen.

Bear said his goal for this year is to create a brand name for the Wyoming Freedom Caucus — and he noted the group is “all over the news.”

“And most of it is, the establishment’s very upset, because things are changing,” he said, “and it’s the Freedom Caucus that’s making that happen.” 

Many of those changes were evident during the recent session. But not all were welcomed.

Check back for part two on Friday.

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