In Wyoming and Washington, a Fractured GOP Ponders What Comes Next (Part 2)

Intra-party squabbles leave House tensions on high

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Mar 31, 2023

The schism among Republicans in the Wyoming House of Representatives was apparent during voting on leadership positions last fall, and the split only became more obvious as the 2023 General Session progressed. (Photo by Michael Smith)

By CJ Baker and Jacob Gardenswartz

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This story has been corrected as of 4:30 p.m. MT on April 4, 2023.

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. Check out part one.

While the legislative session didn’t kick off until January, the battle between establishment Republicans and those aligned with the Wyoming Freedom Caucus began last November, when the GOP met to elect its leaders.  

In the pivotal race for House Speaker, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), widely seen as a “traditional” Wyoming Republican, narrowly beat Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan) of the more conservative Freedom Caucus. 

Representatives Tomi Strock, R-Douglas, and Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette, talk before the morning session January 25, 2023 in the House Chamber. Photo by Michael Smith

Caucus members demonstrated their nascent power when one of their own, Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), was selected as majority floor leader over veteran lawmaker Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne). But three of the four leadership positions wound up going to the traditional camp.

As the session progressed, it became clear that the more moderate faction of the GOP held a roughly 31-26 advantage over those aligned with the Freedom Caucus; multiple votes split along those lines. Still, the blocks are not monoliths, as Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chris Knapp (R-Gillette) noted at a recent town hall in Gillette.

“I look at each person down there as an individual,” Knapp said. “I don’t want to label anybody; I want to know everybody. There may be one or two issues that I can get someone to say, ‘You know what? You’ve made a logical argument; I trust you and I agree with you.’”

Knapp argued the Legislature did some good work on election law — including passing a longtime Wyoming Republican Party priority of cracking down on so-called crossover voting — that was only accomplished because some non-Freedom Caucus members “agreed with our principles.”

“That’s the key I want to point out,” Knapp said.

Others at the event were less optimistic, however.

“You’ll be happy to know I got nothing accomplished for you. It’s sad. We don’t have the votes, folks,” freshman Rep. Reuben Tarver (R-Gillette) told the crowd, noting another six conservative members were needed to change the House. Tarver said the majority in the House wants to “just continue to tax” and “they want that federal money, too.”

Representative David Northrup, R-Powell, claps during the morning session on January 18, 2023 in the House Chamber. Photo by Michael Smith

Battles over budget, schools and sexual orientation

One of the caucus’s no votes was against the supplemental budget bill, which they viewed as excessive, in part because it increases ongoing expenditures. But that opposition to the final version of the bill  drew criticism from Rep. David Northrup, a more moderate Republican from Powell.

“For them to vote against the budget, they’re saying, ‘We don’t support cities, towns and counties. We don’t support police. We don’t support [the] National Guard. We don’t support all these things that are within the budget,’” Northrup charged in an interview with the Wyoming Truth.

As the Wyoming Freedom Caucus has grown, “it’s sad for me to see the state head that way,” Northrup added. He asserted its members don’t do their own research.

“A lot of freshmen came in and … didn’t have an idea of how they were going to vote,” he said. “The Freedom Caucus grabbed them and said, ‘We have people that read the bills for us, so you don’t have to read the bills, and we’re going to tell you how to vote.’ And so they literally send out an email or a text, and it says, ‘Vote this way on these bills.’ And you would see them grab their phones and look at it and go, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Northrup said he also watched caucus members read talking points they’d received from the group, calling that “disingenuous to the voters.”

Those critiques were echoed by Jackie Van Mark, a trustee of Eastern Wyoming College in Goshen County and member of the Van Mark political dynasty in Wyoming.

When Freedom Caucus members are being told how to vote, “that’s not representing me as a voter,” Van Mark said, “and it’s incredibly disrespectful to me as a duly elected member of Goshen County.”

However, Wyoming Freedom Caucus member Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) called it “insulting” to accuse conservative lawmakers of not forming their own opinions.

“Countless hours of honest debate ‘on the issues’ of the floor disproves [Rep. Northrup’s] theory,” Williams told the Wyoming Truth. “Rather than parroting the same line, ‘Wyoming solutions for Wyoming problems,’ conservatives debated the merits of all issues.”

She compared the voting recommendations distributed by the caucus to those from lobbyists representing county commissioners, teachers, stock growers and others.

“It almost sounds like projection when the moderate Republican lawmakers accuse conservatives of voting according to dictates,” Williams said. “Conservatives certainly do not do this.”

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), who chairs the Freedom Caucus, said the group’s positions are taken up on principle.

Representative Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, listens during discussion at the 67th Legislature in the House Chambers January 12, 2023 in Cheyenne. Photo by Michael Smith

“We’re voting together not because we’re forcing them to … Really it’s because we’re like-minded — and really I think we’re like-minded with you all,” he told the town hall audience in Gillette.

In looking at voting records, Bear added, “What you see … is that the other side really has a very, very tight block. They vote together, and they vote with the Democrats.”

Bear and other caucus members have labeled the 31 Republicans and five Democrats the “uniparty.”

“That’s what we’re really up against,” Bear said.

Tensions between the two GOP factions in the House began to simmer when Sommers  assigned several controversial bills — including anti-ESG (environmental, social and governance) measures, a repeal of Wyoming’s gun-free zones and a prohibition on gender-affirming treatment for minors — to the House Appropriations Committee, where they were dramatically rewritten and effectively killed.

Things came to a head when it became clear the speaker would not allow any debate on a trio of bills: a school choice bill that would have allowed parents to receive up to $6,000 a year to put toward private education, another to prohibit instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity and a third to make it a felony offense to provide any procedure or drug that would “change the sex of a child.” 

Frustrated Freedom Caucus members tried to pull two of the bills out of the speaker’s drawer, but failed.

Check back for part three on Saturday.

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