Wyoming Democrats Embrace a Newfound Spotlight
With Democratic voters set to play a pivotal role in the GOP House primary race, party officials say the political environment is like “nothing that Wyoming has ever seen before”
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Aug 09, 2022
Wyoming Democrats seek to capitalize on Republican intraparty battles as they stand to play a unique role in the 2022 GOP House primary. (Wyoming Truth illustration by Jacob Gardenswartz / Photos via Wikimedia Commons)
By Jacob Gardenswartz
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Wyoming is, by all accounts, among the most conservative states in the nation.
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump took the state with 70 percent of the vote, besting President Joe Biden by a greater margin than he did anywhere else nationwide. Biden’s approval rating in Wyoming currently stands at 22 percent, according to a July Morning Consult poll, with 76 percent of Equality State voters voicing disapproval.
But maintaining control over all branches of the state government doesn’t mean that Wyoming Republicans are always in agreement. Indeed, the GOP House primary has become one of the most intensely-watched races in the country. Voters will decide on Aug. 16 whether to reward incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney for sticking up to Trump in her role as vice chair of the Jan. 6 select committee —or to oust her for it.
As a result, Democratic voters find themselves more sought after than they’ve been any time in recent memory. In June, as GOP contender Harriet Hageman surged in the polls, the Cheney campaign began sending mailers to Democrats and other unaffiliated voters with instructions on how to switch parties and support her in the Republican primary.
Many appear to have done just that: data from the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office shows that between June and August, the number of registered Democrats fell by 11 percent while the number of registered Republicans grew by 5 percent.
“Wyoming is in a very unique political environment right now,” said Lynette Grey Bull, a candidate for the Democratic nomination to represent Wyoming in the U.S. House. It’s like “nothing that Wyoming has ever seen before.”
“It’s interesting times,” echoed Pete Gosar, currently Albany County Commissioner and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2014.
“From a Democratic Party’s perspective, it’s nice to be reached out to. “But you know, you have to think about why you’re being reached out to… Most of the conversation has been lost about what are Democratic priorities for the future of Wyoming.”
Wyoming Democrats are “Intrinsically Wyoming”
Last Thursday, the three contenders seeking the Democratic nomination to represent Wyoming’s sole U.S. House seat traded barbs during a primary debate hosted by WyomingPBS at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.
Grey Bull was joined on stage by former food service worker Meghan Jensen and attorney Steve Helling, who despite running as a Democrat, previously voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.
“I am of the opinion that the 2020 election was probably stolen,” Helling said during the debate. Numerous recounts and court cases have found no irregularities sufficient to overturn the results.
While the other two candidates expressed support for more traditional Democratic priorities — improving income inequality, addressing climate change, responding to systemic racism — even they couched their language to appeal to Wyoming’s conservative electorate. During one exchange, Grey Bull explained that she approaches issues not as “a red or blue thing” but “from a human level.”
In a pre-debate interview with the Wyoming Truth, Jensen pointed to “years of messaging from the Republican Party about how ‘Democrats are radicals and they’re trying to take away our jobs and our guns’” as something that “causes a lot of folks to not like the national Democratic Party.”
Being a Democrat in Wyoming “can be difficult sometimes given how conservative Wyoming is in general,” conceded David Martin, communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party.
But “Wyoming Democrats support policies that are intrinsically Wyoming,” Martin added. “There are still avenues for us to be effective,” he argued, especially in county government roles and others which aren’t elected statewide.
Martin’s message to progressive voters in the Equality State? “Don’t give up hope.”
“I think it’s imperative, regardless of what the dominant party is, that there’s always a candidate there to speak truth,” Grey Bull said in an interview before the debate.
This race marks her second attempt at securing Wyoming’s House seat; in 2020, she lost to Cheney by 44 points. An activist and social justice organizer, Grey Bull has made her indigenous roots central to her campaign pitch. She describes herself as a “full-blooded Native American woman,” and if elected, would be the first indigenous person to represent the state.
“The last time I chose to run for the U.S. House seat here in Wyoming, I did it because I wanted to have a platform to push our Native American issues to the forefront of media and start a conversation,” Grey Bull said.
This time, she said, she’s in it “to win.”
The Cross-Over Question
It’s something Democratic candidates throughout Wyoming have been asked over and over again: should voters switch parties to support Cheney?
For many, the answer isn’t a simple yes or no.
Most are quick to praise Cheney’s work on the Jan. 6 committee: “She did what she felt was right, and I honor her for that,” Grey Bull said during the debate. Cheney is doing “a great job” on the committee, agreed Jensen.
But voters who switch parties are ineligible to support the Democrats running on Aug. 16. So if everyone crosses over to Cheney, who will be left to vote for the Democratic ticket?
Which is why not everyone supports crossover voting.
“I just don’t know what the difference would be between Representative Cheney and Ms. Hageman,” said Gosar, who is seeking reelection to his county commissioner post.
“There is one issue that I support Ms. Cheney on: I think the insurrection on January 6 was just that, and it has to be dealt with,” he added. Beyond that, “I think they share broadly the same prescriptions for the health of Wyoming, and I couldn’t disagree more with both of their takes on it.”
Asked about the state party’s approach to Democrats reregistering as Republicans, Martin demurred. “Voters are intelligent and, you know, they’re motivated by a number of different issues,” he said. “Should they decide to do this, I mean, we’re not going to punish or criticize anybody for doing that. But we’re just saying, ‘Hey, come back.’”
In statewide races, Democrats are fielding candidates for governor, U.S. House and superintendent of public instruction. Some state legislature races include Democratic competitors, though many feature Republicans running opposed. In total, 33 Wyoming Democrats are on the primary ballot compared to 157 Republicans, according to the Secretary of State’s office,
Given the strong headwinds, Democratic candidates interviewed were clear-eyed. “Maybe you don’t win,” Gosar said. “But maybe you give that person who’s contemplating their future or the future of democracy a different perspective that they can consider.”
And those seeking office are not without hope, even if their chances of victory are slim.
A Democrat winning the U.S. House race in Wyoming? As Grey Bull says, “stranger things have happened.”