The upcoming GOP primaries in Wyoming are crucial to establishing and pursuing “true conservative” causes in the state House, according to a leading member of the House Freedom Caucus.
“We’re worried about that — this election,” said Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette.
Which is why, he said, he finds the decision made by three House Republicans to run for the state Senate to be an act of abandonment of the Freedom Caucus, made up of conservative members of the state House of Representatives.
“Look at the sheer numbers of who the true conservatives are, they abandoned us,” Bear said.
Wharff, Fortner, Laursen
Reps. Bob Wharff, R-Evanston, Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, and Dan Laursen, R-Powell have decided to run for the Senate.
Although Republicans hold a solid majority in the House and Senate chambers of the Legislature, many staunchly conservative members of the party have said their faction of the GOP holds a minority stake in the party.
According to political rating website Wyorino.com, “RINOs” a term for those described as “Republican in Name Only,” have the majority in both chambers.
Even the Freedom Caucus itself is divided over which members can be considered true conservatives.
The debate stems from two Second Amendment bills that were considered during the Legislature’s budget session.
A bill supported by Bear, SF102, which had the support of most of the Freedom Caucus, passed, while a bill supported by Wharff, Fortner and its sponsor Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, did not.
Fortner told Cowboy State Daily he refused to compromise and support SF102.
“They wanted us to play ball with them, I didn’t falter” Fortner said.
Wharff and Fortner said it was the split over these bills that led them to stop participating in the Freedom Caucus.
Both bills would prohibit Wyoming law enforcement officers from enforcing any federal gun regulations considered unconstitutional. The successful SF102 would have allowed for criminal charges against any law enforcement officer enforcing an unconstitutional regulation.
The other bill would also have allowed residents to sue law enforcement officers if they tried to enforce a regulation considered unconstitutional.
Wharff said SF 102, the bill he opposed that passed, does nothing for Second Amendment rights and gives politicians a cover to claim they support guns.
“SF 102 was the worst bill ever passed in Cheyenne,” Fortner said.
Guns vs Guns
Support for the competing pieces of legislation largely followed lines of support between two firearms rights groups — Gun Owners of America, which Bear is associated with, and Wyoming Gun Owners, which Wharff supports.
The debate has created division that are not good for the party, Wharff said.
“Conservatives need to quit fighting amongst themselves,” Wharff said, a point Bear has agreed to.
The Freedom Caucus is not a highly defined organization. Bear, a leading voice within the caucus, said the group does not publish a membership roster to avoid showing its true power when lobbying for certain bills.
When it comes to meetings, he said at a certain point the caucus stopped inviting Wharff, Fortner and Laursen because they weren’t showing up. Wharff and Fortner said when the caucus began, they were made members without ever having been asked to join.
No party disagrees at this point that Fortner, Wharff and Laursen stopped participating in the caucus on their own volition.
“We didn’t like what the group was doing so we left,” Wharff said.
Fortner and Wharff believe that Bear’s push for political power is playing a role in the race for Senate District No. 1, where Fortner is challenging Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, and Roger Connett.
Fortner and Wharff believe Connett was recruited to run to dilute the vote and pull votes away from Fortner.
If Driskill wins re-election, he will most likely be named Senate president due to his current No. 2 ranking in that body.
Fortner suspects Bear “did a deal with the devil” to stay in good favor with a highly influential member of the legislature, lobbying others to hold back from giving him campaign donations.
“These guys want to move up so fast so bad,” Fortner said. “Wyoming is not in the kind of position to have these kinds of games being played.”
Bear denies all of these charges of collusion and said there is “no record” tying him to any involvement in the SD1 race.
Driskill did not return multiple requests for comment.
Bear said he has done “nothing that is not part of the normal (ethical) strategy to get anyone elected” and the “incumbent is the most likely legislator to win whether you like it or not.”
“I’m not supportive of Bill Fortner leaving the House to run against an incumbent when he could choose to return to the House,” he said. “It puts the conservative vote at risk. That’s bad political strategy and I definitely don’t support that.”
Bear said establishing relationships with those in leadership positions in the Legislature is critical to getting bills passed.
Wharff also suspects there is a loyalty split trickling down from the U.S. House race between Bouchard and Harriet Hageman. Wharff is a longtime friend and colleague of Bouchard, while Bear has formally endorsed Hageman.
“Supporting Bouchard Is An Enemy”
Wharff said he has been told by certain legislators who support Hageman that anyone supporting Bouchard is an enemy. He added he has been called a liar by others.
“There is nothing more offensive than to call someone a liar,” Wharff said. “You can’t get me to lie, I won’t lie.”
Wharff and Fortner said the Freedom Caucus is straying away from firmly conservative causes in return for political power.
“I’m not going to compete with what I think is right,” Wharff said.
For now, the three former caucus representatives are focusing on their respective elections. Bear is running unopposed in his district and said his main goal is helping true conservative candidates win.
Although every member of the Legislature still has until the end of the year before their terms expire, Bear said the caucus is devoting its full attention to elections.
“We’re not taking any other new action until we learn who our new members are for the next term,” Bear said.