Red Wave Targets Incumbent Legislators In Wyoming Primary — Many Get Capsized

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By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com

Many incumbent Wyoming legislators had a target on their back in this year’s primary election, advancing to the general election, in some cases, only by the skin of their teeth, if at all. 

State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said he saw it as a down-ballot, “red wave” effect, with many voters taking a lead from U.S. House candidate Harriet Hageman’s campaign, which has promoted the idea that people need to vote for particularly conservative candidates to “save Wyoming.” 

Nearly every Republican race around the state featured a very conservative candidate. 

“They’re promoting this idea that Wyoming is on the cusp of being a liberal utopia, which is certainly not the case,” Zwonitzer told Cowboy State Daily. “Wyoming is the most conservative state in the nation with the least gun control. The majority of people are proud of being right of center.” 

State Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, had one of the closest elections of the night, winning by 137 votes. He said he takes all his races and opponents seriously and was poised for a potentially close race. 

Western will now advance to the general election in his bid for a third term. He is one of a number of legislators labeled as a RINO – ‘Republican In Name Only’ – by political rating website Wyorino.com, a designation given to lawmakers perceived to be not conservative enough by a group who have not disclosed their identity.  

“Really, it’s a catch-call phrase for people they don’t like,” Western said. “These are silly names made by anonymous individuals.” 

He defended his voting record to Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday afternoon, describing himself as staunchly pro-Second Amendment, pro-life and supportive of low taxes. 

The website relies on elected officials’ votes on 10 bills to judge whether legislators are “real” Republicans and vote with “conservative” values. 

“This methodology wouldn’t pass a freshman political science class,” Zwonitzer said. 

All 15 Republican incumbents labeled as “RINOs” by Wyorino.com lost their elections or won by less than 500 votes. Twenty-three candidates overcame this designation to win their elections, while eight did not.

A number of candidates around the state promoted their 100% rating with the site as part of their campaign, like Clarence Styvar, who won the Republican nomination for House District 12, and Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, who lost his campaign for Senate District 1. 

Close Calls 

The closest election of the night was in House District 2, where challenger Allen Slagle beat Rep. JD Williams, R-Lusk, by 13 votes. Williams described Slagle as “a great guy” and said the two competitors engaged in a very clean campaign. A recount of this election began on Wednesday afternoon.  

Williams, a Niobrara County resident, attributed his loss to Weston County voters showing a preference for electing an official from their own county. He lost Weston County by 110 votes. 

Williams had been appointed by his local county commissioners to fill the vacant seat left by former Rep. Hans Hunt, who resigned in October 2021. He said he is not a politician and not concerned with Republican Party politics or equating serving in politics to serving God. 

“People get their politics and religion mixed up,” Williams said. “I have a little different mindset.” 

A handful of other incumbents lost, such as Sens. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, R.J. Kost, R-Powell, and Reps. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, Aaron Clausen, R-Douglas, Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle, John Romero-Martinez, R-Cheyenne.  

Zwonitzer said he considers some of these legislators like Perkins, to be standard, middle of the party spectrum Republicans. He and others were particularly surprised that the second-term senator, Perkins, lost his primary to Bob Ide. Perkins lost by 302 votes, about a 5% margin. 

Zwonitzer said legislative redistricting played a role in these elections as well, making incumbents relatively unknown figures to many people in their newly formed districts. 

“That had a huge bearing on the outcome,” he said.  

Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, edged out challenger Nina Webber by 83 votes, the closest win by any incumbent. This race was a rematch of the 2020 election. Both races have featured significant mudslinging between the candidates. 

“It was just a tough race,” Newsome said, adding she was pleased with the outcome. 

Webber repeatedly characterized Newsome as not adhering to the Republican Party platform during the campaign. 

Newsome said she was going to spend Wednesday out of the house, giving herself a “much deserved” break from the campaign action. 

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, won his primary bid for a fourth term, but not before sweating it out against two challengers with their own political standing. It was not until the last precincts were called from Campbell County that Driskill pulled out his 137-vote win over second place challenger Roger Connett, chair of the Crook County Republican Party. 

“I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that I am able to fulfill my last term,” Driskill said. 

Fortner and Connett accused Driskill of not being conservative enough. 

“I can darn sure tell you (Driskill) he’s a RINO,” Fortner said in a prior interview with Cowboy State Daily. “He represents himself more than constituents.” 

Driskill also had a close race in 2014, only beating primary challenger Judy McCullough by 54 votes in that election. 

Driskill said he plans to run for Senate President this year.  

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, had a close race as well, beating challenger Steve Bray by 202 votes.  

In Fremont County, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, won by 482 votes over challenger Shawn Olmstead. Case is the second longest serving member of the Wyoming Legislature, first elected in 1998. 

Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne was given a 0% rating from Wyorino, the lowest possible score on their scale. He won his election over Rick Coppinger by 364 votes. 

Outside Influence 

Zwonitzer had a close race as well, winning his race over Clayton Mills by 171 votes. He said Mills and many other candidates like State Senate candidate Evie Brennan, canvassed alongside Hageman staff, forging a connection in voter’s minds between the state and federal campaigns, and a perceived shared ideology. 

“They’re telling people you have to vote for us to save Wyoming, they’re playing on people’s fears,” Zwonitzer said. 

Zwonitzer said he found constituents much more interested in his position on Hageman’s race against U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney than more locally focused issues such as education, gas and wildlife.  

“To say all politics is local, that long-standing truth didn’t hold,” he said. 

Zwonitzer has served in the House since 2005.  He is chairman of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. He said he wasn’t worried about his chances in the primary until the last week of the campaign. Zwonitzer is a Cheney supporter and along with a handful of other candidates statewide, received money from her political action committee for campaign efforts. 

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