By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
State Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle, may have lost her Republican primary race for reelection in House District 5, but she isn’t done campaigning against her former opponent Scott Smith.
Duncan is supporting Independent candidate Todd Peterson, who is running against Smith in the general election.
She said she’s backing him because she believes Peterson has a better connection to the Goshen County community and adheres to a platform closer to her values.
“He’s an old-school Republican,” Duncan said, “a true conservative.”
Duncan said Peterson didn’t run in the primary election because he didn’t want to run against her. She said he is now running out of concern for Goshen County’s representation at the State Capitol.
Peterson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Peterson was the president of the Pinnacle Bank in Torrington until 2021 and worked in banking for 43 years. He is a board member with Goshen Economic Development and serves on the Wyoming Lottery Commission, Eastern Wyoming College Foundation Board, St. Joseph’s Board, and is a past President of the Torrington Rotary International Club.
Duncan said Peterson also has a strong background in agriculture, one of the most prominent industries in Goshen County.
“I’ve known Todd for years- that’s why I’m behind Todd,” said Duncan. “I know he’ll represent Goshen County.”
Smith moved to Wyoming 10 years ago after serving as a missionary teacher in an orphanage in Honduras. He received endorsements from Gun Owners of America and Wyoming Right To Life, and has aligned himself with some of the more conservative candidates in Wyoming like Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, who is the pastor at the church Smith attends. Smith said he doesn’t believe the State Legislature represents the conservative nature of Wyoming constituents.
“I lost to someone who has only lived here for a short period and doesn’t have much involvement in the community,” Duncan said.
Smith said he sees Duncan’s support for his new opponent as an example of “cancel culture.”
“We had a majority of people turn out, voice their opinion on who they wanted to represent them, and we have a minority group who didn’t like the will of the majority and wanted to cancel out their vote,” he said in a Tuesday email. “I fully support the people and will continue to work hard to not have their voice canceled.”
Smith is one of four Republicans in Southeast Wyoming facing an Independent candidate in the general election. To run as an Independent in Wyoming for a countywide seat, a candidate must obtain signatures in an amount equal or greater than 2% of the total votes cast in the previous U.S. Congress general election in their respective county.
Duncan was originally listed as Peterson’s treasurer in his initial campaign filing, but she said that was only because she helped him set up a campaign finance account with the Secretary of State’s office.
“I only did that because I have four years experience in setting these up and navigating the Secretary of State’s website,” Duncan said. “It’s a pretty daunting task, but for me, it only takes about five minutes.”
Now, Wally Wolski is his treasurer.
Duncan believes Peterson can beat Smith with the help of Libertarians and Democrats who either voted for other candidates in the primary or didn’t vote in her race. She said she has extensive experience working with Peterson as an active member of the community who gave her insight to various bills she worked on at the Legislature.
Smith said he didn’t expect Duncan to take this route.
“I am not bothered but am surprised by the incumbent’s choices to not fully support the Republican Party nominee,” Smith said. “If the people have spoken and made a choice, why not support that candidate?”
Traditionally, a losing candidate in the primary election will back the winner of their race in the general election as a showing of solidarity within their party.
Duncan and other Republican members of the Legislature like Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, have become targets within GOP circles for allegedly not voting conservative enough. Case is facing a possible censure from the party this weekend for his efforts to recruit an Independent candidate to run against Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, for Secretary of State in the general election. He’s also faced criticism for voting to approve a draft bill to strip the Secretary of State of their duty to oversee the state’s elections.
True Conservative Or New Conservative?
What does and does not make a “conservative” and “Republican” has been a topic of fierce debate in Wyoming in recent years, with many members of the Wyoming Republican Party railing against establishment members of the party and certain veteran members of the Legislature, in preference for newer candidates lacking extensive political experience. Many efforts from the new wing of the party have conflicted with traditional Republican norms of local control and a fiscally based focus.
“Last summer, Duncan did sign a pledge to support two bills the Wyoming Republican Party was backing, but said she did so under duress, with prominent members of the party on hand when she said she was pressured to do so. Smith has signed a pledge to adhere to the State GOP platform at least 80% of the time, which he has promoted throughout his campaign.
Duncan lost to Smith by 248 votes in the primary. There were at least 142 people who participated in the Democratic primary from Goshen County who now have the opportunity to vote in the general election. There were also 111 people who voted but did not vote in the HD 5 race, and 10 write-in votes cast for the HD 5 race.
“It all comes down to how many people turn out,” Duncan said.
In order to get on the ballot, Peterson had to obtain at least 122 signatures from local electors.
Duncan said the primary campaign was the “nastiest and ugliest campaign” she had ever seen locally, with significant misinformation spread about her votes on bills. Specifically, she was accused of not being pro-life on abortion despite voting to support the trigger ban, a bill that made nearly all abortions illegal in Wyoming as soon as Roe v. Wade was overturned. She was also criticized for not initially supporting the special session called last year to handle COVID-19 restrictions.
“I was not going to say yes to an open-ended special session for Covid…when we’re having to spend more than $30,000 a day without parameters in place,” she said. “That’s like signing a blank check.”
Duncan later voted to support the special session when guidelines were put in place for its length and other details.
She said this and other faulty critiques were levied against her based on procedural votes that did not pertain to the context of bills themselves. Duncan said the Wyoming Stockmen For Liberty, a political action committee opposing her, purposely parked a promotional vehicle in front her office for nine hours one particular day.
Western Conservatives, a Colorado-based PAC backed Duncan in her campaign, despite Duncan speaking out against the group’s attacks on Smith.