By Leo Wolfson, Political Reporter
A pair of shadowy political groups may have made a significant difference in Campbell County’s primary election last month.
“Wyoming deserves to know who it is,” said former Campbell County Commissioner and state House candidate Micky Shober. “This is something that needs to be publicized.”
In recent weeks, many questions have arisen about the Coal Country Conservatives and True West political action committees. The groups sent thousands of political flyers to Campbell County homes advocating for and against particular candidates.
This type of political activity isn’t illegal, but transparency issues have been raised regarding both groups.
Both filed federally, despite devoting nearly all their attention and resources to Wyoming local-level races. Coal Country Conservatives took an unusual step of advocating for candidates all the way down to the Republican Party precinct level.
Each campaign was engaged with a certain level of sophistication. Their marketing was slick, using glossy-print paper and targeted audiences. Campaign strategies like these are costly, especially when used for sending out mailers throughout a roughly 47,000-resident county.
Shober said Coal Country tailored its individual flyers to specific precincts. He said he suspects a group of local people are behind the PAC.
“Somebody is fairly intelligent behind this,” Shober said. “My guess, it’s somebody who has spent quite a bit of time working around and experience in campaigns. There has to be some people around it who have done it for a while.
Two Campbell County residents are listed as running Coal Country, but neither have responded toCowboy State Daily’s repeated requests for comment. A number of Campbell County lawmakers Cowboy State Daily spoke with reported no prior knowledge of Coal Country’s registered president, Laura Cox, or its treasurer, Colleen McCabe.
Campbell County Commissioner Colleen Faber said she isn’t involved with either organization. But Faber did say she is familiar with Cox, who she said has attended various Campbell County Commission meetings with her husband for about a year. Faber said Cox moved to Wyoming from another state in recent years.
The True West PAC is less transparent with its filing information, registered to a post office box in Cheyenne, but associated with two Virginia women. The women work for Sage Advisory Group, a Virginia-based business. According to the LinkedIn account belonging to Springfield, Virginia, resident Staci Goede, who is listed as treasurer of True West PAC, she specializes in offering treasurer and chief financial officer services for federal and non-federal political campaigns, committees and organizations.
The Second Amendment lobbyist group Gun Owners of America also is based out of Springfield.
Mark Jones, a local lobbyist for Gun Owners of America, said neither he nor his organization are involved with any outside PACs.
State Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, said True West targeted him in his state Senate campaign against incumbent Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.
“They were campaigning against me for Driskill,” Fortner said.
Coal Country and True West endorsed conflicting candidates in the primary Senate race, with Coal Country pushing for Roger Connett and True West supporting Driskill.
Jones said Gun Owners of America solely opposed Fortner in the race and had no preference of whether Driskill or Connett got elected.
True West was formed July 28 and does not need to submit any campaign finance information until the end of the month.
A federal complaint was filed against Coal Country by Campbell County Clerk Susan Saunders earlier this month.
Wyoming election laws are vague on whether federally registered PACs need to declare their spending in state-level races.
Karen Wheeler, acting Secretary of State, told Cowboy State Daily last week her office has a different interpretation of one particular state law Saunders cited, providing possible indication that Coal Country did not need to register with the state. She also said there is another law that potentially conflicts with this law and her office is consulting with Attorney General Bridget Hill on the matter.
The Western Conservatives PAC was also very active in Campbell County and statewide elections. Unlike Coal Country and True West, this PAC did register with the State of Wyoming and has been relatively forthcoming about its organization and campaign spending, tied to a Colorado lobbyist.
Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, said he believes Western Conservatives and True West were aligned in “the promotion of moderate and liberal candidates as conservative.”
Fortner said he suspects Bear, Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, and Jones are connected to both PACs. He said the involvement comes from a desire to see Jennings become Speaker of the House and as retribution for Fortner’s vote against Senate File 102, the Second Amendment Protection Act. Driskill voted to support the bill.
Bear and Jennings are aligned with the House Freedom Caucus and GOA, which have both opposed Republicans legislators who voted against this bill.
“It all boils down to that right there,” Fortner said. “I’m suspecting all trails are leading to that.”
Fortner said he was threatened by the trio that they would prevent him from receiving campaign funding support for his actions. In a July interview, Bear said his main goal of the primary election was helping true conservative candidates win and that he opposed Fortner’s decision to leave the House for a run against Driskill.
Jennings told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday he has no involvement with either PAC.
Bear said he also is not involved with any PACs but mostly agrees with Coal Country’s conservative voter guide. He said he only knew Cox as an acquaintance.
“I think the conservative voter guide sent out matched with what the conservative nature of Campbell County was,” Bear said.
Bear mentioned one discrepancy between their views and his, as he supported the incumbent sheriff in Campbell County while Coal Country endorsed a challenger.
On Tuesday, Bear wouldn’t directly comment as to who he will vote for in the race for Speaker of the House, but said he would support “the more conservative candidate.”
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, is considered by many as a leading candidate to be the next Speaker as he is the majority floor leader of the House. He has a less-conservative voting record than Jennings, who challenged Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, two years ago for Speaker duties.
Fortner also suspects Connett was recruited to water down the vote in his race against Driskill. Connett finished second in the race, beating Fortner by 369 votes but losing to Driskill by 442 votes.
Fortner said he will continue to stay involved in the Legislature as a Wyoming resident.
“They haven’t got rid of me,” he said. “I’m going to go down and lobby for or against bills. Now, I have more latitude to say what I want.”