Cat Urbigkit: Governor Gordon, Please Don’t Leave Wyoming

in Cat Urbigkit/Column

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The Wyoming GOP has done it again. After considering 10 candidates to fill the three months remaining on the Secretary of State’s term, the party has selected its top three finalists for Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon to consider.

Did the Wyoming GOP State Central Committee select the candidates most qualified for the job? Nope.

Did the committee select the candidates most likely to provide stability and support to the current office staff and elections officials throughout the state? Nope.

Did the party pick their favorite fellow right-wingers? You betcha. As a bonus, all three picks are themselves members of the central committee and were themselves able to cast votes in the contest held last Saturday: Bryan Miller of Sheridan, Marti Halverson of Etna, and Karl Allred of Uinta County.

The candidates with the most experience working with the SOS’s office and the county clerks who run elections didn’t make the cut with the GOP. Perhaps it’s because they said the state’s elections are already secure. That’s not the messaging the Wyoming’s GOP’s leadership wants to hear – at least not until after it succeeds in added new voting restrictions.

This is the same committee that in January put forth a slate of three names for the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In that case, Governor Gordon was tasked with selecting from: Halverson, a former Tea Party member who served in the state legislature; private Christian school administrator Brian Schroeder who moved to Wyoming in 2020; or Thomas Kelly, another newcomer to the state who is affiliated with American Military University, a private, for-profit online school. Schroeder was appointed by Governor Gordon, but in the GOP primary election, voters selected Megan Degenfelder over Trump-endorsed Schroeder, so he’ll be out of office in January after having served for less than a year.

Political Investigations

Halverson’s reported role in an undercover political spying operation hasn’t harmed her standing with the GOP leadership, since she was selected as a top contender for both recent appointments for statewide positions, and was top vote-getter with the committee last weekend. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the spying operation was intended to infiltrate opponents of Donald Trump in the Wyoming Republican party and alleged that Halverson “provided a list of people for the operatives to target” as RINOs (Republicans in name only).

Targeted were Governor Mark Gordon and Speaker of the Wyoming House Steve Harshman, while Halverson allegedly suggested that Wyoming Department of Workforce Services Director John Cox and then Game & Fish Department Director Scott Talbott should also be added to the target list.

The Times reported that this “group of ultraconservative Republicans employed spycraft to try to manipulate the American political landscape,” and included Erik Prince (a former C.I.A. contractor best known as the founder of the private military firm Blackwater and whose sister, Betsy DeVos, was President Trump’s education secretary) as its celebrity pitchman, and Susan Gore (heiress to the Gore-Tex fortune) as its main benefactor.

Prince also allowed Project Veritas activists to use his family’s Wyoming ranch for training, according to the article. The Wyoming GOP’s state convention had far-right activist and Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe as its keynote speaker at its state convention just four months ago.

Although the party bylaws state that the membership of the party “shall be composed of all registered Republicans in the State of Wyoming,” the Wyoming Republican Party State Central Committee has spent so much time, effort, and money infighting with more moderate Republicans, and trying to evict them from the party, that the state party now finds itself short of funds to support Republican candidates in the general election – you know, doing its actual job.

Party bylaws outline the GOP’s role as “to recruit citizens to join the Republican Party; to establish the Platform of the Wyoming Republican Party; to achieve the election of Republican candidates who substantially uphold the platform of the Wyoming Republican Party and to conduct the business of the Wyoming Republican Party.” The current GOP leadership spends far more effort in trying to kick Republicans out of the party than it does encouraging and recruiting membership and candidates.

While the cat’s away

So now Governor Gordon must select one of the GOP’s slate of three candidates to serve as interim Secretary of State. I have just one request to the governor: Please, oh please, don’t step foot outside Wyoming until the new SOS takes office in early January.

Why? Recall the idiom “while the cat’s away, the mice will play.” When the governor is away, Wyoming’s Secretary of State serves as acting governor. While historic norms have treated the role as a formality of being available to act in an emergency, in this new age of politics, it is viewed as a golden opportunity. We need only look at neighboring Idaho to see the potential for political shenanigans involving the powers authorized to the position, as demonstrated when a Trump-endorsed right-winger had a heyday when that state’s governor traveled outside Idaho’s borders on state business.

Acting in Idaho

In May 2021, when Idaho Governor Brad Little left the state to attend a western governors meeting, Idaho Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin – as acting governor – issued a statewide executive order banning mask mandates by the state and its political subdivisions, including public schools. McGeachin took the action without conferring with Governor Little or any other elected officials, and despite the fact that Idaho had not imposed a mask mandate, leaving the issue to local control. Little repealed the order the next day, calling McGeachin’s action “an irresponsible, self-serving political stunt.

Then in October 2021, Governor Little traveled to Texas to join other western governors in touring the U.S. border with Mexico. Little had informed McGeachin that although he would be out of state for an overnight trip, his brief visit to Texas would not hinder his ability to perform any official duties as Idaho’s elected Governor, and McGeachin’s services as acting governor would not be needed. But McGeachin jumped at the opportunity, issuing another executive order – this one banning any state entity, including schools and universities, from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine or test. She also inquired about the steps needed to deploy Idaho National Guard troops to the southern border. The next day, Governor Little again reversed McGeachin’s actions, and contended that she had lacked the authority for the action in the first place.

Last year wasn’t the first time McGeachin had abused the power of acting governor in a political stunt. In 2019, while serving as acting governor, she administered an oath to right-wing militia members at a “Patriot’s Day” rally for the Real Three Percent of Idaho – on the anniversary of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

Trump-endorsed McGeachin used her political stunts as acting governor as a baseline for challenging Little in this year’s Republican primary but was foiled by Little once again.

So again, Governor Gordon, please keep your boots firmly planted within the state’s borders, at least until an elected Secretary of State takes office in early January. And perhaps even then, maybe request a Zoom link?

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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