By Leo Wolfson, State Political Writer
SUNDANCE – One of the Wyoming Legislature’s longest-serving members is challenging efforts within the Crook County Republic Party to support other candidates ahead of the party’s own primary winners.
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, is in line to be the next Wyoming Senate president, but first will have to fend off a growing write-in campaign from Roger Connett, who lost to Driskill in the August primary.
At a Monday meeting of the Crook County GOP, Driskill called out his county party for financially supporting other candidates, but not him. He also accused the party and vice chair Jeff Burian of taking their marching orders from the state Republican Party trying to influence races in the general election.
Driskill said that Burian also serving as treasurer for the Roger is Right Campaign opposing Driskill is a big red flag.
Party Plays Politics
Driskill is upset with his county party because it did not offer him a financial contribution for his general election campaign, despite supporting other candidates around the state and locally with $27,000 in funding.
Despite being one of the most senior ranking members of the Wyoming Legislature, Driskill said he suspects this is because of the opposition he faces within his county party’s ranks.
“It’s pretty clear, the voters spoke,” Driskill said about his win in the Republican Primary in August. “You may or may not like who they got. I’m fine with that, but I feel like you’re somewhat obligated to support that person and if you don’t, you’re kind of breaking the party.”
Burian, a Moorcroft resident, recently became vice chair of the Crook County GOP. When he took the position, he was already treasurer of Connett’s write-in campaign opposing Driskill for the Senate District 1 seat.
“I do have an organized campaign against me, a write-in campaign, ironically supported by part of your central committee, and I didn’t get a check,” Driskill said during Tuesday’s meeting.
On Monday night, chairman Brad Marchant stepped down from his role, paving the way for Burian to become the new chairperson of the Crook County GOP.
One-by-one, thank you letters from candidates the Crook County Republican Party has financially supported across the state in recent weeks were read before an audience of party members in Sundance on Monday night.
Monday’s meeting was filled with tense moments and awkward silences as accusations were leveled across the room.
Several people in attendance accused Burian of having a conflict of interest that should have precluded him from taking the vice chair position in the first place.
“Between you and I, I think it’s somewhat unethical that you’re on a (executive) committee,” Driskill said.
Former state legislator Tyler Lindholm took a stronger tone.
“It is unethical, and it does violate the spirit of Wyoming law,” Lindholm said. “You’re essentially endorsing one Republican against another.”
Driskill said the party did not follow its own bylaws when deciding on the candidates it would financially support.
State GOP Recommendation
Burian and David Holland, vice chair of the Wyoming Republican Party, said Crook County was following a recommendation from the state party when it decided on the candidates it would support.
“They were selected at the state level according to need,” Holland said.
Driskill said he took the party’s lack of support as a personal slight and a sad reflection of the state of the current GOP. He said there have been a number of times in the past when he didn’t like the Republican nominee for certain offices, but still stood behind them.
“I’ve supported this party for the last 40-45 years, consistently gave money gave time,” he said.
Driskill has been in the senate since 2011. His family has deep roots in Wyoming dating back to the 19th century.
He said as a lawmaker he’s, “Run bills, done what I thought was the right thing for all you folks.”
Driskill said he didn’t completely agree with every bill he pursued on the party’s behalf but did so anyway because of fealty to the group.
This year’s Wyoming general election features a wave of Independent candidates running against Republicans statewide. Holland said many of these Independents previously identified as Republicans.
He said the state party identified a number of Republicans running against these Independents as high-priority races, but no mention was made of write-in candidates in that recommendation.
Still, the Crook County GOP gave $1,500 to Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, in his senate bid against a write-in candidate.
“That’s what made me feel like I fit the category,” Driskill said. “If they never gave him any money, I’m 100% agreeing with you.”
Despite Campbell County being home to Driskill’s primary opponent Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, that county’s GOP gave Driskill $5,000 for his general election campaign.
Driskill said he found the lack of financial support from Crook “somewhat painful” because of the campaign spending he has been engaging this year. Driskill spent $13,807 in his primary campaign while Connett spent $7,220.
Holland noted that the party also failed to financially support local legislator Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett. Neiman is unopposed in the general election.
Burian told Cowboy State Daily in September, he is supporting Connett because Driskill failed to receive a majority of the overall vote in the primary election and does not believe Driskill represents the views of voters in the district.
Connett, a former chairman of the Crook County Republican Party, described himself as a “true conservative Republican” during his primary campaign.
In the Aug. 16 primary election, Driskill beat Connett and Fortner. Driskill beat Connett, the second-place finisher, by 442 votes.
The Roger is Right campaign was officially filed Sept. 9.
State law forbids candidates who don’t win primary elections from having their names printed on the general election ballots.
“His supporters need to respect the process and respect the voters of this county,” Lindholm said.
False Endorsement Claim
Driskill read a letter written by Fortner to the audience Monday night, where Fortner said the Roger is Right campaign falsely claimed that he is endorsing Connett.
“’I unequivocally do not endorse Roger Connett,’ Driskill quoted Fortner as saying. “’He is a liberal and he is the type of person I ran against.’”
During the primary campaign, Driskill said he was criticized by some for not being conservative enough.
Not Conservative Enough?
“I consistently hear all kinds of stories about how liberal I am or whatever it is,” he said. “I’ve consistently been one of the more conservative legislators.”
A vote ranking website considers Driskill a “center” Republican and the 35th most conservative member of the 90-member Wyoming Legislature.
“If you want school choice, charter school bills, most of my gun bills have passed,” he said, also describing himself as pro-life on abortion.
Burian said his campaign has held back from disbursing any negative advertising against Driskill in the general election.
But in an Oct. 3 Facebook post, Ted Davis, chairman of the Roger is Right Campaign, released advertising where he indicated he does not find Driskill to be conservative.
“I could go through a number of things tonight that I don’t agree with what you’ve done, but I’m not going to do it out of respect for you,” Burian said to Driskill.
‘We’ll Do That For You’
Since only 11 voting members were at Monday’s unofficial Crook County GOP meeting, there were not enough people on-hand for a voting quorum.
Burian said “to be fair,” he will take a vote by email of precinct committee members to decide if a majority would like to financially support Driskill’s campaign.
He said he is unsure at this point if the question will be limited to finances or if party members also will be asked about endorsing Driskill.
“We’ll do that for you,” Burian told Driskill.
Driskill said the results of the virtual referendum will determine how much he will choose to represent the county party moving forward.
“You spend a lot of time trying to help and then feel like you’re not being appreciated and you don’t have much help,” Driskill said. “It makes you wonder why you bother spending the time to do it.”
If the party chooses to not support Driskill in any way, it will follow in the footsteps of action the Uinta County Republican Party took earlier this month.
That county party went one step further than Crook, releasing a statement of endorsement for write-in candidate Joe Webb in his campaign against Jon Conrad, the Republican winner of the primary election for House District 19.
Crook County, the third-least populous county in the state, has swung well above its weight in recent months when it comes to political influence.
“The last few years, Crook County has become a powerhouse around the state because we’ve had tremendous fundraisers and the purpose of the fundraisers is to support candidates,” Holland said. “And we supported the candidates two years ago, four years ago, around the state, and we’ve made a difference.”
Its donation of $27,000 to candidates around the state provided a much-needed cash influx to the state GOP, which is straining under the weight of multiple lawsuits and other disputes that have cost it nearly $100,000, with more legal expenses expected in the coming months. The state party has only been able to offer $14,000 to candidates around the state with its own funding.
“If the state says these are the races that are in jeopardy, then we as a county want to give money to the same races that are in jeopardy,” Holland said.
Driskill is in line to be the next Senate president if he wins the general election, a position he has not been shy about his intentions of running for.
If Driskill does not win, Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, would likely be chosen for the role.