By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
State Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, suspects he was one piece of a much larger plan orchestrated by the House Freedom Caucus and its chairman, Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, when he lost his primary election.
Fortner suspects a scheme that involves filling the governor’s seat and four other state-level executive seats with members and supporters of the caucus by 2026.
The House Freedom Caucus is a coalition of state House Republicans that operates independently of the traditional Republican and Democratic House caucuses that lobby legislative leadership on issues.
“They want all the positions to be Freedom Caucus members,” Fortner said. “They don’t want a political party in power, they want a Socialist state.”
Gov. Chip Neiman?
Fortner said Bear and the caucus want a majority of support and membership in the state House and Senate, and to propel Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, into the governor’s seat by 2026. He said the group is trying to take a lesson from the presidency of Donald Trump, who Fortner said was let down by an unloyal cabinet and congressional delegation around him.
While Fortner expressed his suspicions about the Freedom Caucus’ plans, Bear said there is no truth it’s plotting to do anything other than trying to get as many conservative officials elected as possible and grow the caucus.
The House Freedom Caucus, a faction making up a particularly conservative wing of the Wyoming Legislature, has loose ties dating back to 2019. Although Republicans hold a solid majority in the House and Senate chambers of the Legislature, many staunchly conservative members of the party have said their faction of the GOP holds a minority stake in the party.
Bear and Neiman
Presiding at the helm of this caucus is Bear. Although he is a first-term representative, Bear has already made waves at the Capitol.
Bear co-sponsored a whopping 23 bills in this year’s legislative session, most of which were conservative bills drafted during the session. Although only five passed and four were signed into law, Bear’s support served as a consistent cue for other conservative legislators.
He and Neiman spoke during former President Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally in Casper in May and were prominent supporters of U.S. House candidate Harriet Hageman.
In earlier interviews with Cowboy State Daily, Bear would not say how many are in the Freedom Caucus, but as of June, there were at least 12. The group lost at least five members in the spring when those representatives opted to retire, run for the state Senate or for secretary of state.
Former Republican legislator Michael Von Flatern of Gillette estimates the group makes up around 15 of the 60-member Wyoming House of Representatives, while Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle, said the caucus had 17 members at its strongest point during the last session.
“They have put a lot of effort into selecting their own candidates, and frankly they’ve been very successful at it,” said Diemer True, a former state legislator and chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party.
Von Flatern said he expects Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, also a member of the Freedom Caucus, to make another bid for Speaker of the House this winter, an effort he also tried in 2020.
A Break From The Past
Tom Jones, a former Wyoming legislator who served from 1977-1986, said the only caucuses that existed during his tenure were for the Republican and Democratic parties, which he said were mostly free of factions.
“There was never a time the caucus told anybody who to vote for,” he said. “We only talked about how to vote when we were trying to see if we had enough votes or not for bills.”
Von Flatern said there were no ad-hoc coalitions he could remember during his 15 years in the Legislature.
True said he suspects, based on precinct committee member elections during the primary, that the more moderate, establishment wing of the Republican Party will make a resurgence in coming years. He said he doesn’t find these party members to be less conservative, just more civil and open to dialogue.
Even as it stands today, the House Freedom Caucus isn’t far from a clean sweep of Wyoming’s executive leadership.
With the Republican nomination of Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, for secretary of state, who is unopposed in the general election, the Freedom Caucus will have one of its own recent members in an executive seat by January.
Curt Meier, state treasurer, donated to a number of conservaitve candidates and political action committees during the primary election and is aligned with views expressed by most members of the Freedom Caucus.
Interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder was endorsed by Bear in his primary election campaign, but narrowly lost to Megan Degenfelder in the primary.
With Gov. Mark Gordon, State Auditor Kristi Racines and Meier at the end of their next terms by 2026 – presuming they win their general election races – openings will exist for the Freedom Caucus to make more inroads by that election
The caucus also has new recruits waiting in the wings for the upcoming legislative session as Abby Angelos, the Republican primary winner in House District 3, was endorsed by Bear. Many candidates endorsed by Gun Owners of America, a pro-Second Amendment group the Freedom Caucus has aligned with, also won their primary elections.
Bear also supported Roger Connett in his Senate District 1 campaign against Fortner and Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. There now is a write-in campaign on behalf of Connett against Driskill in the general election.
Fortner said he is convinced Bear encouraged Connett to enter the primary race against him as retribution for not voting with the caucus on certain bills. He also minced no words in saying just what he thinks about the tactics of Bear and the caucus.
“John Bear is nothing but a two-faced liar,” Fortner said.
Fortner said advertisements run against him by a few political action committees like Gun Owners of America, True West and Western Conservatives contained nearly identical verbiage.
“They’re all together nice and tidy,” he said. “They’re all supporting liberal Republican candidates.”
Bear denied what he calls “speculation” on Fortner’s part and said there is no evidence proving his claims of retaliation and manipulation.
“There is no evidence because I didn’t do it,” Bear said.
Bear said he turned his support away from Fortner because he left the House to take on a state Senate campaign.
“It was not politically prudent to do so,” Bear said of that decision. “Whether he likes it or not, incumbents have a higher statistical chance of winning their elections.”
Von Flatern said he also suspects the Freedom Caucus has strong connections with Frank Eathorne, chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party.
“I don’t think it’s good for them to be acting out in a way where they’re telling everybody how to vote,” he said.
Fortner said he finds the Republican Party broken and too fractured, which is why he said he’s leaving the party to be an unaffiliated voter in the general election.
“The Republican Party is not red,” he said. “They like to portray it to be, but it’s purple.”
Driskill won his primary election, but Connett is now running against him as a write-in candidate.
Fortner calls the campaign an attempt to expand the Freedom Caucus beyond the House.
“They want another mouthpiece in the Senate,” Fortner said.
Fortner suspects this write-in campaign and the write-in campaign for Republican Joe Webb in House District 19 against GOP primary winner Jon Conrad are connected and part of a power play by the House Freedom Caucus.
“They left out the most important piece of the puzzle – that’s the citizens,” Fortner said.
Webb won the endorsement of the Uinta County Republican Party, while the Crook County Republican Party has declined to endorse Driskill, the primary winner. The chairman of the Crook County GOP is the treasurer for Connett’s campaign.
“Frankly, it’s an incredible concept and very politically dangerous,” True said, adding he supports Driskill. “They eliminated the voice of the people.”
Jones said he believes the Republican Party has been taken over by the “extreme right.”
“When you have people who care that little about democracy, it really concerns me for our government,” he said.
True said he would be shocked if Driskill isn’t reelected, but he’s “been shocked before” when it comes to political predictions.
“I didn’t think (former president Barack) Obama or (President) Biden would get elected,” he said. “But I guess being anti-American and incompetent isn’t an excuse for not being elected.”
Carleen and Dan Brophy, well-known conservative political donors from Jackson, gave $2,000 to Connett’s primary campaign. They also gave $2,000 to Karl Allred’s primary campaign, one of Conrad’s opponents in the primary election. The Brophys also gave to a number of other conservative candidates across the state.
There are a few other states where this write-in trend is happening, but none where direct comparisons can be made.
In Minnesota, a Republican write-in candidate is running for that state’s Senate against a Republican primary winner. The Republican Party of Minnesota filed an official complaint against the write-in candidate for what it says were misleading claims he made that he has the support of the state party.
In Texas, all three candidates running for State District Court of Dallas County are write-ins.
A write-in Republican candidate is running for secretary of state in Washington with the backing of that state’s Republican Party. This situation is not directly comparable to Wyoming either, as no Republican received enough votes to advance to the general election through Washington’s top-two primary system.