By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Driving home with her “Brent Bien for Governor” sign the day after the Republican candidate lost his primary election was when something dawned on Thermopolis resident Cheryl Aguilar.
“I was halfway home and I said, ‘No,’” Aguilar said. “I spray-painted ‘write-in’ on it and it was back up in an hour.”
Aguilar asked Bien about her idea and even decided to test him a little, asking if he would run as an Independent.
“He said there was no question he would not because he’s been a lifelong Republican,” she said. “If he said he would, I probably wouldn’t have done that (run write-in effort).”
An Online Upswell
Aguilar posted about her effort on Facebook, and within days was receiving phone calls and messages from all around the state.
It was then Aguilar decided to start a write-in campaign for Bien.
That was two months ago, and since then the effort to get Bien elected has grown legs, with an aggressive advertising campaign and what Aguilar estimates to be around 1,000 volunteers statewide helping out.
“How cool would it be if our governor was elected who is not indebted to one special interest, no organization – just supported by the people?” Aguilar asked rhetorically.
‘Not A Campaign’
Aguilar insists that the Bien write-in movement, which has no official name, is not a formal political campaign; rather, it’s a grassroots effort to help Bien get elected. She said she has no plans to file any campaign finance information and has conferred with the Secretary of State’s office on the matter.
Bien has not been involved with the write-in effort that has included billboards, yard signs and political fliers.
“Since the Aug. 16, 2022 primary election, many people around Wyoming asked me if they could write-in my name on the Nov. 8 general election ballot,” Bien said in a Oct. 21 Facebook post. “I felt honored and humbled by each request and objected to none. Since then, a grassroots ‘write-in’ campaign began led by patriotic Americans across our great state.
“I have addressed multiple inquiries asking if I am running this ‘write-in’ campaign. I am not.”
Aguilar said volunteers have spent their own time and money to help Bien get elected, uncompensated in any way.
“There is no treasurer, no formal organization, no money from Brent,” she said.
There has been some level of organization to Aguilar’s effort. She is not a political novice, having worked on a political campaign in Colorado in the past.
Aguilar recruited county and city captains throughout the state, making inroads wherever she could find people to help. She said the bulk of their efforts have consisted of door knocking and phone calling. In Cheyenne, there are four double-sided billboards alone, all paid for by an anonymous individual after the primary election.
“It’s a boots-on-the-ground campaign,” Bien said.
Aguilar said she finds Bien a more conservative candidate than Gov. Mark Gordon, whom she describes as “moderate.”
She is adamantly opposed to the way Gordon handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Aguilar said she protested twice at the Wyoming Capitol against the state’s mandates in response to the pandemic.
“He caused some businesses to go out of business,” she said, adding she found Gordon disingenuous about the restrictions he imposed during the height of the pandemic.
She also believes Gordon should have stood behind Grace Smith, a Laramie high school student, who was arrested for refusing to leave her school after also refusing to wear a face mask on campus in 2020. Bien has said he would have supported and pardoned Smith.
“That’s who we need – someone who protects children,” Aguilar said. “Not someone who hides behind federal mandates.”
Aguilar also believes that Gordon is unwisely getting Wyoming involved with federal programs that could come with unforeseen strings attached in the future, mentioning the memorandum of understanding the governor recently signed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Project Bison, which aims to be the world’s largest carbon capture effort.
Got A Chance?
Bien lost to Gordon by nearly 50,000 votes in the primary election, and Aguilar isn’t dissuaded by that statistic for a few different reasons.
She believes that in addition to what she estimates were around 13,000 Democrats who crossed over to vote in the Republican primary, there were also about 8,000 unaffiliated voters who did the same and an even larger number of “protest voters” who don’t typically vote, but came out purely to vote for or against U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney.
“That race was so highly publicized,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar expects Gordon to lose most of those Democratic and “un-normal” voters, and a more educated Republican voter-base to turnout for the general election. She also expects an average non-presidential election year turnout for this race, despite the record numbers seen in the primary.
The August primary drew a record 182,232 voters across the Cowboy State, which still pales in comparison to the last non-presidential general election in 2018 that drew 205,275 people.
Aguilar believes the high-profile U.S. Congressional race between Cheney and Republican primary winner Harriet Hageman had a negative effect on down-ballot races, with many people voting for candidates in those contests purely on name recognition.
“The (Republican) Party was hijacked for the down-ballot,” Aguilar said.
If this theory is true, the phenomenon could have negatively affected Bien, who was largely unknown before starting his campaign in the spring.
‘Party Or Principle?’
Aguilar also relies on this effort to defend supporting a candidate who already lost in the primary election. She said she expects lawsuits if Bien does win the election
“If you believe the primary was a little bit hijacked because of one of the very most public media campaigns covering one of the candidates of up-ballot election, do you just let Wyoming go?” Aguilar questioned. “Do you vote for party or principle?”
Write-in campaigns historically have a low chance of success because voters must physically write in the name of the candidate they are supporting, the antithesis to running on name recognition. They also typically lack the funding and support of official candidate campaigns.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is one of the prominent examples of a write-in candidate winning an election. Unlike the current effort for Bien, Murkowski was involved in her write-in effort with a significant amount of money spent toward it.
Aguilar estimates that less than $5,000 statewide has been spent on Bien’s write-in campaign.
Aguilar admits Bien would not likely win the election if it was held today and that he still faces a massive uphill battle to beat Gordon. Still, she finds the longshot goal worth the effort.
“If we do pull it off, we’ll be the story forever,” Aguilar said.