By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
A conservative wing of the Wyoming Legislature is expanding with the help of national and regional ties. The House Freedom Caucus also will now be known as the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.
“The Wyoming Freedom Caucus does not exist, according to the independent volition of its members,” said the group’s chairman, Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, in a statement provided to Cowboy State Daily. “Our caucus exists because the people of Wyoming elected legislators who fear God, respect our Constitution and believe in limited government and individual liberty.”
The new organization is being launched alongside similar coalitions in Idaho and Montana with help and support from the State Freedom Caucus Network, a privately funded organization.
Bear told Cowboy State Daily that the biggest change with the expansion will be the resources the previously self-funded local Freedom Caucus will have at its disposal.
These expanded resources will likely give an even larger presence to the organization than it has had in the past to build on momentum from a state election where it grew membership.
“The partnership allows us to have resources that we wouldn’t otherwise have available to us,” Bear said.
Jesse Rubino will be the Wyoming State Director for the organization and will be paid by the State Network.
Rubino is married to Joe Rubino, who was recently announced as chief policy officer for the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office under newly sworn in Secretary of State Chuck Gray.
Joe Rubino also is a nephew of U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman.
The State Freedom Caucus Network is a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded in late 2021 that’s dedicated to establishing freedom caucuses throughout the country based on conservative values and issues like election integrity and Critical Race Theory.
The organization has roots tied to the House Freedom Caucus in Congress, a hardline conservative faction in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The national organization is run by Andrew Roth, who worked a combined 18 years at the Club for Growth and the Club for Growth Foundation.
The Club for Growth political action committee was an early opponent of former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, after she opposed former President Donald Trump and actively campaigned against her during her unsuccessful reelection campaign this summer.
The Network had a particularly busy 2022, launching new freedom caucus partnerships in seven other states. With the recent additions of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, the organization is now involved in 10 states.
“Having relationships with legislators in other states help you,” Bear said. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time there’s an issue that comes along.”
Specifically, Bear said the Network will allow its Wyoming members to push certain pieces of legislation that successfully passed in other states and learn about strategic efforts that paid off for them.
Bear also said resources could come in the form of bill and law reviews.
The national group could “assist us in being able to take advantage of the rules of our Legislature to maximize our efforts to advance a very conservative agenda,” he said.
Like Wyoming, Idaho already had a Freedom Caucus, but Montana did not.
Origins In Wyoming
The organization’s Wyoming connection started when it invited Bear, Gray (while serving as a state representative) and Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, to attend an event it was hosting in Atlanta.
Although Bear said she didn’t do any legwork toward establishing the relationship between the Network and the Freedom Caucus in Wyoming, Hageman encouraged the Cowboy State group to build a partnership with the Network and develop relationships with other organizations.
“She and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of state issues and the solutions for those issues,” Bear said of Hageman.
House Freedom Caucus
The House Freedom Caucus membership grew its membership after the November elections.
“We had another big move as far as the Legislature, more to the right,” Bear said.
Although Bear said the organization, which he considers the most conservative group in the House, will be more transparent and public facing than it has been in the past, he wouldn’t reveal the total caucus membership as it stands today.
The recent Republican caucus elections show, however, that nearly half of Republicans in the House at least supported candidates aligned with the Freedom Caucus.
“The Freedom Caucus is a reflection of the people of Wyoming, and we were elected to represent their interests in Cheyenne,” Bear said.
The strength of this conservative bloc has increased from the past session, when Bear said it boasted 17 members.
The Freedom Caucus also grew much larger after the 2020 elections, gaining 11 new members that year.
In one of its first acts after being elected, 15 freshman legislators signed a Freedom Caucus letter in late November, urging Wyoming Republican U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis to vote against legislation federally allowing the right to same sex marriage.
Bear said the Wyoming Freedom Caucus has roots dating prior to 2017, but did not become formally organized until 2020. He spoke about the group’s rise during the Save America Rally hosted by former President Donald Trump in Casper last May.
Reflecting The State
Bear doesn’t believe the state or the Legislature has become conservative; rather, Democrats have drifted farther to the left, while the Republican Party platform has stayed static.
“That is why we are a one-party state,” he said. “It hasn’t always been a one-party state.”
Bear said the movement has caused many former Democrats to join the Republican Party because it aligns more closely with their views, creating what he describes as a battle for the Republican Party’s “soul.”
Many have levied the term “RINO” against certain lawmakers believed to be not conservative enough and Republican “in name only.”
In Wyoming’s Legislature, there are only five Democrats in the House, making the most prominent split between moderate and more conservative Republicans, unlike the typical two-party split seen in most of the rest of the nation.
“That’s what the Freedom Caucus is all about, is providing that differentiation for the people of Wyoming to see who are the conservatives and who are not,” Bear said. “Also, to serve as an example for those people who maybe want to stay in the legislature but haven’t voted very conservatively as far as the Republican platform in the past.”
A large and vocal contingency of the House Freedom Caucus has been its 2020 class of members, made up by Bear and Reps. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, and Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, to name a few.
“Wyoming needs more patriots willing to fight against federal overreach and to preserve our way of life,” Rodriguez-Williams said.
Haroldson, who was named vice chair of the new Freedom Caucus, said the unusual procedures and adversity brought on during his freshman session in early 2021 brought conservatives in his class together and more unified.
He believes this year’s freshman class also will be a defining group.
“I’m excited as we move forward with it just to be able to help those that might be walking out their freshman terms or any term for that matter,” Haroldson said. “We can use that knowledge of the past to definitely be an asset to those coming in the future.”
Although Haroldson didn’t attend the original meeting in Atlanta, he has attended other trainings provided by the State Freedom Caucus Network.
No Plans Yet For Senate
Bear said there are no plans to expand the Freedom Caucus into the Wyoming Senate at this time, even though there are members of the Senate aligned with and/or are former members of caucus.
“It’s such a change, we want to gradually work through these changes,” Bear said. “Take the Freedom Caucus that existed in the past and work in with this new partnership.”
Bear said he already met with leadership in the Legislature and will do so again before the session next week about goals for the session.
Forefront to the Freedom Caucus’ attention in the upcoming legislative session, Haroldson said, are bills fighting crossover voting, participation of male transgender athletes in female sports, and Wyoming’s trigger law prohibiting abortion.