Wyoming County Republican Party elections held last week around Wyoming show a shift toward “traditional Republicans” than more hardline conservatives.
In Lincoln County, conservative stalwart Marti Halverson was ousted as chairman by a 35-32 vote to former treasurer Wade Hirschi.
Halverson, a former state lawmaker, is one of the leading members of the “new conservative” movement in Wyoming. Members of this movement have commanded a growing majority of the party over the last two years, including all state party leadership positions.
The Lincoln County GOP brought a resolution to a state party meeting in November calling for an investigation into Gov. Mark Gordon’s alleged involvement with the planned TerraPower nuclear plant in Kemmerer. The resolution also speculated without evidence a relationship between Gordon and billionaire financiers George Soros, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
Halverson also was named in a New York Times story last year as being part of an alleged sweeping effort to spy on Gordon, others deemed to be more moderate Republicans and Democrats in Wyoming.
She also was recruited by Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne in 2020 to set up an Election Integrity and Security Committee. The group initiated Republican Party poll watching training last year so that 203 of its members could observe and scrutinize the security of polling places across the state.
Hirschi said he was grateful for Halverson’s service, including being chair of the county party since at least 2018. He said he wants to bring more civility and unity to the party.
Scott Harnsberger was named chair in the Fremont County Republican Party, beating out past chair Ginger Bennett by a close margin.
“I’ve always considered myself more on the conservative side,” Harnsberger said. “I’ve never considered myself a RINO (Republican in name only), but I suppose some seem to see me that way.”
Bennett is more aligned with the staunch conservative wing of the party. Although she was voted in as vice chair of the county party, she can’t vote at state central committee meetings.
Harnsberger was chair of the Fremont GOP in the late 1990s and is a former Fremont County treasurer. He also served as a delegate at the 2000 Republican National Committee Convention.
In Johnson County, former state legislator Mike Madden was elected chair, beating a challenger he described as farther to the right and less mainstream than himself by a 28-13 vote.
“They evidently thought I had more experience,” Madden said.
Elected as state committeewoman for Johnson County by an overwhelming margin was Kristen Crago, wife of state Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, a more moderate Republican.
In Uinta County, more traditional Republicans replaced the entire sitting executive committee last week. New chair Joy Bell is involved in a Wyoming Supreme Court lawsuit with outgoing members of the leadership committee.
Ron and Patty Micheli were chosen as the county’s committeeman and committeewoman.
Big Vs. Little Tent
Over the past few years, county Republican parties and the state party in Wyoming have issued a number of censures and condemnations against figures deemed to have violated tenets of the party’s platform.
Former congresswoman Liz Cheney’s was the most high-profile censure, an act followed by the RNC in early 2022. Twice censured in 2022 was Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, and on Saturday, the Sheridan County Republican Party censured Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn.
“While I understand people are frustrated, I just don’t feel like that’s an effective way to communicate,” Hirschi said about regularly condemning or censuring other Republicans.
Madden, Harnsberger and Hirschi all said they would like to see the party move away from how frequently this practice is used to improve overall unity.
“I’ve seen more of those things in the past couple years than my entire lifetime before,” Madden said.
Madden, Hirschi and new Natrona County Republican Party Chair Joe MacGuire also expressed a preference for a “big tent” approach to running the Republican Party.
“There needs to be room for discussion of a variety of viewpoints,” Hirschi said.
MacGuire said he hopes the county-level votes swing the pendulum to put the party in a more centralized position “where everyone feels welcome to participate.”
Madden expressed frustration during the 2022 State GOP convention when the Laramie County Republican Party was stripped of nearly all its delegates over allegations it violated bylaws in selecting delegates for the convention.
In Laramie and Natrona counties, traditional Republicans held their leadership seats, but there are new faces.
MacGuire, a former state legislator, is the new chair of the Natrona County Republican Party.
A more moderate Republican, MacGuire, was beaten by Rep. Tony Locke, R-Casper, in his bid for a third term in 2022. He replaces former chair Kevin Taheri, a more traditional Republican who did not run for reelection.
In Laramie, Taft Love beat out Stacey Leach for chairman in a meeting attended by nearly 200 people.
Leach’s daughter Jessie Rubino is state director of the hardline conservative Wyoming Freedom Caucus. Not one of the populist conservatives running for leadership positions were elected Saturday in Laramie.
Cause Of The Swing?
There were many more precinct committee seats added around the state in 2022 because of redistricting. Also playing a possible factor in the GOP pendulum swing, was a new awareness of the power the state GOP holds, responsible for selecting three nominees each for the two statewide officials replaced last year alone through the interim appointment process.
“Due to the process for the two vacancies that were filled last year, there’s a lot more attention being paid to the appointment process,” said Joann True, a Natrona County GOP precinct member.
One of these officials was former Interim Secretary of State Karl Allred, a vocal voice at central committee meetings from Uinta County.
With Allred and Halverson’s departure, there are two less prominent staunch conservative voices.
Will They Pay Dues?
The Natrona and Laramie Republican parties have been targeted by the state GOP for failing to pay owed dues. The Laramie GOP owes more than $12,000, while Natrona owes more than $25,000.
Both parties were prevented from having full slates of delegates seated at the state convention last spring as a result.
The state GOP will charge about $30 per person to members of those county parties to participate in future central committee meetings. Proceeds from the charge will go to their outstanding debts.
MacGuire said he wants to “reconcile” his county party’s debt, but also wants a clearer picture as to how county dues are determined, a formula he describes as “Byzantine.”
“Nobody knows how to figure it out,” he said.
Love expressed a commitment to paying his party’s dues so the county can be fully represented and heard at a state level again. He plans to substantially increase fundraising efforts to a level “Laramie hasn’t seen in a couple decades.”
Love said he has had positive conversations with Eathorne about the issue and wants to align the county party’s bylaws with the state party’s.
“We plan to reunite with the state party,” he said.
In general, Love said he wants to improve communication and transparency with his party’s central committee members. The Laramie County GOP is the largest in the state.
Populist Conservatives Still Hold Power
Hardline conservatives still maintain power in significant seats around the state.
Bryan Miller, chairman of the Sheridan County Republican Party, was reelected Saturday. Miller beat his more moderate opponent, Gail Symons, by an overwhelming majority.
Former state legislator Scott Clem was elected chairman of the Campbell County Republican Party, replacing Heather Herr, a more traditional Republican.
Clem was one of the most conservative members of the Wyoming Legislature from 2015-2020.
In contrast to Madden and Hirschi, who would like to see fewer resolutions come out of the county parties, Clem said he would like to see people bring resolutions that the central committee can vote on and possibly bring to the state GOP, according to a March 8 Gillette News Record story.
The Park County Republican Party also retained its staunchly conservative leadership, according to the Powell Tribune.
Martin Kimmet was reelected chairman, a role he’s held since 2017. Vince Vanata was reelected as state committeeman and Karen Jones, who is similarly minded, was elected state committeewoman.
Reelections for state leadership positions will happen at the state party’s next meeting in May. Eathorne has already announced his intent to run for reelection.