Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto believes his party to be more represented by Democrats in Colorado than the federal delegation of his own state.
“If you go across the room and ask people, they would tell you that their values and ideals probably are more in line with some of those representatives, those Democratic representatives in Colorado, than we are with our own representative and senator,” Barbuto said.
It was not U.S. Sens. John Barrasso, Cynthia Lummis, or Rep. Harriet Hageman that addressed the party at its Nellie Tayloe Ross dinner last weekend, but rather Colorado Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse.
The Colorado border, only about a 10 minute drive from Cheyenne, in some ways felt an entire world away because of the stark difference between the politics of the two states.
Barbuto said his party plans to study some of the tactics used by the Colorado Democratic Party and Democrats across the nation in recent decades to learn how it can regain power in Wyoming. Other states like Arizona, Nevada and Georgia have also shown a similar drift to the left.
“We’re looking anywhere where we can find good ideas,” Barbuto said. “There’s no need for us to recreate the wheel here but we do have to get it rolling here and that’s the trick.”
The Wyoming Democratic Party is at one if its lowest ever points, with membership hovering between 15%-25% of the state’s voters. The party hasn’t had a statewide representative in office since 2011.
“We can learn a lot from what Colorado has accomplished over the years and building up their party and investing in infrastructure,” Barbuto said. “Colorado is a state where things are happening, they’re moving forward, they have a strong future. So that really speaks volumes to the importance of dedicating ourselves to the work of building the party here too.”
Democrats occupy seven of Colorado’s 10 congressional seats and the governorship. Colorado hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 2004.
Colorado and Wyoming have traveled distinctly different paths over the last 25 years, with the Centennial State drifting to the left and the Cowboy State moving to the right.
In 1996, Wyoming had its last competitive presidential election when former President Clinton lost to Republican Bob Dole by less than 28,000 votes. Since that election, the states have generally moved farther and farther apart politically.
Democrats won every presidential election in Colorado since 2008, all by 5 points or more. Less than a decade ago, Republicans still held three statewide constitutional offices, as well as a chamber in the Legislature and a majority of the U.S. House delegation. Flash forward a few years and only
one Republican statewide candidate has topped 45% support since 2016.
Maybe Not So Similar
But in some ways, comparing Wyoming to Colorado can never be apples to apples, as there are factors that have influenced Colorado’s political shifts outside the bounds of political party engagement.
Population is one of the biggest.
Wyoming has never had a larger population than Colorado since statehood. By 1910, Colorado had more people than Wyoming does today.
Colorado also boasts a major metropolitan area. Wyoming has none. Colorado has two major college towns, each much bigger in population and school size than Wyoming’s one in Laramie. The population of the Denver metro area has skyrocketed in the recent decade as well, while Wyoming hasn’t experienced any comparable growth in any of its cities. Large metropolitan areas like Denver tend to lean toward a more Democratic voter base.
The Hispanic population in Colorado has also grown substantially, another demographic of traditional Democratic voters.
For the last 75 years, Wyoming has cast a higher percentage of votes for Republican presidential candidates than Colorado. The two states have vastly different populations, demographics, and in some respects culture, possibly a result of the policies Democrats have initiated in Colorado in recent years such as the legalization of marijuana.
People aged 20-49-years old make up a 4.6% larger percentage of the Colorado population than in Wyoming, and in Wyoming, seniors make up a 2.8% larger share of the population than in Colorado.
Although Colorado historically leaned Republican, it was by smaller margins than some people may remember. Former President Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 and was extremely competitive in his 1996 reelection.
Former Secretary of State Kathy Karpan said she does not agree with the following Colorado approach, although she said there are many cultural and political similarities between Colorado’s Eastern Slope and Wyoming.
“It’s got to be Wyoming grown,” she said. “Colorado is not representative of Wyoming, it’s got to be a local perspective.
What Happened To The Dems?
Karpan sees the mid-1970s as the peak of the Democratic Party in Wyoming, a time when the party was represented by three of the five statewide officials and a congressman in the U.S. House. There were other high points over the next few decades as well, but she said they were sandwiched around times when there was no Democratic president in the White House.
“When there was a Republican in the White House, Wyoming was very calm, they didn’t get riled up” Karpan said. “If a Democrat is in the White House- everybody man your stands,” she said.
The true point of no return, she said, was the 1994 elections, the year of former House Speaker’s Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution. The Republican gains that year sent a shockwave through Congress and the nation, running off key issues like abortion, immigration and religion.
“It gets to be a cacophony when you hear all of these bad stories coming at you,” Karpan said. “Where one party looks toward the future and the other party looks more wistfully to the past. My party is not hiding from the reality around us, but trying to struggle through it and face it.”
Gingrich was especially successful in harnessing this energy in rural states like Wyoming that typically are skeptical of the federal government and strong social change. Karpan said the culture wars and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 70s already did the Democrats no favors in Wyoming, a state that has always had a more conservative political ideology.
“We live in a rural state, a red state where culture wars are seen as a fire,” Karpan said.
In 1994, Karpan lost her bid for governor and then-governor Mike Sullivan lost his race for U.S. Senate. It was the first year there had not been a Democratic governor or Secretary of State in Wyoming since 1975. There’s only been one Democratic governor since 1994 and Karpan was the last Secretary of State from the Democratic Party.
Democrats also lost six seats in the State House that year.
“He (Gingrich) was building up an agitation, the anger was building up,” Karpan said. “It was the beginning of a deadly blow.”
Wyoming Democrats were still able to hold on to a competitive share of Legislature seats for nearly a decade after, but by 2004, held less than ⅓ of the total seats in both chambers.
Karpan believes Wyoming Democrats and the party as a whole were negatively impacted by the party’s drift toward the left and specifically former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
“He gave (former President Donald) Trump every argument he needed to destroy our party,” Karpan said. “When the Bernie people are the face of the party, that’s not a moderate viewpoint.”
She also said the Democratic National Committee was not interested in embracing more moderate and centrist policies proposed by Democrats in more red-leaning states during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies.
By the 2000s, the party started actively moving away from embracing fossil fuels and pushed for stricter gun control policies, two policies that run contrary to the Wyoming way of life for many residents.
But as bad as things may seem for the Democrats now, it’s not an all time low point for the party in Wyoming. The Democrats also struggled from 1902-1924, a time of general economic growth in America.
In 1920, the party was represented by one of the 54 total House members and three of the 25 Senate members. Today, the party has five House members but only two senators.
Leaders of the Wyoming Democratic Party are well aware of where their party stands today and the odds stacked against them.
“We know we’ve got our work cut out for each of us,” Wyoming Democratic Party Executive Director Ryan Greene said.
Greene ran against former congresswoman Liz Cheney in the 2016 election, losing by 32% of the vote.
“Who would’ve thought seven years later, I’m more popular in Wyoming than she is?” Greene joked to the audience on Saturday.
Glimmers of Hope
Greene also mentioned the recent growth of the Fremont County Democratic Party, bumping up from eight to 32 precinct committee members over a period of three weeks. Also, for the first time in 12 years, Weston County now has an active Democratic Party.
“We’re just getting started,” Greene said.
Greene said the party also wants to put efforts into registering younger voters, a demographic Democrats traditionally have more success with than Republicans do.
As the Wyoming Republican Party has done in recent years, Greene said the party wants to take a more grassroots approach to its efforts, garnering support statewide rather than focusing solely on its current areas of strength. He and Barbuto plan to travel across the state this summer working on these efforts.
“We want to let people know the party is still here,” he said. “Wyoming deserves a voice and we’re going to make sure as a party we’re getting ours out.”
Both he and Barbuto also said they would like to engage with veteran Democrats like former Govs. Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal and Karpan to learn some of the tactics that made them successful. Those three represent the last wave of prominent successful Democrats in the state.
“We want to be a big tent party,” Barbuto said.
Being a big tent party, the concept of representing a large spectrum of political viewpoints, was part of the reason Karpan said the party was able to be successful in the past.
Middle Of The Road
Promoting middle of the road policies was also key, leaning right when they had to while maintaining a baseline of Democratic principles seemed to work, and led to the party winning over moderate Republicans who didn’t like their party’s candidates from year-to-year.
Greene and Barbuto both said they have had conversations with moderate Republicans who said they are interested in voting Democrat because they don’t feel represented by those representing their party.
“We’re not going to get every Republican and we don’t need to,” Greene said.
Unlikely to crossover to the Democrats are voters who support the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, a group of legislators who strongly supported former President Donald Trump and make up nearly half of the Republicans in the Wyoming Legislature.
“There’s a lot of frustration around the state, not just among Democrats, but among the unaffiliated voters and moderates (Republicans) with this Freedom Caucus, in that ultra right-wing conservative ideology that seems to be driving policy in the state right now,” Barbuto said.
“Regardless of the letter behind your name, if you’re a reasonable person, you can see that what’s happening is not necessarily in the best interest of the people of the state. It’s being done in the best interest of an ideology," he said.
And even if those Republicans don’t vote for Democrats, there has been a growing alliance between less conservative Republicans and Democrats in the State Legislature. A recent study from Evidence Based Wyoming shows that the more moderate Republicans of the Legislature were more closely aligned in their voting record with the Democrats than the most conservative wing of their own party.
“I think that any time any legislator who is willing to be reasonable and look out for the best interest of the state is going to find an ally in that effort with the Democratic Party,” Barbuto said. “We disagree on issues but that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to work together.”
Barbuto believes this discontent will help the Democrats in the 2024 elections.
Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, chairman of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, has expressed frustration to Cowboy State Daily during the 2023 Legislature about the power of the five State House Democrats, who often align with the less conservative Republicans on many bills.
Barbuto agrees that the Democrats swing above their weight, but believes it’s because they stick to their party’s values. He doesn’t see the success of this alliance as an excuse to not have to grow their numbers.
Not only did the Democrats lose seats in the Legislature during the 2022 election cycle, there were also many races around the state where they had no candidates run, including in three of the statewide races, a major flaw Karpan says needs to be immediately fixed.
“Getting people engaged and getting them energized about being a part of that process of getting candidates elected,” Barbuto said.
Around 75 people filled the ballroom at Little America Resort in Cheyenne for the party dinner. For most in attendance, the evening represented a rare moment when their political viewpoints were not in the minority compared to those around them.
“It’s very invigorating and exciting to be in a room with the Wyoming Democrats, people who are like-minded and fighting for the same things and working toward the same goals,” Barbuto said. “Sharing this meal and sharing the excitement about where our party is and where it’s going is energizing.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com