The million-dollar question many who follow Wyoming politics want answered is whose hand is guiding WyoRINO.com?
Mike Pyatt, president of the conservative group Liberty’s Place 4 U, said determining the identity of the Wizard of Oz behind the WyoRINO curtain is a lot like trying to track “The Shadow.” The Shadow was a mysterious early 20th century detective character in comic books and novels who fought crime and had the ability "to cloud men's minds" to conceal his identity. His sense of morality and penchant for sniffing out evildoers was summed up by his catchphrase, “The Shadow knows!”
“The guy was fighting crime, but nobody knew who the shadow was,” Pyatt said. “There’s something healthy in people not knowing who you are and not carrying that identity with you.”
WyoRINO.com has been around since at least late 2019 and is based on the label “Republican in name only,” a pejorative used to describe some in the party that other Republicans believe don’t effectively follow the party’s platform. More specifically, the website says it exists “to expose liberal Wyoming Republicans who violate our Wyoming Republican values.”
WyoRINO.com ranks Wyoming’s Republican state lawmakers based on their votes on 10 selected bills from each legislative session. Those who don’t vote in line with what the website owner considers the party’s platform are given a failing grade for that vote. Those who receive a score lower than 70% on the 10 bills are considered a “RINO.”
A Cowboy State Daily analysis of domain name system records belonging to state conservative political websites WyoRINO.com, Liberty’s Place 4 U, TheWyoming.Net and WyomingLibertyNetwork.com shows that all four sites have chosen the same third-party domain host and name servers. They also share almost identical plugins, frameworks, coding and xml sitemap files.
Pyatt is the owner of WyomingLibertyNetwork, but said he doesn’t know who runs WyoRINO or TheWyoming.Net.
He said that Liberty’s Place member Steve Bray, a hardline conservative 2022 state House candidate from Casper, designed his group’s website and is “really sophisticated” at web design.
“He’s dedicated to ours (website), but I don’t know how many others he runs,” Pyatt said.
Each of the websites, including SteveBray.com, have an extremely similar theme and layout. They all use templates from Cryout Creations, a relatively obscure Eastern European-based WordPress theme developer.
Two templates from Cryout were used in the creation of these four websites. According to wordpress.org, both of the themes have fewer than 3,000 collective downloads worldwide, a very small number in the world of web templates. The file structure of these sites, as shown by the sitemap files published for search engines like Google, show several shared conventions.
The privacy settings on all four sites also are identical.
An IP address associated with WyoRINO shares a mail server IP with Bray’s personal website, TheWyoming.Net, the Liberty’s Place 4 U website and a few other Wyoming conservative outlets. This does not mean Bray is the owner of the IP address, but it does show an official correlation between the sites.
Bray declined to comment for this story.
Another IP search related to WyoRINO shows that a different IP address was briefly used to host the site early on. This IP address is connected to a handful of other websites, including the Rocky Mountain Gun Club in Evansville. That website says it was built with “Freelance Hosting,” which links to an anonymous WordPress website designer known as “Wyoming Liberty Hosting.”
The Wyoming Liberty Hosting IP address shares many of the same websites as the two WyoRINO IP addresses.
None of this is to say that Bray is the owner of WyoRINO, but it could indicate that he at least may have been involved in the creation of the website.
“Ride for the Brand, Wyoming” is described on the WyoRINO website as its manager. Ride for the Brand, Wyoming is a trade name registered with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office to an applicant known as Seventeen Eighty Nine LLC. The purpose of the website is described as “Advocate for Wyoming.”
Seventeen Eighty Nine is registered to the business address of Etna attorney Jack Edwards. Edwards said he was hired by a client whose identity he would not disclose to register the trade name, which he confirmed is connected to the website.
Seventeen Eighty Nine is no longer active and Edwards said he gets “annoyed” when people associate him with WyoRINO.
Etna, a town of about 185 residents, also happens to be home to well-known former state legislator and active Republican Party member Marti Halverson.
Halverson told Cowboy State Daily she doesn’t know why the Natrona County GOP is “picking on” WyoRINO because of the numerous other conservative ranking sites in Wyoming, and she “categorically” denies being the manager of WyoRINO.
The website gained attention almost immediately and quickly became a thorn in the side of some state lawmakers it targeted. During the 2022 election cycle, its ratings were routinely referred to in debates and by individual campaigns in many mailers.
Opponents of the website say it unjustly accuses its targets of being fake Republicans and holds legislators to an inaccurate and inflexible standard of the Republican Party platform.
On Thursday, the Natrona County Republican Party will host an event where the owner of WyoRINO is invited to attend and debate the merits of the website.
Former state legislator Joe MacGuire, chairman of the Natrona County Republican Party, was targeted and labeled as a “RINO” by the website when he was in office from 2017-2022. He believes WyoRINO is breaking the law by not reporting its activities with the Secretary of State’s office.
MacGuire also said people deserve to know whether it’s a major Washington, D.C., lobbying force like the Koch brothers or a Wyoming resident running the website, which he sees as an example of campaign “electioneering.”
“Wyoming people deserve to know whether the people who are pushing WyoRINO are from out-of-state and want to take over the state Legislature, or do they care about Wyoming values,” MacGuire said.
Some critics of WyoRINO say it almost doesn’t matter who is running the site as the political leanings of the person running it are patently obvious. Rod Miller, an opinion columnist for Cowboy State Daily and emcee for Thursday’s event, said last week that the website is synonymous with the far-right wing of the Republican Party.
“It’s part of the dignity battalions of the Freedom Caucus force that is a very narrow wedge of politics in Wyoming,” Miller said. “Outside that narrow wedge of right-wing politics in Wyoming, no one pays attention to them.”
But others are irritated that the owner of the site, behind a cloaked veil, comfortably charges lawmakers with not being Republican enough, and does so anonymously. The Natrona County GOP described it as “the height of cowardice” in an August press release.
A few legislators who have been targeted by the site are scheduled to speak at the Thursday event, but MacGuire hasn’t revealed who they will be yet out of fear they could become targets for harassment.
The organizers of the event haven’t heard back from any representative of the website and have said they don’t expect anyone to show up.
Pyatt said remaining anonymous may be a vehicle for the website’s owner to remain humble and have the freedom to do as he or she pleases.
“Once people know you’re doing something, some people, it swells their head up a little,” he said.
Rise Of The Digital Right
Since WyoRINO’s inception, a handful of populist conservative websites have sprouted up in Wyoming with various ranking themes.
Some rank based on levels of “trust” a legislator will adhere to the U.S. Constitution, while others like WyoVote create a statistical scoring system based on whether a legislator is viewed to be adhering to the values they believe make up the Republican and Democratic party platforms.
Halverson said the growth of these sites as a response to what she sees as an increased need for transparency within the Republican Party. She mentioned how the American Conservative Union recently labeled Wyoming, historically one of the most Republican states in the country, as “purple.”
“Republicans were alarmed by that,” she said.
Gillette resident Doug Gerard runs his own political ranking site, Evidencebasedwyoming.com. He said websites like his have prospered as a response to inflation and certain weaknesses in the economy.
Dan Sabrosky, a member of Liberty’s Place, said there has been an even broader awakening among voters to the significance of modern-day political issues because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s definitely a difference between the hard right and establishment Republicans,” he said.
What Are They Trying To Do?
Although LP4U isn’t a ranking website, it serves a similar purpose to promote what it sees as true Republican ideals and candidates, all in the name of advancing liberty.
Along with the other websites, “one of the things we’ve said is what we do is inform people what liberty looks like,” Pyatt said.
Halverson said she originally suspected the owner of a similar site in Montana as being the person behind WyoRINO, but said she soon determined a Wyoming resident is running it.
“They say it’s the best kept secret in Wyoming,” she said.
Although the Wyoming Republican Party originally denied any connection with WyoRINO when it first launched, the website is now in lockstep with much of the rhetoric issued by the party leaders and is spoken of in favorable terms at party meetings.
Halverson has been a staunch advocate for election integrity in recent years and serves on a committee dedicated to this cause in the Wyoming GOP.
The WyoRINO website says that “just as the election integrity process is something to be mindful of, so is the integrity of the Republican Party and the candidates who run on the Republican ticket. It is up to us to expose RINO legislators who are Dems in sheep’s clothing.”
Gerard’s website uses statistical analysis to group legislators into categories based on how often they vote compared to the average member of their own party on every vote of the legislative session. Although his methodology assumes that legislators can be dispersed within four categories that he’s determined along the political spectrum, and that a Republican who votes with their party more than Democrats can still be considered “very liberal,” there is some legitimate science to it.
Although he’s received criticism from some for his methods of statistical analysis, Gerard said he stands by his data as simply reporting their voting records.
“It’s like, dude, that’s your data. Own it,” he said. “It’s not my problem.”
Like the other sites, Gerard’s inspiration is to expose what he sees as illegitimate Republicans. He believes the fact that he never sees Republicans tightly aligned in his data proves they’re out there.
“We have Republicans that have the R for their name for decoration and not much else,” he said. “It’s traditional for conservatives to be fiscally conservative regardless of the shade of conservative you are, and if you’re always voting for spending, you’re not who you say you are.”
Are They Changing Minds?
Pyatt and Gerard said they’re not sure if websites like WyoRINO and Evidencebasedwyoming are changing people’s votes with the information they provide or are just solidifying pre-held convictions. Regardless, Gerard said they serve an important function.
“I would like to at least like to think we’re out there educating voters versus not having them there, and that’s really what all these sites are about,” he said.
MacGuire believes WyoRINO has led to certain lawmakers being voted out of office, but doesn’t attribute it to his own 2022 campaign loss. He also believes it has affected the way lawmakers cast their votes.
“It’s a hammer,” he said.
Giving legitimacy to all these sites, Halverson, Sabrosky, Pyatt and Gerard said, is the consistency of their results between each other.
A comparison of WyoRINO, WyoVote, Evidencebasedwoyming and thefreedomindex.com reviews of the 2023 legislative session show nearly identical results for who is considered a staunch Republican and who is not.
WyoRINO, Gerard said, is focused on the single issue of Republicans adhering to their party’s platform. This determination is made by the opinion of the person running the website.
“It’s the same timeless principle. It’s the resolutions,” Gerard said. “If you don’t stand with that, WyoRINO, that’s what they’re going to use to decide.”
‘The Shadow’ Carries On
Halverson said no incentive exists for whoever is running the site to reveal themselves.
Gerard doesn’t shy away from running his website and says other conservative ranking sites should follow suit.
“If you’re going to do something like that, put your name on it,” he said. “To me, I want my name on it because I want people to know that I did the work.”
He proposed the idea that WyoRINO could be managed by a current legislator who does not want to expose themselves to recrimination from fellow lawmakers by releasing their identity as manager of the site.
Pyatt said although he supports WyoRINO and sees it as providing a public service, he doesn’t follow the website closely and has personally moved away from using the term “RINO.”
“I think it’s lost a little bit of its luster, so I go with the term ‘establishment,’” he said. “At least I know what that means.”
This summer, a new political ranking site appeared in Wyoming called 307 Votes. The website shares the same domain host and name servers as WyoRINO.com, Liberty’s Place 4 U, TheWyoming.Net and WyomingLibertyNetwork.com. Its design also shares the same theme as Liberty’s Place 4 U, TheWyoming.Net and WyomingLibertyNetwork.com.
Pyatt says he doesn’t know who runs it. What he does know is that when it comes to politics, “there’s no taking your foot off the gas.”
“As soon as the grassroots movement does otherwise, we’re going to lose our momentum,” he said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.