Rod Miller made the call out to the audience at the WyoRINO debate in Casper on Thursday night, but no one answered.
“Hashtag real WyoRINO.com, are you in the room?” he questioned. “Are you with us tonight? We have a chair for you.”
Earlier in the evening, former state lawmaker and Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Diemer True made a series of genie jokes, but it did nothing to make the anonymous wizard behind the curtain of the conservative political ranking website appear.
The Natrona County GOP had invited the owner of WyoRINO.com to debate Miller, a Wyomingpolitical observer and Cowboy State Daily columnist, at the event held at the Ramkota Hotel and hosted by the local party.
While nobody claimed affiliation with the site, a panel of six legislators who have been targeted by the site did show up. This included state Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo and Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper.
Without someone to debate, the evening instead became more of a panel discussion about the impact of the growing number of political watchdog websites around Wyoming.
Every member of the panel received a failing score from WyoRINO for their votes during the 2023 legislative session.
Barlow said he’s not familiar with the political ranking sites popping up in recent years and doesn’t have the energy to learn about them.
“They’re not a part of how I rate or grade listening to my community,” he said.
Crago issued a more dire analysis of their impact.
“I think we’re going to a place where we’re going to have bad policy in the state of Wyoming,” Crago said.
Casper resident Dan Sabroksy stood up in defense of WyoRINO, saying it exposes Republican legislators who have a “liberal” voting record.
Sabrosky asked the panel if they accept other political ranking sites that are open about their ownership.
Crago said he doesn’t mind being ranked or rated, but wants to be graded fairly. He said many of the conservative ranking websites use an arbitrary determination to come up with their results.
An attorney by trade, Crago said he enjoys having passionate political discussions. He believes the rating sites have created a division within the Legislature and guide the way lawmakers vote on certain bills.
The primary purpose behind WyoRINO and some of the frustration expressed by members of the staunchly conservative Wyoming Freedom Caucus that often espouses the same beliefs is that many members of the Republican Party are voting like Democrats and hiding behind the party’s shield.
“People in Wyoming are waking up,” Sabroksy said. “They don’t like the liberal direction the Wyoming Legislature has gone.”
In many ways, the night divulged into more of a discussion about the frustration that the Republican lawmakers on hand have with other members of their party rather than the WyoRINO site itself.
Miller described the website as simply a symptom of what he sees to be a virus that has infected Wyoming politics.
“It’s simply a symptom of something deeper and darker,” he said.
Over the last decade, many believe the Wyoming Legislature has drifted farther to the right, not only because of the loss of Democratic seats, but also because of the type of legislators being elected and bills passed, taking on a more hardline conservative bent than in the past.
Members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus and leadership of the Republican Party say this is a reaction to other members of their party drifting more left politically.
Some Too ‘Unserious’
Oakley believes there are too many “unserious” bills being brought in the Legislature and that true conservatism is focusing on Wyoming problems. She believes some lawmakers who claim to be protectors of freedom are actually guilty of hypocrisy.
She mentioned legislation brought by Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, which would have prohibited business owners from imposing vaccine or mask mandates on their property, which drew an appreciative cheer from Mike Eathorne, brother of Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne. Oakley says the bill was a perfect example of government overreach.
“The irony is so thick … calling this freedom,” she said. “The bills and the ideas and the concepts and the policies that are brought forward are all control. They’re the opposite of freedom.”
Landen called the situation “tedious.” He mentioned how the members of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus often vote in lockstep with each other on many issues. The caucus receives support from the Washington, D.C.-based State Freedom Caucus Network, which Landen said has led to many “cookie cutter” bills that match what’s proposed in other states.
Mike Eathorne asked the members of the panel if they know the Republican Party platform and support it.
Obermueller said he listens to his constituents over the state GOP, drawing a loud roar from the audience. He drew a comparison between America and Russia.
“On election day (there), the party is still in charge, the day after the party is still in charge. You do what the party says,” he said. “In America, the difference with us is that on Election Day, the people are heard, the people vote.”
The panel also addressed the issue of property taxes.
Following the 2023 legislative session, many members of the Freedom Caucus lambasted other legislators for a lack of progress in reducing property taxes Wyoming.
Anderson said there’s a misconception that property taxes are rising in all 23 counties of the state, when in reality he believes the number is closer to five.
“This is not a statewide issue,” he said.
Oakley said legislators need to fully understand the Wyoming tax structure before making significant changes to it in the name of relief. She mentioned how local cities and counties are significantly dependent on the revenue that property taxes bring.
“We have to be thoughtful in the way we address these things,” she said.
Landen also criticized other members of his party for being adverse to spending of any kind, saying they are willing to let roads go into despair and all public services shrivel up if they get their way.
That’s All Folks
Miller brought a close to the discussion about 75 minutes after it began.
“The hour is advancing and the cows need milk,” Miller proclaimed. “The evening is over.”
Sabrosky described the event as “almost refreshing.”
Sabrosky, who was one of the few people in attendance who supported the WyoRINO website, said there weren’t many more like him there because they didn’t think they would be able to speak their minds freely without being shot down.
Others, he said, couldn’t stand the thought of financially supporting the Natrona GOP. Some members of his Liberty’s Place 4U group were reportedly observed in the bar at the Ramkota.
The event was a fundraiser for the Natrona County GOP, with a $30 dinner for all attendees. There was about 100 people who showed up.
Sabrosky said there needs to be more political events held in Wyoming where an equal number of people on both sides are participating so as to avoid “an echo chamber.”
He mentioned a conservative political event held last weekend in Casper where, although he agreed with everyone in attendance, he found the discussion a little predictable and mundane.
Miller and Sabrosky were upbeat afterward and shook hands. The two frequently trade barbs on social media and in Cowboy State Daily opinion pieces.
“We’ll see you on the battlefield in Cowboy State Daily,” Sabrosky said to Miller as he left.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.