Early Freedom Caucus Member Runs To Win Back Wyoming House Seat

Former state Rep. Bob Wharff of Evanston was an early member of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus who gave up his state House seat in an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 2022. Now he wants that House seat back.

Leo Wolfson

April 04, 20247 min read

Former state Rep. Bob Wharff, left, and current Rep. Ryan Berger.
Former state Rep. Bob Wharff, left, and current Rep. Ryan Berger. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Former state legislator Bob Wharff was a member of a fledgling Wyoming Freedom Caucus when it had far fewer members, less name recognition and not as much influence in the state Republican Party.

When Wharff, an Evanston resident, vacated his state House seat to run for the Senate in 2022, the move was a blow to the Freedom Caucus, with Chairman Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, calling it at the time an abandonment.

Wharff ended up losing that election to Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, by a large margin.

Now, he’s running to get his House District 49 seat back in the Republican primary against incumbent Rep. Ryan Berger, R-Evanston, who confirmed to Cowboy State Daily on Thursday he’s running for reelection.

Although Wharff is a staunch Republican who fits well into the Freedom Caucus mold politically, he admits he’s a bit of a black sheep with a firmly independent streak.

“I don’t fit anywhere,” he said.

Who’s Berger?

Berger, who aligns more with the rival Wyoming Caucus faction of the House, said he strongly believes he’s brought integrity back to his House District 49 seat with unmatched dedication to the job and intense focus on helping his community.

“I see myself as a conservative problem solver,” he said. “I’m not down there to whine or cry, but to get things done for my community.”

A high school special education teacher, Berger said his No.1 priority is supporting education and teachers in Wyoming.

“For me, it’s always been No. 1,” he said. “I really feel strongly that we need to educate the public.”

He’s also proud of the property tax legislation that was passed during the 2024 session. Berger co-sponsored House Bill 45, a bill that puts a 4% cap on year-to-year tax increases in Wyoming.

He’s particularly proud of the fact that this legislation and other property tax relief bills were passed while also putting about $1 billion into savings.

Berger didn’t sponsor any bills in 2024, but in 2023 passed a law requiring the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission create rules for an antler and horn collecting season.

Rep. Ryan Berger, R-Evanston
Rep. Ryan Berger, R-Evanston (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

‘Would’ve Voted Differently’

Wharff said he doesn’t hold any personal animus against Berger or question his motivations, but said that he would’ve voted differently on a number of key issues.

While in the Legislature, Wharff was a major Second Amendment advocate. He was disappointed by Berger’s vote this year against legislation that would have prohibited gun-free zones in Wyoming.

Wharff also was upset that Berger voted against calling a special session last week, a move he said he admonished Berger for via email.

“It just shows the division in the county,” Wharff said. “I don’t think that represents the wishes of the majority of the county.”

Late last month, a push developed to call a special session to overturn six vetoes Gov. Mark Gordon made on a slate of hot-button bills such as providing more property tax cuts and defunding the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office at the University of Wyoming. On Sunday, the legislature voted 50-43 against calling the session.

Wharff said the fight for a special session emboldened his belief that the state’s executive branch is too much in lockstep with the legislative branch. That certain legislators and legislative leaders voted for bills Gordon vetoed, but then opposed calling a special session, is to Wharff proof there was a concerted plan to kill the bills all along.

“There’s a reason we have three branches of government, and they should be at odds,” he said.

The major reason people opposed calling a special session was its cost and time, and opportunity previously squandered by legislators to deal with the bills in question.

Although he only served one term, Wharff is not a political novice, having worked as a wildlife lobbyist at the Wyoming Capitol since the early 2000s.

In those days, Democrats had more power in the state and Legislature, which Wharff believes created an environment where people were more honest about their political leanings. If a Republican doesn’t vote with the party’s platform at least 50% of the time, he believes they’re being dishonest.

The challenge to hold them accountable, he said, is getting voters to recognize this is happening. With many people struggling just to put food on the table, he said it’s difficult for them to stay politically engaged.

Reduce Government

Evanston and Uinta County are lower on the economic scale when compared to the rest of the state. Wharff believes he could improve the livelihood of his constituents by reducing the size of state government, which he believes has been tainted by federal grants and money.

“I don’t think they’re spending our money right,” he said. “I’m a strong advocate for the government leaving my money in my wallet.”

When it comes to the controversial Kelly Parcel in Teton County, Wharff believes the land was undervalued and shouldn’t be transferred to Grand Teton National Park.

He also said a vote against the special session was a knock against helping the local economy, as one of the bills that would've been considered would have provided more property tax relief. Wharff said the state should base its property taxes on purchase price, an extremely far-reaching proposal that hasn’t gained much steam in the legislature in recent years.

Berger said he wants to fight for more infrastructure projects and funding for local communities, and fully supports state employees and its agencies.

Bob Wharff
Bob Wharff (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Mixed Feelings About Freedom Caucus

Berger is aligned with the Wyoming Caucus, a group of Republicans that have organized to counter the farther right Freedom Caucus. Berger said he was never invited to join, nor interested in joining, the Freedom Caucus.

“I don’t like playing these games, whatever games, Freedom Caucus games, social bill games,” he said. “I’m not someone who moved here from somewhere else and is involved with political persecution. I’m here to solve things the Wyoming way.”

Although Wharff is firmly against the Wyoming Caucus, he’s unsure if he’ll link back up with the Freedom Caucus in the future and whether the group will want to work with him, even though he supports their efforts. Wharff said he’s had past issues with the group when he’s questioned why they’ve supported certain bills.

“As a conservative I will vote with conservatives,” he said. “But I would like to try and teach the Freedom Caucus how it can be more organized and more effective, more strategic in its approach.”

If Berger loses the election, he said he won’t be heartbroken.

“If they like me, great, if they don’t, they can choose somebody else and I’ll move on,” he said. “I don’t play petty politics. If they want that they should look for somebody else.”

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter