By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
The Wyoming Republican Party is giving consideration to hosting its own U.S. House debate in response to a Thursday Wyoming PBS and Wyoming Public Radio debate prohibiting the public from attending.
“There’s no reason a debate like this shouldn’t be open to the public,” said Corey Steinmetz, State GOP national committeeman.
Many Wyoming residents took to social media to air their frustrations about the closed nature of the event, with some of Wyoming’s most prominent columnists expressing their displeasure.
“Regardless of who decided to bar the doors, the decision has raised the hackles of Wyomingites across the political spectrum,” columnist Rod Miller wrote. “To say that this was a stupid move is to test the boundaries of understatement.”
Terry Dugas, WyomingPBS general manager, claimed sole responsibility for the decision to close the doors at Sheridan College, citing safety concerns for the candidates and Wyoming PBS staff.
“Even in Wyoming, political figures receive death threats,” Dugas wrote. “One of the candidates even describes such a death threat on his Facebook page.”
In a June 25 Facebook post, candidate and State Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne mentioned how he received a death threat from Laramie man Christopher Podlesnik in early January 2021, but Steinmetz expressed doubt this event intimidated the Second Amendment proponent.
Podlesnik left three voicemails for Sen. Cynthia Lummis, two for Sen. John Barrasso, two for Bouchard and one for Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who was holding a rally at the Wyoming Capitol that day to denounce Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s impeachment vote. Podlesnik was sentenced in November 2021 to 18 months in federal prison.
Cheney spent $58,000 on security in early 2021 after receiving death threats, according to the New York Times.
Typically, it wouldn’t be surprising for a major candidate to take part in a debate hosted by their own party, but Cheney and the State GOP have a frayed relationship due to her speaking out against former President Donald Trump. The party’s leadership has defended Trump and many see the August primary as a barometer to how much support Trump retains throughout Wyoming and how representative the State GOP is of Republican voters in the state.
The debate’s moderator said on Tuesday evening he and PBS both worked to open the debate and that it was Sheridan College’s decision to originally bar the press.
“The moment I learned this event would be closed to the press, I fought back hard, and my former colleagues at WyomingPBS did as well, ” said Craig Blumenshine, debate moderator and former PBS employee. “It is the right decision to allow a free and independent press to cover the event in person.”
In an earlier statement, Dugas did not specify that it was Sheridan College’s decision to close the event to the media and the public but credited the Sheridan Press newspaper for convincing the college to allow media access. Sheridan College President Walter Tribley would not personally respond to questions about the decision that was made.
“For reasons related to the safety of all in attendance at the event, I am not responding to questions about the event at this time,” he said in a Tuesday morning email.
The application for press credentials includes a stipulation that signees agree event organizers are not liable for any “bodily injury or death” that may come to journalists while covering the event.
Even though the GOP sent an email to its members on Monday speculating about the idea, Steinmetz said it isn’t likely the State GOP will be able to find a venue and host its own debate with less than two months to go before primary election day.
“Right now, it seems kind of remote,” he said. “I’m not holding out a lot of hope.”