LANDER—For motorcycle shop owner and political candidate Jeff Martin, inside-out day at his granddaughter’s elementary school was a bridge too far.
Tags are supposed to go on the inside of shirts, the 64-year-old Fremont County resident said. For Martin, the spirit-day activity celebrated in schools across the country was a sign that Wyoming is going off the rails and cause to throw a rally for what he considers true conservatives from across Wyoming.
“Inside-out day was part of it, the things going on in our schools,” Martin said of the provenance of last week’s Save Wyoming rally. “We teach our kids to wake up in the morning on time, get to the kitchen table, get some breakfast. We teach them to dress properly, put their shoes on the right feet and get to school. So what’s changed? What is going on?”
Martin decided to run for office and is challenging Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) to represent the residents of Wyoming House District 54. He made the announcement Friday at the onset of the all-day Save Wyoming rally he’d organized with fellow Lander resident Karen Wetzel. Four dozen other speakers and performers joined Martin and Wetzel — a mix of political candidates, former officeholders and state and county GOP officials. Organizers said they assembled the roster of speakers organically, through their own research.
“There weren’t any particular criteria,” Wetzel said. “We asked people that we like.”
Fremont County residents listen to political candidate speeches at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/wyomingdigest.com)
But observers and one of the speakers agreed that the invitees all had something in common: They were in the good graces of the Wyoming Republican Party.
That list starts with Harriet Hageman, a Cheyenne attorney who was picked by Donald Trump to challenge U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney in the Aug. 16 primary election. Other notable names making the cut included Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), who’s vying to be the next secretary of state and Brent Bien, one of the four candidates challenging Republican Gov. Mark Gordon.
Typically the Wyoming Republican Party does not endorse candidates before the primary, and state statute prohibits political parties from financially supporting — directly or indirectly — “the nomination of any one person against another person of the same political party running in the primary election.”
Wetzel made clear the rally was not an official GOP event, but absences at the Save Wyoming rally spoke to the fractured state of the party. Gov. Gordon, State Sen. and secretary of state candidate Tara Nethercott of Cheyenne, U.S. Rep. Cheney, Lander’s sitting lawmakers Sen. Cale Case and Rep. Larsen and numerous other Republican incumbents seeking reelection were left off the invitation list.
The notable omissions all shared something else in common: Each had been accused by their party or party surrogates at some point of failing to toe the party line.
“There’s some big heavy infighting going on,” said Rep. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston), who’s challenging Sen. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) for her seat in the upper chamber. “The conservatives are fighting and there’s been a fracturing in the conservative element.”
Wharff wasn’t asked to attend the Save Wyoming rally, though he said he wouldn’t have gone anyway because it would have detracted from campaigning.
“There’s some big heavy infighting going on. The conservatives are fighting and there’s been a fracturing in the conservative element.”
Rep. Bob Wharff (R-Evanston)
Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) and Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), who are also seeking to hop from the Wyoming House to the Senate, were also not present at the rally. According to a report in the Cowboy State Daily, they had a recent falling out with the Wyoming House Freedom Caucus — a bloc of representatives that aims to disrupt what they describe as moderate control of the Wyoming House.
An official allegiance between the Save Wyoming rally attendees and Freedom Caucus is unclear — the latter group has declined to make its membership public, though individual representatives often self-identify — but there’s certainly ideological overlap. And yet right-wing bona fides alone weren’t enough to secure an invite.
Also missing was staunch Second Amendment supporter Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), who’s running against Cheney and Hageman and lesser-known U.S. House candidates Denton Knapp and Robyn Belinskey.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Brent Bien speaks at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/wyomingdigest.com)
Knapp, a former Army infantry officer from Gillette, said he wasn’t invited to speak at the Lander event. Only one candidate for any given seat, whether in the Legislature, statewide office or for U.S. Congress, was present at the event.
“It ought to be open to all of us, is the bottom line,” Knapp said of the rally. “I believe there was party involvement.”
The Wyoming Republican Party fundraised at the event, with Chairman Frank Eathorne cowboy-style auctioning off some “Trump Country”-branded cowboy hats that were leftover from the former president’s May rally in Casper. Fremont County Republican Party Chairwoman Ginger Bennett was explicit, and said that none of the money raised would go to any candidates present.
But to Knapp’s eye, a common element among the speakers at the Save Wyoming rally was non-financial support from the Wyoming GOP ahead of the primary election.
“The Wyoming Republican Party and the [Republican] National Committee made their choice — Harriet Hageman — over a year ago,” he said. “If you look at state statute, it says the state political party cannot monetarily support a candidate from the same party [before the primary], directly or indirectly.”
Sen. Case is another Republican lawmaker who’s on the outs with his county party, and who was not invited to Save Wyoming. The snub was no surprise, he said, and party involvement was clear.
“It seems like a Republican event when you have the chairman of the party and the executive director of the party and precinct people — a committeeman and woman and the local chairman…” Case said. “All the party people are going, they’re not being neutral. State law has a lot to say about that.”
It violates the “spirit of the law,” he said, for Republican Party officials to attend an event that excludes candidates of their own party before the primary.
La Barge resident Mike Schmid, who’s challenging fellow Republican, Rep. Albert Sommers in Wyoming House District 20, speaks at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/wyomingdigest.com)
Case considered attending and having a “counter presence,” but thought better of it. The 30-year Wyoming Legislature veteran and member of Cheney’s leadership team worried his presence would be “inflammatory” among the crowd and he disliked the optics of going.
“I would hate for people to think that I associated myself with the thinking of that group, because I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t think the election was stolen. I’m not a supporter of Donald Trump … I believe in Medicaid expansion. I think there’s a purpose for government.”
Rift in action
During the rally, lawmakers perceived as the moderate establishment were cast as a scourge. La Barge oilman Mike Schmid, who’s challenging Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) for House District 20, described Cheney, Gordon and his opponent as “part-time” conservatives who use “disguise politics” to win elections.
“These are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Schmid said, “and this country needs some shepherds to come and save the herd.”
Divisions among the self-styled conservative bloc were also on display.
Bear River resident Lyle Williams, who lost a bid for Senate District 14 in 2020, scolded the Wyoming Legislature for its disciplinary action against Bouchard during last winter’s budget session. He also wasn’t fond of divisions within the party.
“To have a conservative on the outs with other conservatives is wrong,” Williams said.
Uinta County resident and former Wyoming House and Senate candidate Lyle Williams listens to speeches at the Save Wyoming rally in Lander on July 22, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/wyomingdigest.com)
One source of Bouchard and Wharff’s beef with other party factions revolves around competing gun bills. Mark Jones, the national hunter outreach director with the Gun Owners of America, spoke favorably about a version of the Second American Protection Act bill that was supported by the GOP and signed into law, contending the legislation was the target of a misinformation campaign from lawmakers who were jaded that their own competing bill failed.
“I heard a speaker get up here earlier tonight and say, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ I’m gonna tell you why we haven’t been able to get along,” Jones told the Save Wyoming crowd. “The reason we don’t seem to be able to get along is the folks that push the other bill that failed have been unwilling to let it go.”
Wharff, among those who backed the failed Senate File 87 – Second Amendment Preservation Act, agreed that the fracture “really comes down to” the gun bill drama.
‘A let down’
For most of the 10-hour event, the Save Wyoming rally didn’t attract much of a crowd. There were roughly as many public attendees at any one time as there were politicians and candidates invited to speak.
Lander resident Mike Ockinga showed up early in the day and was “all pumped up” for the event. But within a few hours, he lost interest. Organizers intermixed the candidates speeches with entertainment, including a comedian and music, and he felt those were time-wasters.
“I shouldn’t be so critical, but to me this is a let-down,” Ockinga said. “I’m basically here now to hear Harriet Hageman.”
Lander resident Mike Ockinga, pictured, intended to attend all of the Save Wyoming rally, but left after a few hours because he lost interest. (Mike Koshmrl/wyomingdigest.com)
By mid-evening, chairs began to fill ahead of Hageman’s remarks. Former state representative Marti Halverson, who emceed the event, introduced her as “our congresswoman.”
Although the primary election is still three weeks away, there are indications that Hageman’s poised to dislodge the incumbent Cheney from the seat she’s held since 2016. Results released last week from a Casper Star-Tribune poll that queried 1,100 registered Wyoming voters gives Hageman a 22-point edge, with just 11% of voters remaining undecided.
On stage, Hageman pushed attendees to educate themselves and get out to vote, railed against party switching to vote and promptly launched into a familiar stump speech motif about being “fed up.”
“We’re fed up with the January 6 committee,” Hageman said. “We’re fed up with a certain person who wraps herself in the Constitution, but has no regard for fairness, due process or equal protection.”
Of course, the person she alluded to was Cheney, who co-chaired the eighth hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. the night before.
In her closing remarks for the last hearing until September, Cheney thanked the dozens of witnesses who testified about fellow Republican Trump’s role in inciting a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol.
“The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies,” Cheney said. “It is instead a series of confessions by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years and his own family.”
By and large, those witnesses were all Republicans.
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