The Wyoming Republican Party leadership’s recent vote to expel U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney intensified attention on a congressional race widely portrayed as a showdown between former President Donald Trump and his most consistent and vocal GOP critic.
After attending the Nov. 13 Republican Party central committee meeting in Buffalo, where she spoke against the toothless resolution ousting Cheney, Teton County GOP Chairman Mary Martin received five calls in one day from CNN, she said, including one request to appear live at 3 a.m. to reach viewers in Europe and Asia.
WyoFile columnist Kerry Drake, who has written about the 2022 congressional campaign, fielded calls from national newspapers and reporters from Italy, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany.
Being in the spotlight is unusual in a solidly Republican state like Wyoming, where congressional races normally unfold without so much as a sidewise glance from the country’s political establishment.
“I just wish we could build a big border and say, “OK, all of you people stay out,’” said Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne attorney who served in the Trump administration, but hasn’t made up her mind in the congressional contest. “I want to say, ‘Our people are going to do the election. They are going to state their opinions. Wyoming is going to make up its mind. And then you can have an opinion when it’s over.’”
The latest flurry of attention — the increasingly frequent sorties from national correspondents seeking the elusive soul of the state, as well as the millions of dollars pouring into the campaigns from outside Wyoming — masks what may be a more important factor in the outcome of the race.
That is the ever-widening divide in the Wyoming GOP, where the hardline faction currently in control of party leadership finds itself increasingly at odds with a less-vocal old guard that longs for more civil times.
Harriet Hageman, the Cheyenne attorney whom Trump endorsed for the job, contended in a recent Fox News interview that Trump’s lopsided 2020 victory in Wyoming — he won nearly 70% of the vote — bodes well for her candidacy. However, that race was against Democrat Joe Biden, not three-term Republican Congresswoman Cheney, the solidly conservative scion of the state’s most prominent Republican family.
In the end, the Aug. 16 primary may be a referendum on behavior more than ideology, more about comportment than content — a contest between the in-your-face confrontational politics of Trump and the historically more reserved approach of traditional Wyoming Republicans.
“Unfortunately for the Republicans, there’s factionalism afoot in the Republican Party,” retired Wheatland attorney and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ray Hunkins said.
“Every once in a while, we have to be reminded that political parties succeed by paying attention to addition, not division,” Hunkins continued. If the division persists, he said, “it will adversely affect the ability of candidates to win elections under the Republican banner.”
Hunkins said he has already decided how he will vote in the August primary, he said, but declined to disclose his choice out of respect for the Cheney and Hageman families.
For Natrona County Republican Tim Stubson, the race is all about Trump.
“Good luck finding a real policy difference between Liz Cheney and Harriet Hageman,” said Stubson, “other than Harriet saying, ‘You don’t love the former president enough.’” Stubson, an attorney and former legislator, supports Cheney.
Most of the news coverage following the state party’s November non-binding resolution banishing Cheney from the party focused on the 32 votes in favor. Little attention, meanwhile, has been paid to the 29 Republicans who voted against the resolution and the 10 committee members who did not vote at all.
“I was frankly surprised that the vote passed,” said Teton County’s Martin. “I would have thought that they would have realized that this was just a vote to do something we can’t do. Professional people don’t waste that kind of energy or time on a little personal vignette of nastiness.”
Martin says she remains undecided in the contest; her vote may depend on Cheney convincing her that Trump was behind the Jan. 6 Capitol violence.
“Almost everybody I talk to is struggling with this race,” Budd-Falen said. “I haven’t seen anybody who’s already jumping up and down and saying I’m going one way or the other.” She sees both Cheney and Hageman as her political allies.
The outcome, she said, is far from certain.
“I think a lot is going to depend on the tenor of the campaign, because I think people will be repulsed by a campaign that is too nasty and they will blame one or the other side for it.”
There are nine months to go before the August primary. The hardline-dominated state GOP central committee has another meeting Jan. 7-8 in Douglas. The always contentious state Republican Party convention is set for May 5-6 in Sheridan. The official two-week filing period for candidates doesn’t even begin until May 12, leaving time for more contenders to enter the fray. And according to Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne, Trump has tentatively committed to appearing at a rally for Hageman in Wyoming on May 28.
The close vote on Cheney’s political excommunication was just one of several examples of the deep split in the state party. And another vote at the same meeting also reveals fractures.
GOP Central committee members were asked to select a replacement for Hageman as a new national committee member. Hageman’s brother, Goshen County committeeman Hugh Hageman, nominated Patty Junek of Gillette. But the committee rejected Hageman’s candidate and instead voted 37-34 to select Nina Webber, former Hot Springs County Clerk and gun rights advocate who was previously affiliated with state Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne). Bouchard is also running for Cheney’s seat. Party members asked both Junek and Webber if they are members or supporters of Frontier Republicans, a group formed by moderate Wyoming Republicans encouraging civility in political discourse. Both said they were not.
The 71 votes were 10 more than the 61 votes cast in the Cheney resolution, showing that some members abstained in the Cheney vote.
“There is certainly a divergence between the way the [Republican-dominated] legislature thinks about things and the way the state [GOP] central committee thinks about things,” said Gillette attorney and GOP central committee member Tom Lubnau.
“I agree with my friend Joe McGinley when he says there is a large conservative majority that believes in honesty and integrity and the ‘Code of the West’ that has more important things to do like go and watch kids’ basketball games than spending a Saturday afternoon in Buffalo passing resolutions that have no force or effect on anything,” Lubnau said, referring to the Casper physician and former Natrona County GOP chairman. “It’s people who haven’t been elected telling people who have been elected how to represent the people who elected them.”
Lubnau supports his childhood friend Everett “Denton” Knapp in the congressional race. Along with gun-rights advocate Bouchard, Knapp, a West Point graduate and decorated Iraq War commander, figures to be a potential spoiler in the multi-candidate primary.
A former House Speaker, Lubnau contends a more accurate reading of the popular mood may be found in the statehouse where, despite its forceful rhetoric, the hardline faction has been less successful.
In fact, moderates won the first skirmish in the 2022 congressional race — albeit narrowly.
Almost immediately after Cheney voted to impeach Trump in January, his son Donald Trump Jr. and political ally U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla) began to lobby Wyoming for a change in the state’s primary statutes.
“Any Republican in Wyoming who does Liz Cheney’s bidding and opposes SF 145 [the bill to change primary rules] is turning their back on my father and the entire America First Movement,” Trump Jr. wrote in a March 9 tweet.
However, the Wyoming Senate rejected the proposed change by a vote of 15-14, with one senator excused.
More recently, the hardline Republican faction roared into a special session of the legislature intent on passing an ambitious slate of bills attacking COVID vaccine mandates and other Biden administration measures. One bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) and Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs) authorized the arrest and imprisonment of any federal or other public official who attempted to enforce vaccine mandates. The bill also carried a potential $10 million fine.
After lining up 21 measures, however, the Legislature spent seven days passing what amounts to one conditional paragraph in a bill that prohibits vaccine mandates in public institutions but allowed an escape clause for hospitals and clinics that received Medicare and Medicaid funding.
Reflecting on the results, former House Speaker Lubnau concluded: “Well, sometimes the adults have to run the state, and you know a couple of the bills they proposed were unconstitutional on their face. I think it was a good educational process.”