Republicans used to vastly outnumber Democrats in the Wyoming Legislature. Their 77-12 super-majority seemed destined to last forever.
But if you ask a shadowy political group organized last year, the margin has suddenly narrowed to 21-12 — without the Democrats picking up a single seat. “WyoRINO” has proclaimed that only 14 House members and seven state senators actually have real Republican values. The group has branded all the others “Republicans in Name Only,” claiming they’re just fakes.
Sound crazy? That’s because it is. Scary, too, if voters buy this lame attempt to bully all GOP members into marching lockstep behind a state-party platform that’s been hijacked by an extreme-right contingent.
Other organizations have made similar attempts to separate the real conservatives from the phonies, including the Wyoming Liberty Group and WyWatch Family Action. Both the WLG and WyWatch, an anti-abortion group, have discontinued their legislative rating systems.
There’s a major difference between WyoRINO and the two other groups: WyoRINO posts its legislative scorecard anonymously. That’s right, group members are fine with calling names, just not sharing their own. I disagreed with the ideologies and ranking methods used by WyoRINO’s predecessors, but at least those groups had the integrity to stand behind their accusations.
WyoRINO acknowledges that some people object to its anonymity, but tries to make itself seem virtuous. Political anonymity, writes WyoRINO’s nameless author, “has been a tool used throughout our nation’s history, indeed by many of America’s Founding Fathers.”
On its website, meanwhile, the group states, “There is no question that RINOs do not like to be exposed and prefer to deflect the attention away from their voting record … We have but one response to those legislators: OWN YOUR VOTE.”
Here’s my response to that bit of baloney: OWN YOUR RATING SYSTEM!
All the organization will admit is that the 10 House and 10 Senate bills it based the ratings on were chosen by “Ride for the Brand, Wyoming,” a trademark registered with the Secretary of State’s Office from an Etna post office box, but with no names attached to the filing.
Legislators who received perfect 100% scores should be no surprise to any observers of the 2020 budget session. Four senators earned the top ranking: Bo Biteman of Ranchester, Tom James of Rock Springs and Cheyenne’s Anthony Bouchard and Lynn Hutchings. Despite the House having nearly twice as many Republicans as the Senate, only two representatives in that chamber received perfect grades: Chuck Gray of Casper and Clarence Styvar of Cheyenne.
Any Republican who didn’t “score” at least 70% was labeled a RINO. They comprise a jaw-dropping list. Is there anyone who thinks Sens. Eli Bebout of Riverton or Larry Hicks of Baggs aren’t “real” Republicans? How about Reps. Tim Hallinan of Gillette or Jim Blackburn of Cheyenne?
I’m a die-hard progressive Democrat who isn’t used to defending Republicans, but doggone it, I can’t stand to see anyone maligned by a coward for not passing a half-baked purity test.
The Wyoming Republican Party maintains it’s not affiliated with WyoRINO, but the state’s extreme-right central committee waged its own share of ideological wars with candidates for office trying to out-conservative each other. Left in their wake, of course, were moderate GOP members.
How can a party with an all-Republican congressional delegation, all five statewide elected offices and the vast majority of Senate and House seats spend so much time bickering and in-fighting? Wyoming Democrats don’t always hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” but they generally don’t back-stab and nit-pick each other to death either.
WyoRINO gives special negative attention to its so-called “RINOs of the Month,” who are then enshrined in a “Hall of Shame.” The poster boy for March was Rep. Pat Sweeney of Casper, recipient of a 0% rating for allegedly being a “budget-busting legislator … [who] has consistently voted against bills which defend the lives of the unborn and defend our right to bear arms.”
“Good for me,” Sweeney said in an interview. “I’m at least willing to look at issues and discuss the issues and stand for principles. … I think people need to be more aware of [legislators] trying to get things done, rather than be restricted to voting only what the Republican platform says.”
Sweeney posed a question for GOP lawmakers “who have kow-towed” to all party demands. “What have they really accomplished for their constituents, for their municipalities, for their counties and for their state, except to divide us?” he asked.
Sweeney knows his support of Medicaid expansion the past two sessions has alienated many Republicans who have refused to even consider the idea. But it’s a principled stance he has taken after initially opposing the action. By doing his homework and listening to voters in his district, he was convinced it’s the right way to help thousands of low-income Wyoming residents who do not have health insurance.
The two-term legislator describes himself as a moderate. “I am what I am,” Sweeney said, adding he will no longer fill out questionnaires from any organizations whether he agrees with them or not. He makes no apologies for “F” grades he’s previously received from the National Rifle Association.
Sweeney said if a candidate does not fill out an NRA survey, the group says it may assign them a “question” rating that “may be interpreted by our members as indifference, if not outright hostility, for the Second Amendment.”
“Some of these groups don’t really want to sit down and talk with you,” he said. “They just want you to answer their detailed questions, which they twist their way. WyoRINO is based on the same principle: You either vote the way they think you should vote, after they’ve cherry-picked issues, or you fail.”
Sweeney noted that Bunky Loucks, a fellow Natrona County representative with staunch conservative credentials, only earned a 40% grade from WyoRINO.
“Seriously?” Sweeney asked. “How ridiculous is that?”
Loucks agreed, then laughed. “A friend told me I was on the list, then said, ‘Your whole political history you’ve consistently been one of the most conservative Republicans in the state,’” he said. “I’m very happy with the way I’ve voted, which I think has been constitutionally correct. There’s only a few I might take back.”
Loucks said the negative rating doesn’t bother him, but it won’t impact any voters, either. He owns a Casper office supply store, and like many businesses it has been hit hard by COVID-19. Loucks has decided to turn his attention to his business instead of seeking re-election.
His only regret in not seeking a sixth term is a bill he’s been working on that is timely and in sync with national concerns about policing. The measure would establish a citizens’ advisory board to examine high-speed chases by law enforcement that result in damages, injuries or deaths.
WyoRINO would likely view such an effort as not supporting “law and order.” But Loucks’ idea would bring more accountability to a review process now done solely by the state Division of Criminal Investigation. I hope another lawmaker, regardless of his or her party affiliation, decides to sponsor the bill.
The late Charles Kennedy, former head of the British Liberal Democrats, once said, “To run an effective political party you need a degree of tribalism, it’s the glue that holds everyone together.”
WyoRINO is trying to appoint itself keeper of the glue for the Wyoming GOP and unstick all members of the tribe who dare to hold opposing views — and do so all without showing its face. Republicans who see any credibility at all in this ill-advised grading system should ask themselves this: What will you have left if you target and torment public servants like Sweeney, Loucks and the 54[!] other legislators in your party?
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at [email protected]yahoo.com.