In February, shortly before the Wyoming Senate killed a proposal to expand Medicaid to an estimated 20,000 low-income people, a lobbyist named Dave Owen walked the halls of the Legislature in Cheyenne, talking to lawmakers about the harms of the Obamacare program.

Owen, who appears to live in Utah, represented the Foundation for Government Accountability, which is based in Florida and opposes Medicaid expansion.

Owen presented research created by the foundation’s staff to lawmakers. Some of the research showed genuine concerns about Medicaid, such as evidence from expansion states that more people than expected qualified for it and the traditional Medicaid program, driving up costs. Other claims were erroneous, such as an assertion that felons would receive Medicaid before others.

Opposition didn’t come from the foundation alone. The Cheyenne-based Wyoming Liberty Group also lobbied against expansion. Its health care analyst, Charlie Katebi, said the group contends Wyoming shouldn’t spend money expanding a program that doesn’t deliver quality health care to the existing patients it serves, including the elderly, children and people with mental health needs.

The lobbying worked. Lawmakers for the fourth consecutive year rejected Medicaid expansion.

Yet legislators may not be representing their constituencies: A recent poll by the University of Wyoming showed the majority of Wyomingites want the state to accept the federal money attached to expansion to balance the budget instead of tapping the rainy day fund, cutting government or raising taxes. The state is facing a budget crunch due to the downturn in coal, natural gas and oil.

In a small state that prides itself on folksy, personal contact between constituents and their elected officials, activist groups are gaining more power, bringing an out-of-state feel to local politics.

Dark money

It’s called dark money. It’s what activist groups that operate as corporations or nonprofits under sections 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code spend in politics when they do not reveal supporters. The public doesn’t know exactly who is behind the groups, how much money they’re spending, how exactly they’re spending it and what their true motives are.

Dark money specifically refers to work to elect or defeat candidates. And many of the groups funneling money to influence policy are also involved in elections, said Chisun Lee, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, who recently wrote a report on the rise of the groups in the states.

Owen refused to tell the Star-Tribune who was backing the Foundation for Government Accountability, although he insisted there was support from Wyoming.

Leaders of other groups have also declined to name backers, as is the case for the libertarian-leaning Wyoming Liberty Group, or did not respond to messages, as was the case with Wyoming Gun Owners and the traditional family, pro-life organization WyWatch Family Action, which is now defunct because its leaders left the state, according to nonprofit publication WyoFile.

But in a wide-ranging interview, the new leader of the Liberty Group said founder and Gore-Tex heir Susan Gore continues to generously support the organization, that a nine-month fellowship position for an attorney is paid in part by a grant funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch and that there are other supporters in addition to Gore and the Kochs, although he didn’t identify them.

The same refusal to disclose donors comes from the people behind ELLA WY, Forward Wyoming and Forward Wyoming Advocacy, the relatively new trio of activist groups on the left that are causing so much rancor among Republicans that the state GOP this month filed complaints against the groups with the Wyoming Secretary of State.

In an interview, Jackson resident Liz Storer, the granddaughter of American broadcast pioneer George B. Storer, said she was involved with groups’ formations, along with other people, whom she noted the law doesn’t require her to disclose.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Al Simpson said he’s been concerned about the anonymity used by some political groups since he was in the Wyoming Legislature in the 1960s. He tried to get a bill passed back then to require transparency.

Lawmakers would defeat his bill each year by saying, “Wyoming is so small; we all know what everybody else is doing,” Simpson said. “I said, ‘Don’t give me that.’”

And now it’s worse, he said.

Political pragmatism is eroding, said former Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat. Thanks to the activist groups, Wyoming politics have become like Washington’s, in which a single vote or issue is more important than the whole, he said.

“We’re heading to a really difficult time in Wyoming, with the changes in energy and the way things are going to unfold,” he said. “The problem with the single-issue groups is they essentially say, ‘The adult behavior necessary to be pragmatic is not important. We will judge you on a single issue rather than the totality of your career.’ And I think that is dangerous.”

The groups do more than influence state policy and legislation, said Gillette Republican Tom Lubnau, who was House speaker in 2013 and 2014.

“People with lots of money are spending that money to influence elections,” he said.

But Keith Gingery of Jackson, a Republican who served in the House from 2005 to 2014, said the groups do serve a purpose by keeping lawmakers on their toes. The media can’t report on every piece of legislation, he said.

“These groups definitely keep their members apprised of where bills are in the process that their members care about,” he said in an email. “So in the past, a committee chair could effectively kill a bill by just not bringing it up in committee (known as a pocket veto) or the majority floor leader could hold bills from getting to the floor... And it only takes a few emails to let a committee chairman or the majority floor leader know that someone is watching.”

Campaigning

Earlier this month, voters in Laramie and Cheyenne received postcards showing the iconic World War II-era picture of Rosie the Riveter underneath the words, “We Can Do It!”

“In 2016, WY legislators considered a proven way to narrow the gender wage gap through increasing wage transparency in the workplace,” the text read. “38 out of 60 voted NO.”

In one postcard, sent to voters in Albany County’s Senate District 10, the text continued: “Glenn Moniz voted NO. Glenn Moniz: just another lawmaker who thinks women deserve to earn less.”

The mail piece then praised Moniz’s opponent, Democrat Narina Nunez, as understanding the disparity between men’s and women’s wages, which is one of America’s widest.

The postcard, and others like it, prompted the state Republican Party to complain to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections. Republicans say the postcards break state election law. The secretary’s office referred the matter to the Wyoming attorney general, said Kai Schon, the state election director.

On the postcard’s return address is a group called Women Lead Wyoming, a project of Forward Wyoming Advocacy, a left-leaning group that Storer, the Jackson resident, said she advises, along with other people.

Forward Wyoming Advocacy is involved in independent expenditures, in which organizations spend money for or against candidates.

The political work is legal, as long as it is separate from candidates and their campaigns. Whether the postcards were independent of the campaigns of Nunez’s and other candidates’ is the question before the attorney general’s office.

Independent expenditures increased in Wyoming and across the country after the 2010 Citizens United case in the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, Wyoming Liberty Group staff wrote a friend of the court brief arguing in favor of the political work.

Last election cycle, many Republicans benefited from independent expenditures of a sister organization to the Wyoming Liberty Group, Republic Free Choice. But Republic Free Choice came under heavy criticism by many people – including Republicans who were targeted in primaries for not being conservative enough.

This year, Republic Free Choice didn’t get involved in any elections through independent expenditures, said Jonathan Downing, the new CEO of the Liberty Group. The Liberty Group is considering what kind of role, if any, it wants Republic Free Choice to play in future elections.

Matt Micheli, chairman of the Wyoming GOP, said postcards and other campaign materials being used to attack Republican candidates this year are dishonest. They attribute positions to Republican candidates that Micheli said they do not hold – from them wanting women to earn less to Republican candidates wanting to sell off all public lands.

The crux of the GOP officials’ complaints – there are now two — is that there is too much intermingling among Forward Wyoming Advocacy, Forward Wyoming, which is described as an education group, and ELLA WY. Republicans argue the intermingling is illegal since many of the candidates who have hired ELLA have benefited from the postcards.

The trio of activist organizations have defended themselves by providing copies of the legal advice they received from an attorney who instructed them on how to keep the work of the different groups separate, which includes some of the groups being located at a different address in Laramie, according to the documents provided to the state.

“That Citizens United case in the U.S. Supreme Court was the worst decision ever made,” said Simpson, the former U.S. senator. “It’s anonymous money. I’m a great believer that sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Litmus tests

On Sept. 18, Wyoming legislators received an email from Charles Curly, an official in the Republican Party who had worked for the Wyoming Liberty Group, informing them their performance had been scored, from a low of 1 to a high of 7.

“Many Republicans in Wyoming expect their legislators to adhere at least somewhat to the Republican Party Platform,” the email said, although it also ranked Democrats, most of whom scored low.

The score was a composite of grades from other far-right indexes, including the Wyoming Liberty Group’s Liberty Index.

Rep. Elaine Harvey said when she received the email, “I about went through the roof.”

Harvey received a 2.

The Lovell Republican said the constant rankings and purity tests are no measure of her core values, about which Curly never asked her.

Many of the rankings are based on subjective material – such as comments lawmakers make on the floor, she said.

When voters look at the indexes, they accept them as sacrosanct, without considering the difficult balance lawmakers are trying to strike. People jump on soundbites — such as it being time to “trim the fat” from state government — yet they don’t fully understand how some government cuts will eliminate programs that directly help their families. Indexes don’t explain such nuances, she said.

“It makes me very irate to think they have the right to do that,” said Harvey, who is leaving the Legislature at the end of the term after 14 years. “And in some ways they really are influencing the outcome of elections, and yet the people of Wyoming are not going to be happy when they get a Legislature that that’s far right.”

The Liberty Group has decided for the time being to abandon the Liberty Index, said Downing, the new CEO, because votes on bills in the middle of the legislative process don’t necessarily reflect lawmakers’ final positions. For instance, a lawmaker may vote in favor of a bill in committee to advance it to the House or Senate floor because he thinks it’s prudent to have a discussion. Then he will vote against the bill.

Curly has left the Liberty Group. He told lawmakers in the September email that he and a friend put together the composite score on their own time — separate from the GOP and the Liberty Group — and without any compensation from anyone.

Power

The Liberty Group started in 2008. Some of the other right-wing organizations date back to the early 2000s. The left-wing groups are newer to the Cowboy State, with the oldest dating to 2013.

It’s no surprise to Paul S. Ryan that most of the dark money activities have been from right-wing groups. Wyoming, after all, is a conservative state and the organizations find kinship with the public, said Ryan, a vice president of Common Cause, an organization that promotes open and accountable government.

“Kochs are a big player, for sure, as a major player in funding political activities on the right,” he said. “There are other bases on support on the right. There’s a large number of small donors, typically Christian conservatives who make up a considerable size of the base for political activity. There are also wealthy individuals like (casino owner and Republican donor) Sheldon Adelson and others like him who get involved in electoral politics, rather than issue advocacy.”

Lee, of NYU’s Brennan Center, said she doesn’t categorize the money by ideology. Some of it is over a single issue. She cited a case in Wisconsin in which a mining company targeted a state senator because he opposed mine permitting by running a slew of ads during his re-election. The ads appeared to have come from a labor union.

States laws now on the books do not encourage transparency, and states have been slow to change them, she said.

“A lot of these laws really predate the Citizens United era,” she said. “There didn’t used to be this much spending.”

Groups’ defense

Downing, the new CEO of the Liberty Group, said his organization is working on increasing civility.

He said the Liberty Group has been largely misunderstood and gets blamed for actions it played no part in. Many Wyomingites blame the Liberty Group for Republican Rep. Rosie Berger’s defeat in the August primary. She would have been the first woman speaker in decades. Jonathan Downing emphasizes his group stayed out of elections this year.

Downing noted his group’s other political activity is allowed under the Constitution. After all, it is exercising free speech.

He nevertheless declines to list donor names because critics have protested them in other states.

“Some of their donors had protesters in the front lawn, cars vandalized,” he said.

Someone broke into the offices of the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization for the Liberty Groups and like-minded organizations in other states, which is supported by the Kochs. There was vandalism, he said.

Downing said the Liberty Group got involved in elections and learned lessons. The group decided to leave election work, at least for this cycle.

Wyoming voters may not like negative campaigning. Politicians who are its targets detest it.

Maybe the trio of left-leaning activist groups will learn the same lessons, Downing said.

“Here’s where I am: We’ve got an email list full of thousands of people and it’s good and all. ELLA and the other stuff has essentially been a manufactured startup,” he said. “I question how many members are following them. The main piece here is all our stuff has been public domain, with the exception (that) we feel it’s important to protect donor privacy.”

Storer, during her interview with the Star-Tribune, didn’t criticize the Liberty Group.

She said there is a difference between the Liberty Group, which is more of a think tank and a lobbying organization, and the organizations she’s been involved with.

ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy emphasize grassroots organizing and voter education, she said.

“This is much more of a modest effort, needless to say,” she said. “But I get a sense that somehow it’s not legitimate for moderates and progressives to stand up for themselves, which is wrong, obviously. We need good leadership across the spectrum in Wyoming.”

Both of Wyoming’s major political parties have benefited from the groups’ political endeavors. After all, it was less work and fundraising that they’ve had to do. But both political parties seize opportunities to criticize the groups that are ideologically opposed to them.

“The Wyoming Republican Party calls on all Wyoming Democrats who are trying to benefit from these false claims and misrepresentations to denounce these unscrupulous and potentially illegal campaign tactics, correct the false statements in the mailers and to come clean on the monies they have paid to this group,” said Micheli, the GOP chairman. “Wyoming citizens deserve better.”

The Wyoming Democratic Party responded:

“Between losing top leadership in the primaries to right-wing extremist candidates, and their steadfast support for their bigoted and amoral presidential candidate, Mr. Micheli and Wyoming Republicans have a lot to explain. And acting like crybabies while Wyoming’s progressives give them a taste of their Citizens United medicine may not be enough to satisfy their voters and donors.”

Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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