GOP Convention

Delegates receive ballots to vote at the 2016 Wyoming GOP Convention in Casper. Converse County rancher and former chairman of conservative political action committee WyWatch was appointed chairman of the party this month.

File, Star-Tribune

The former chairman of a hardline conservative advocacy group has taken over as chair of the Wyoming Republican Party, following the resignation of the previous leader last month.

Vice-chair W. Frank Eathorne became chairman Sept. 1, the party announced last week. Eathorne previously served as chairman of WyWatch, a political action committee that supported “Judeo-Christian values” and took socially conservative positions on a host of issues from its creation in 2008 until the founder left Wyoming and shut down the organization last year.

But Eathorne said his prior role with WyWatch will not impact his leadership of the party. He said he will remain faithful to the party’s platform, which is set by the central committee.

“I don’t direct, it’s not my title, it’s not my job,” he said. “I work for the state central committee.”

While Republicans dominate politics in Wyoming, WyWatch often staked out positions to the right of GOP lawmakers in the Legislature, many of whom have a more libertarian bent that eschews legislating on social issues. WyWatch’s advocacy covered a litany of hot-button issues including pornography, LGBT rights, gambling, school choice, evolution, abortion and global warming.

But Eathorne, a Converse County rancher, said the priorities for the Wyoming GOP are state finances and, increasingly, state sovereignty. Keeping the state’s finances in shape remains the top goal.

“We’ve got to have financial stability if we’re going to accomplish much else,” he said.

Eathorne was appointed following the resignation of former chairman Ryan Mulholland, of Sheridan, who accepted an out-of-state job with Google last month, according to Wyoming GOP Executive Director Kristi Wallin.

Eathorne said he will work to ensure Republicans are elected to all statewide offices and as many seats in the Legislature as possible during the election next year.

Eathorne previously ran for party chairman in 2015, losing to GOP strategist Matt Micheli. He said he has served on the state’s central committee for eight years before running for vice-chair last spring. Eathorne also served as the Converse County GOP chair. Eathorne said he ran for the leadership position last spring at the urging of other party activists and after being pleased with the direction of the party over the last two years, which he said has developed closer relationships with elected Republican officials in the state.

The Douglas native said that while Republicans dominate politics in the Cowboy State, there was still plenty of work for the state party organization to do.

“Somehow we seem to keep busy even though, if you want to call it a super majority, there are many issues that still challenge our state,” Eathorne said. “We feel we need to support our elected officials in that to keep Wyoming strong.”

Republicans control all five statewide offices, both U.S. Senator positions and the state’s sole U.S. House of Representative seat. The party controls 78 of the Legislature’s 90 seats. But with the Democrats effectively marginalized in state politics, Republican lawmakers often split along ideological lines, with some taking more moderate positions and others expressing more conservative views.

As for internal divisions, Eathorne said he believes party unity has also been improving.

“We’d have heated debates among state party officials but at the end of the meeting, at the end of the month, at the end year we shake hands and go home Republicans,” he said.

Eathorne takes over a little less than one year before the primary for the 2018 general election, in which a number of prominent Republicans are expected to enter the race to replace Gov. Matt Mead.

Wyoming GOP executive director Kristi Wallin said that under party bylaws the vice-chair automatically assumes the chairman role if that position is vacated and that the party will select a new chair at its meeting in November.

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Star-Tribune reporter Arno Rosenfeld covers local government, with a focus on Casper and Natrona County.

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