Welcome to 307 Votes: as complete a guide as you’ll find to every single Statehouse race in Wyoming, contested or uncontested.
The Star-Tribune is examining every legislative district in an attempt to give you a rough idea of what direction the state is headed as we barrel toward one of the most critical elections in Wyoming’s history.
Check each print edition of the Star-Tribune ahead of Aug. 18 for a rundown of a new district, and visit Trib.com to find our collection of every one that has been published so far.
In today’s installment, we take a look at Rep. Mark Jennings of Sheridan.
House District 30: Sheridan
After conservative Republican lawmaker Mark Jennings unseated incumbent Kathy Coleman by more than 30 points in the 2014 primary, this rural district on the fringes of Sheridan has been his to lose.
Challenged by his own party in every election since, Jennings’ grasp on the seat has held steady throughout his time, winning both primaries against local Republican activist Gail Symons by an average of 17 points and facing just one general election challenge, which he won by more than 1,500 votes in 2016.
Symons, who has shifted her focus to organizing for moderate political action committee Frontier Republicans has stepped aside this year for rancher and businessman John Heyneman, a newcomer to state politics some believe could pose a challenge.
While a professed conservative, Heyneman is currently pitching himself as a pragmatic alternative to Jennings, a staunch conservative and an active figure within the Wyoming Republican Party who has championed a number of causes in the Legislature key to hard-line party loyalists: amplified Second Amendment protections, voter identification laws, legislation to prevent crossover voting and attempts to pass legislation to strip undocumented immigrants of public benefits.
Jennings is also among one of fewer than two dozen Republican lawmakers to score positively on the WyoRINO index, a website with a ratings system designed to rank lawmakers on their adherence to a select few bills deemed to be reflective of “true Republican values” in relation to the state Republican platform, including their votes on certain social issues and firearm legislation. He was also a member of the party’s platform committee and has been on the record numerous times expressing how the platform consistently informs how he votes, something Heyneman sees as a difference between the two.
“The legislature must work harder on Wyoming’s changing economic realities than the social agendas that have dominated the last few sessions,” Heyneman writes on his website.
As such, the pair differ on a number of key social issues to some Republicans. Heyneman has supported the right for private businesses to not allow guns on its property in a recent forum while Jennings remains unsupportive of gun-free zones. Heyneman has also advocated for either a true restructure of the state government or new revenues while Jennings has said implementing even more government efficiencies and offloading some state services — like tourism funding — to the private sector could help solve the state’s budget crisis.
Both also seem to see different roles for government. While Heyneman recently stressed that public-private partnerships were to stoke economic development, citing the numerous successes of Sheridan’s local economic development agency, Jennings said even lower taxes and even less regulations — already a selling point of Wyoming — was the real key to attracting business, and that he believed few of the laws passed during legislative sessions actually make people’s lives better.
“I vote ‘no’ a lot and for a simple reason,” he said in a recent candidate forum. “I don’t want big government — I don’t want them involved in anything they don’t absolutely have to be involved in. I want free enterprise — free markets produce the best end results.”
Could it flip? Given the district’s past history, it looks unlikely.
There are some quirks in this race that could make a difference, however. While Jennings’ seat has been safe for half a decade, he has so far failed to take advantage of his incumbency, with no committee chairmanships to his name and few pieces of legislation he introduces making it out of committee, much less the entire House. (Two bills of his, however, have made it to the governor’s desk for his signature.)
If Heyneman wants a chance at winning, history shows low turnout plays in Jennings’ favor. In his 2014 primary win, Jennings received 66% of the vote in a race in which fewer than 1,500 people voted. The following election, nearly 200 more people voted, resulting in a 6-point cut to Jennings’ share of the vote.
Heading into 2020, it looks like Jennings’ seat will remain a safe one. While Jennings delivered his worst primary performance in 2018 with 57% of the vote, his 15-point win was delivered amid the highest voter turnout election the district has seen this decade, with nearly 2,300 people participating.
There are some unknowns, however. In 2018, primary turnout was just slightly below average there, with roughly 30% of the district’s voting age population turning out against a statewide average of 32%. Wresting this seat from Jennings’ hands will require an exceptional candidate exceeding expectations under exceptional circumstances.
It remains to be seen if Heyneman is that candidate, though it’s questionable that his past support of Democratic candidates (he mentioned in a recent Sheridan County Republican Party forum he has voted for Democrats in the past) would help him steal hard-line conservatives from Jennings’ base of voters. However, his involvement in the community with various nonprofits and businesses could help to raise his profile, particularly given his willingness to offer change at a time when his opponent is pushing back.
“I think there is a distinct difference between being conservative and being foolish,” Heyneman said in his closing statement at that forum. “We need to use the power of the government to leverage those opportunities. … There are numerous opportunities like that my opponent has voted against, and those frustrate me. When you vote ‘no’ on everything on principle, you say ‘no’ to a lot of good opportunities.”
It will be an uphill battle for Heyneman under any circumstances. And while the chatter in political circles is that he poses a strong challenge this year, past history shows that Jennings’ hold on the district has been solid. For that reason, we’re rating his vulnerability as low.
Vulnerability Score: 1/5.