Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez visited Jackson this weekend, raising money for local candidates in a rare visit that has encouraged Democratic leaders in the lead-up to Election Day.
The fundraiser, held at the home of Jackson attorney and conservationist Hank Phibbs and former Wyoming gubernatorial candidate Leslie Petersen, marked the first visit by a prominent national committee member in recent memory, emboldening Democratic strategists who feel their messages are beginning to resound with voters in redder parts of the state.
And the conditions of the visit, they say, were most intriguing: Where typical visits by national committees involve fundraising for national causes, Saturday’s event focused on raising money not only for the national party’s war chest, but for local Democrats as well.
“It’s rare for the State of Wyoming to have the chairman of the state DNC to visit us,” said Joe Barbuto, a former state legislator and current chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party. “But I think it’s reflective of the 50-state strategy they have as Democrats, where they’ve really committed to the idea that every state matters.”
For many candidates, particularly those running for federal office, this weekend’s event was their first interaction with figures from the national party. While those interviewed credited the new philosophy of the DNC for Perez’s visit, at least one Democratic operative expressed surprise at Perez’s visit to the state where only one in five voters are Democrats. According to those in attendance, Perez touched on the vulnerability of Republican candidates in districts that are traditionally perceived to be red, citing instances like Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones’ improbable win in heavily conservative Alabama, and fresh uncertainty over Republican control in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, which has remained steadfastly red for decades.
“I don’t know what his impulse was, but he was making the trip and generously offered to spend a couple hours with us,” said Dean Ferguson, executive director of the Wyoming Democrats. “This is him being true to his rhetoric. Every zip code counts, and it truly helps us out, him talking to some great candidates up in Teton as well as around the state.”
Others have their own theories. Encouraged by recent independent fundraising success among the Democratic base, Barbuto boasted of a state party that, today, is better-organized, better-staffed and better-funded than in recent years – something he says shows voters and activists that Wyoming Democrats are now serious about winning elections.
In the past two years, Barbuto said, the statewide Democratic committee has assembled field staff, and has had substantial enough financial backing to hire a digital director, finance director and a field director. Because of this, the Democrats now have the capacity to organize a physical ground game to reach out to prospective voters. (Compare this to the party’s expenditures in 2015-2016, where the state Democratic committee counted just under $94,000 over two years on payroll and administrative costs, according to financial documents with the state board of elections.) The source of those finances are always a key, particularly when that money is being raised in Jackson and Teton County, home to the 14th-richest ZIP code in the United States, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.
“It’s not uncommon, I think both parties tend to raise money in Jackson,” said Dave Freudenthal, former Democratic Governor of Wyoming between 2003 and 2011. “You have to go where the money is. It’s a practice both parties have done over time.”
“They don’t show up in Wyoming generally,” he added. “They show up in Jackson.”
Yet others, like Derek Jones – campaign manager for Democratic congressional candidate Travis Helm – view Sunday’s event as a means of following up on past successes, recognizing that despite Democrats being outnumbered by Republicans at a roughly three to one margin, their message still has the opportunity to sway independent voters and registered Republicans who may be on the fence.
A prime example is the Congressional campaign run more than a decade ago by Democrat and current U.S. Senate candidate Gary Trauner, who lost by just 1,000 votes to an incumbent Republican in a 2006 race where more than 200,000 ballots were cast. Trauner had appealed for help from the national committee but did not get it, which Jones said could have made a significant difference in the outcome of that race.
“That was a huge wake-up call for them,” he said.
Since that time, thanks to the efforts of then-DNC chairman Howard Dean’s efforts to look beyond supporting candidates exclusively in swing states, Democrats in Wyoming at least feel they now have the opportunity to build “a party for the future,” as Barbuto describes it. Yet some feel the national Democrats see something in this year’s races they haven’t seen in Wyoming in a long time.
Some of the belief among Democratic strategists that this year could be different derives largely from a history of the minority parties boasting higher turnout in elections where they have opportunities to regain seats, and what some strategists see as a misconception of Wyoming as a purely conservative state. Ferguson points to the legacy of Wyoming to elect both Democratic legislators to the statehouse as well as Democratic and moderate governors as an indication that party lines don’t always pre-ordain a candidate’s success.
Discussing how his candidate compares to Republicans like incumbent Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Jones said Helm offers a level of credibility as a rancher and a Wyomingite that has allowed him to build trust among both Republicans and Democrats, particularly on issues he said concern all residents of the state, including around education and access to affordable health care.
“We never expected any support from the national party honestly,” said Jones. “But from the very beginning, talking to other candidates, we feel we actually have a really good chance of winning.” (A representative from the National Republican Congressional Committee, reached for comment, said the Wyoming’s Congressional seat “will not be competitive.”)
Democrats, however, aren’t discouraged.
“I understand why people are saying Wyoming is a Republican state,” said Ferguson. “And that’s not true – it’s an independent state. A whole lot of people who register as Republicans cherish their identity as independent voters. That’s well-known.”