Tom Perez

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez speaks Aug. 2 during an appearance in Jackson.

If Wyoming’s burgeoning Democratic Party is in need of a vision worth aspiring toward, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez says Equality State liberals need only look as far as Kansas.

Last November, voters in the Sunflower State – which voted for president Donald Trump by massive margins in 2016 — took back the governor’s seat from Republican control, riding a national wave of Democratic enthusiasm and state level animosity over Republican-led budget cuts on their way to flipping the state’s 3rd Congressional District as well as five seats in the state’s House of Representatives.

Democrats in that state did lose five seats in the state legislature to Republican control in the process, as well as suffering a close defeat for the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Still, Perez sees a lot of promise in Kansas – where massive tax cuts and an ensuing loss of state services resulted in a Democratic victory and de facto control of the statehouse.

“I think Wyoming can go down a similar path,” Perez told the Star-Tribune in an interview Monday morning. “I think there are still a number of moderate Republicans in Wyoming – people who understand that the Party of Lincoln is dead, that health care is something people ought to be able to keep, that our most valuable resource are our kids and our public land and that climate change is real.”

Democratic National Committee chair visits Wyoming

However, there is reality to grapple with. It’s been nearly two decades since a Democrat won an open seat governor’s race in Wyoming. Since then, Wyoming has gotten redder while other red states in the Rocky Mountains have gone purple and, in some cases, blue.

Which begs the question – Why even bother?

“I’m proud we’re a 50-state party this year, and I’m proud we invested more in Wyoming than ever before in a midterm cycle,” said Perez, referring to the six-figure investments made by the party in 2018. “And we’re going to continue. When you’re trying to take a long-term view and trying to reverse trends that are a long time in the making, you can’t just pick up your marbles and go home if you have one cycle where you don’t get to quite where you want to be. That’s the approach we’ve taken across the country.”

Even in Wyoming, the party has had marginal success. Perez pointed to the example set by Rep. Andi Clifford, a Democrat on the Wind River Reservation who – in her first stab at elected politics – flipped a Republican seat in the state legislature due, largely, to effective ground-level organizing by the state Democratic Party.

Though a similar exhibit could be difficult to replicate in deep-red Wyoming, Perez – and other Democrats around the state – see some philosophical overlap between the values of moderate Republicans, traditional Democrats and the state’s libertarian-leaning independent voters, leaving room for Democrats to at least advocate for candidates who closely represent their ideals.

“I think there are opportunities to win, but we’ve got to organize and realize that, in some parts of the state, we have to collaborate with an independent candidate or something like that,” said Perez. “It’s what we did in Alaska, it’s been done elsewhere. But that’s something we can look at.”

It may have to be a start. In Wyoming in particular, Democrats have an image problem, painted by the state’s political heavyweights John Barrasso and Liz Cheney as “socialists” – a common refrain for conservatives nationwide. Meanwhile within the Democratic Party, traditional Mountain West moderates in the presidential race – like former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Montana Sen. Michael Bennet and the more progressive Washington Gov. Jay Inslee – have failed to shine within the presidential debates in the face of policies pushed by progressive populists like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Though the Democratic platform is a spectrum, as evidenced by the diversity of its candidates, Democrats still find themselves confronted by the fact that a simple message, repeated often, is oftentimes a very effective one, regardless of the truth behind it. If all Democrats are “socialists” in that sense, how do Democrats overcome their opposition, particularly in states where the messaging is effective?

“People like John Barrasso call the Democratic proposals ‘socialism,’” Perez said. “But when social security was being debated, the minimum wage was being debated, when Medicare and Medicaid were being debated – Republicans called that socialism as well. It’s the oldest trick in the book. It’s a distraction. And it’s because they have no ideas, so they try to label good ideas that can help people in ways that scare people. Wyoming voters are way too smart to fall for that.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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