A growing group of Wyoming lawmakers — including the vice president of the Senate — are coming after one of the state’s most aggressive gun rights groups after it lodged efforts to discredit incumbent Republican lawmakers in a number of vulnerable districts ahead of next month’s Republican primary.
The group, Wyoming Gun Owners, has been a consistent presence in Wyoming’s politics, presenting itself to residents as an uncompromising and unapologetically aggressive proponent for the Second Amendment in Cheyenne.
Throughout the last two weeks, however, the organization has focused on pitting its often aggressive campaign tactics and extensive digital operation against out-of-favor politicians.
Established lawmakers like Cheyenne Sen. Tara Nethercott and Kemmerer Rep. Fred Baldwin have come under Wyoming Gun Owners’ microscope this summer, even with Nethercott running unopposed in her primary this year. Michael Von Flatern — a moderate Republican senator from Gillette — has received the most attacks over the years, dubbed the organization’s “Biggest Enemy to Gun Owners in Wyoming” and regularly disparaged outside of campaign season.
The organization has also taken strides to actively influence legislative races across the state by running videos attacking the voting records of legislators facing challenges from candidates it endorses. Rep. Dan Kirkbride, R-Chugwater, has attracted the ire of the organization as he faces off against the Wyoming Gun Owners-backed Jeremy Haroldson, while Cheyenne Republican Sen. Affie Ellis was recently targeted by the organization in her primary race against Dan Young.
Incumbents in highly competitive districts like House District 24, currently occupied by Rep. Sandy Newsome, have come under some of the most withering attacks from the organization, depicted by Wyoming Gun Owners as lapdogs of legislative leadership while they face intense competition from candidates on the right wing of the Republican Party who have pledged to back all of the organization’s legislative priorities.
“She hasn’t been in office long,” Aaron Dorr, the organization’s policy director, said in a recent video opposing Newsome in favor of her opponent, Nina Webber. “But she’s quickly made a name for herself as a do-nothing moderate who the leadership team can always count on to oppose any gun bills that come along, and to be a safe leadership vote.”
Newsome has consistently declined to fill out the organization’s candidate survey voted last year against a bill proposing to ban gun-free zones in places like the University of Wyoming campus.
But she has hardly mounted an opposition against one’s right to bear arms. In the last session alone, Newsome voted for a bill to ban gun buyback programs, voted in support of legislation to protect those who keep firearms in their vehicles at the workplace and even backed legislation to protect law enforcement officers who refuse to comply with federal laws seen as in conflict with one’s Second Amendment rights.
Even Devils Tower Sen. Ogden Driskill, the vice president of the Senate, has come under fire from the organization in recent weeks, labeled by Wyoming Gun Owners as a “Republican in Name Only” and a “swamp monster” for speaking out against the organization and its tactics despite, in his own words, being among the most Second Amendment-friendly legislators in Cheyenne.
“To call me an ultra-moderate gun hater is probably a pretty good stretch for anybody that knows me,” Driskill said in an interview with the Star-Tribune. “They use tactics that remind you of Washington, D.C., or out-of-state politics. I’ve been proud that really dirty, nasty politics has not come to Wyoming, and this is opening the door to that style of politics.”
Who are Wyoming Gun Owners?
People in Cheyenne have known the name of Wyoming Gun Owners — and its leader, Dorr — for many years now.
Founded by now-Sen. Anthony Bouchard in 2010, Wyoming Gun Owners has played an outsize role in the state’s politics for a number of years. While most of its infrastructure is based out of state, the organization maintains the veneer of a high-powered Wyoming lobbying organization, with an in-state field coordinator, a mailing list of hundreds of individuals and a number of legislative victories to its credit, including the passage of the state’s controversial stand your ground bill in 2018 and a massive opposition campaign that aided in the pulling of a piece of mental health reporting legislation prior to the 2020 session.
While the on-the-ground following of the organization is very real, Dorr — and his family — have come under increasing scrutiny over the last several years for running a network of right-wing Facebook pages and gun rights organizations in states such as Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri that critics say intend only to stoke fear and anger in an effort to elicit donations to enrich the family.
In April, national news organizations like NBC News and the Washington Post tied the Dorr family to a number of anti-quarantine protests in cities around the United States, including ones the brothers did not reside in. Earlier this year, The Daily Beast published an expose on the brothers’ Second Amendment lobbying efforts, quoting an Iowa state lawmaker describing Aaron Dorr as a “scam artist” using unfounded accusations in an effort to gin up donations for his organization.
“If you’re sending this guy money, I’m asking you to stop. … It is time for his scam to end,” Matt Windschitl, the Iowa state representative, was quoted as saying on the floor of the Statehouse in April 2017. “You need and you deserve the truth: Aaron Dorr is a scam artist, a liar, and he is doing Iowans no services and no favors.”
As the organization’s attacks against incumbent lawmakers in Wyoming have begun to escalate, a growing number of conservatives have begun lobbing their own attempts to discredit the organization, highlighting the flow of cash seen in other states to the brothers’ own consulting firm.
“They’re not here for Second Amendment rights,” Driskill said. “They’re here to stir controversy and raise money.”
A grassroots organization?
As news about the organization began circulating among Wyoming’s political community on social media over the past week, Dorr has released a series of videos defending the organization and its practices, arguing he and his brothers’ organization is a multi-state bulwark for individual liberty wherever the fight is worth fighting.
“I’ve been involved in the fight for gun rights in five states for the last 12 1/2 years now and, of course, Ogden Driskill is angry about that because of course no one who was not born and raised in Wyoming has the right to fight for freedom,” Dorr said in a recent video on the group’s Facebook page.
“Wyoming Gun Owners has always been a Wyoming-run member-driven organization, and it always will be,” Dorr said in a text message to the Star-Tribune. “Ogden is mad because we are exposing his dirty financial deals in Cheyenne and because we are exposing his Swamp buddies like Michael Von Flatern, one of the state’s leading voices for mental health gun control. Frankly, if we didn’t have moderate politicians howling during the primary season, we would not be doing our jobs right!”
But the group has been put on defense as of late, even releasing a video explaining why it opposed a hard-line piece of gun legislation called the Second Amendment Preservation Act (which was sponsored by hardcore gun rights supporters like Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton, and Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan) after being pushed on it by Driskill.
While the organization argues that the legislation was weak and lacked a means of enforcement, Driskill says the group fought to kill the bill because it was backed by their rival, the National Rifle Association, and included lawmakers it didn’t like — including Driskill — as co-sponsors. He says that’s the same reason several of Wyoming Gun Owners’ chosen candidates voted against it as well.
“You’ll hear him say now that it was a bad bill, but they forgot to tell all the rest of the people about it,” Driskill said. “The people that killed HB-118 were Sen. Bouchard, Sen. (Tom) James, and all of the Democrats in the Wyoming Senate. Their hated Sen. Von Flatern, their hated Sen. Baldwin, the list goes on and on. All the people that they claim are soft on guns all voted together with Anthony Bouchard, their superstar, to kill a piece of gun legislation.”
While pressure on Wyoming Gun Owners has been mounting, the organization itself is looking to ramp up its aggressive campaigns in the coming weeks. In a fundraising email July 15, the organization said it hoped to raise more than $52,000 to target 16 races around the state while defending favored candidates in vulnerable seats this summer, including Bouchard and Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell.
“WYGO has released multiple ads in this election cycle exposing notorious gun grabbing Republicans like Michael Von Flatern and Dan Furphy that have been seen by tens of thousands of gun owners,” Dorr wrote in a text message. “We will be rolling out additional spots over the coming two weeks.”
But Driskill — who says he supports much of what the organization is fighting for — is tired of the negative campaigning, and says that there are greater issues to judge candidates by than a less-than-perfect record on the Second Amendment or their refusal to fill out the group’s candidate survey, which includes numerous questions asking lawmakers to sponsor or co-sponsor bills they favor.
“As I started looking through it all, (Wyoming Gun Owners) are really savage against candidates like Ed Cooper, Mike Bailey, Erin Johnson. … They have all come out and say that they’re very strong pro-Second Amendment gun rights,” Driskill said. “They’re all on record. But they didn’t meet the litmus test for WYGO.
“I guess from my end as a voter, it’s up to me to decide what a candidate does,” he added. “Do we want single-issue candidates, or do we want well-rounded politicians that are really listening to their constituents and taking care of issues in their area? My answer is always I want to respond to constituents, not someone who is bound by a survey to vote a certain way.”