Gov. Mark Gordon called this year’s election "one of the most important we've ever had."
Today, it’s finally upon us.
When voters go to the polls for this year’s Republican and Democratic Primaries today, both sides will be weighing in on a debate with lasting repercussions on the direction of the state.
For Republicans, Tuesday’s primary elections could not only determine the future of their party, but for the state itself, helping to determine the makeup of a Legislature tasked with guiding the state through unprecedented fiscal crisis.
For Democrats in many areas of the state, this year’s primary races will allow them to set the agenda of their upstart party for the future, and to elevate a champion able to mount a credible challenge against the state’s well-entrenched Republican establishment.
Here are four key things to watch for on election night.
Republican primary races expect to be highly competitive
With 36% of incumbents in the House and 47% in the Senate facing competitive primaries, this year’s Republican Primary elections could be among the most competitive in some time.
This year, incumbents find themselves facing a well-organized and well-funded challenge from candidates far to their right on everything from fiscal to social issues. While these challenges are not uncommon, candidates deemed safe in the past – like Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, or Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette – now find themselves in heated primaries with unprecedented amounts of funding flowing in both directions.
And the philosophical differences are clear. One side – largely funded by GOP megadonor Susan Gore and Jackson Hole’s Brophy family – are backing virulently anti-tax candidates with platforms focused heavily in social issues, groups backed by longstanding families like the Trues and Michelis are shipping thousands of dollars to incumbents and new candidates alike who find themselves facing the most serious challenges from those candidates.
The direction of these elections will likely have a profound impact on the state moving forward. While the prospect of budget cuts has been endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, state fiscal analysts have warned that Wyoming is very likely to blow through its savings by the end of next year if the Legislature makes no changes to the state’s fiscal structure.
The much-more conservative Senate has proven reluctant to endorse even the most meager revenue solutions. Even a lodging tax – which was backed by industry and determined to primarily impact visitors from out-of-state – barely skidded through the Senate by three votes last winter.
If anti-tax candidates win out Tuesday, even those types of revenue discussions will likely become non-starters.
Watch the down-ballot races
While much of the attention will be paid toward legislative races, it may actually be the races down-ballot that might be the most exciting.
The Frontier Republicans – a political action committee founded by conservatives disenchanted by the current Republican establishment – have been working to recruit numerous, moderate candidates to run for precinct positions within their local parties: an effort to reclaim the party after effectively losing control to the far-right earlier this summer.
Though critics of the group have accused it of influencing statehouse races, the ultimate goal is to reshape the state’s Republican politics writ large through the party itself. As the state party has sought to purge members and politicians who don’t adhere to a majority of its platform through a process described by some as a “litmus test,” the Frontier Republicans are seeking to reclaim the party as a “big tent” representative of the entire spectrum of conservatism, from the far-right to the more moderate.
Their effort has attracted criticism in places like Campbell County, where two factions within the local Republican Party have created competing voter guides pushing different candidates they claim to be “true conservatives”: those aligned with the Frontier Republicans, and those who are not.
“They’re a bunch of trough-feeding parasites,” Jeff Raney, the organizer of the opposition’s voting guide, said of the Frontier Republicans in the Gillette News-Record this past weekend.
Democratic primaries – more exciting than ever?
Wyoming has a history of crossover voting, where Democrats – often with a marginal voice in state politics – will register as Republicans in an effort to have some sway in who will ultimately represent them.
This year, however, Democrats will have two competitive federal races to vote for, with a competitive U.S. Senate and House race on the table.
While their Senate race is a toss-up at this point, candidate Lynnette Grey Bull has compiled most of the institutional support in Wyoming in her effort against Carl Beach: on top of an endorsement from New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Grey Bull has secured the backing of almost every Democratic member of the Wyoming Legislature, including House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.
It remains to be seen if those two races will have any impact on participation in the Republican primaries, however: Democrats are only on the ballot in 25 House and Senate districts this year, and only six districts in the state – two in Cheyenne, three in Laramie, and one in Green River – have competitive Democratic primaries this year.
While Democrats in less-exciting districts may stick with their party this round, it is likely that some Democrats will opt to participate in the closer-fought Republican races to back more moderate candidates.
Keep an eye toward the future
One open question is whether Tuesday’s results – whichever way they go – could influence the Legislature’s conversations as it barrels toward a special session later this summer.
After House and Senate leadership punted a proposed date for special session until after campaign season, state lawmakers are preparing to convene in committee again as early as Wednesday, continuing with interim work and drafting legislation to be taken up by the 66th Wyoming Legislature this January.
“People have contested primaries and they need to be campaigning,” said Sen. Eli Bebout, whose Joint Appropriations Committee meets the day after the election
While some could say this saves vulnerable incumbents from making unpopular decisions ahead of an election, there is a flip-side: under a scenario in which a majority of far-right candidates win on Tuesday, it's possible that ousted incumbents could pass a number of revenue bills in the interim, therefore putting the ball in Gov. Mark Gordon’s court to vote them up or veto them.
The logic is this: with an unprecedented structural deficit and rapidly-declining prospects for the state’s natural resources worldwide, Wyoming has little time to act before all of its traditional revenue sources disappear and its savings dissipate, leaving it little money to pay for services.
Given the fact most tax increases on the table this year would take 18 months at-minimum to be implemented, the state now finds itself in a race against time. If candidates unwilling to adopt some sort of change to the state’s fiscal structure win out, then that delay would only be exacerbated.
While the House currently has the votes for revenue increases as well as budget cuts, the Senate – and its revenue committee delegation – are notoriously reluctant to support any tax increases. Depending on Tuesday’s results, any prospects for new taxes could become even more challenging.
“The outcome of those races will make a big difference on the mentality of members of the revenue committee if we’re going to really present some suggestions or if it’s really not worth our time,” House Revenue Committee Chairman Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said. “If there are five more people who pledged not to raise taxes, then there’s no reason to waste time bringing these bills forward.”
While there could be some appetite in the House, members of the Senate Revenue Committee say there’s little chance of anything passing prior to the next legislative session.
“I don’t think this pans out as a ‘survivors on the mountain before we commit suicide,’ tax-happy special session,” saidSenate Revenue Committee Chairman Cale Case, R-Lander. “It’s not gonna happen. Whatever we do, the new Legislature could undo it. It’d be more difficult – they’d have to start in the House, where they don’t have the votes – but I just don’t see it happening.”