For the past several weeks, the Natrona and Laramie County Republican committees have been engaged in what some might consider open revolt against the party’s state central committee.
Throughout the summer, leaders of both groups have passed resolutions and penned op-eds in open defiance of rule changes and policy measures at the state level believed by some to unfairly target moderates and undermine the voices of larger, more urban counties, each of whom represent larger blocks of more middle-of-the-road Republican voters.
It began in the middle of July, when a top official with the Laramie County GOP, Dani Olsen, penned a blog post calling out a potential change to the state’s delegate selection process speculated to lessen the influence of places like Laramie County, the sole county to be guaranteed a delegate in presidential election years. One week later, the Natrona County GOP fired a shot of its own, passing informal resolutions opposing measures like the creation of a Governance Review And Feedback Committee, which some feared could be used to create a prospective litmus test for Republican members of the Wyoming Legislature. (A label top officials in the party disagreed with in previous interviews with the Star-Tribune.)
Tensions were expected to come to a head this past weekend, when the state central committee met to discuss these resolutions at its meeting in Greybull. Early in the week, an official with the Wyoming GOP – Bryan Miller – travelled to Casper to meet with local Republicans in an attempt to assuage their concerns. In the lead-up to the meeting, emails between party officials targeting Natrona County were exchanged behind the scenes, leading some to anticipate a showdown once the opening gavel sounded.
“I think that’s improper for another county to make criticisms or comment on a county they don’t belong to,” Natrona County GOP Chairman Joseph McGinley said in an interview Monday. “That’s not who we are as Republicans – we believe in small, local government, not a very strong central organization.”
Beyond a personal gag gift via Carbon County Chair Joey Correnti left at the table occupied by the delegates from Natrona County upon their arrival, none of those fears came to pass.
“I thought it would be a confrontational meeting,” McGinley said. “But once we got into the business of the meeting, it actually was fairly productive. We had some fairly good debates – we didn’t always agree on everything – but cooler heads prevailed.”
An appeal for civility
For those in the crosshairs, Saturday’s meeting potentially helped to diffuse some of the more heated disagreements to emerge throughout the summer.
According to Laramie County GOP chairwoman Dani Olsen, the executive committee – pushed by the concerns raised by the state’s larger counties – decided in an Aug. 19 conference call to abandon changes to the delegate selection process until the state party convention next year. Meanwhile on Saturday, the Republicans’ alleged “litmus test” – a legislative scorecard for lawmakers – only received a glancing mention, something McGinley suspected was partly out of concerns from moderate counties that such a proposal could turn the state party into a lobbying group, or that it would encourage a “purging” of the party – that “if you’re not Republican enough, this grading system will encourage your removal from office,” as McGinley put it.
“With this group, you have a small number of individuals potentially having quite a bit of sway in the party,” McGinley said. “If this comes out, the average individual might not know the mechanics of this and say ‘Wow, I guess ‘Legislator A’ isn’t voting like a Republican. But representatives are supposed to vote in the interests of their district. They’re the ones that elected them. The ones grading the legislators should be the voters – not a group of people randomly selected to be part of the committee.”
But the results of Saturday’s meeting could also be indicative of something changing in the state GOP, Olsen said: a renewed commitment to ending infighting within the state’s Republican ranks and to focus not just on the purity of one’s adherence to the state platform – which McGinley noted is drastically different from the platform used by the counties themselves – but on propping up Republicans in a way that allows them some sort of flexibility in more moderate districts.
Though Eathorne, in an email, declined to comment on specifics of how he would improve civility within the party, Olsen expressed cautious optimism that dialogue within the party will only continue to improve.
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“Chairman Eathorne has noticed that some of the conduct is starting to get out of line, and I guess the real challenge now is seeing how everyone moves forward following this past meeting and the chairman’s call for civility – to let the past be the past, to unite, and become the strong Republican front we need to be,” Olsen said. “Or we can continue to bicker, point fingers, and do whatever they can to throw somebody under the bus. I’m optimistic that with the chairman behind these efforts, we’ll be able to move forward in a positive way.”
“That would make us an unstoppable force if we could focus on electing Republicans, not criticizing our elected officials and supporting them instead,” she added.
Others will note, however, that unity is a very subjective term and that beyond their personal feelings, the results on paper spoke for themselves, Correnti said.
“My focus personally and within the Republican Party is to move forward together as a team,” said Correnti, the Carbon County chair. “I had a sense that business within the party was presented, business within the party was conducted, and business within the party was completed. My personal feelings are subjective, they aren’t important. What’s important are the results on paper. Some resolutions passed. We did meet, we had a productive meeting, and we look forward to meet again as a team together in the future.”
“What happened at the meeting is a matter of record,” he added. “And I don’t think it’s far-removed at all from the time-tested and true stance of the Republican Party.”
Preserving diverse voices
For some in the party, efforts to maintain the diversity of ideas and end infighting are critical to maintaining balance between Republicans from diverse backgrounds: to ensure the will of the people is accurately represented through its platform.
In an email, Republican activist Gail Symons noted that in smaller counties, it is often easier for vocal, active groups to take control of the county parties than more populated areas with more heterogeneous membership. When combined at the state level, this trend could manifest in a warped understanding of the will of rural voters in those counties, who may be represented within the party by officials who were appointed by their local committees, and may have not been elected at all.
Some of this concern was reflected in the creation of the Governance Review and Feedback Committee. Though many in the party support the intent of the committee, many disagreed with the execution, namely a rating system some consider arbitrary, and the fact few in the party knew who would be selected to the committee, or on what qualifications they would be chosen.
In Natrona County – which is divided not only between the conservative and moderate districts within Casper, but the rural reaches of places like Midwest and Muddy Gap – keeping that diversity of opinion is just as crucial. Following the passage of the Natrona County Republican Party’s controversial resolutions last month, several members of the executive committee submitted a rebuttal to the majority stating that the actions of 15 executive committee members “usurped the authority of the 165 members of the NCRP Central Committee.”
But the politics of local parties – like the state party – aren’t a direct democracy: Though the dissenting voices lost out, the 15 members who voted in favor of opposing the grading committee were, by the party’s definition, representing the voices of their constituents with their vote. Whether that’s the proper way to do business, whether at the state or local level, will continue to be debated.
“Within the county, these discussions are extremely relevant,” McGinley said. “And I think the whole point of these discussions is the power of people’s voices in Wyoming – that the average citizen can get involved, speak up, and make a difference.”