Several weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, Worland resident Amanda Weaver — a Democrat — decided to go to her first state party meeting.
A relative novice to politics, she — like many of the 65.8 million Americans to vote Democrat in that year’s elections — felt “shook up” at the time, like the complacency that members of the party had shown throughout the Obama years would no longer cut it. Even in certified “red” states like Wyoming.
“It made us put a little more action behind our feelings and words,” she said. “I wanted to stop complaining about things or worrying about things or wanting things to change. I couldn’t do that anymore. I had to start doing something to be the change I wanted to see.”
In Worland, Weaver’s efforts would be the first seen there in a long time. Considered a “dark county” at the time, Washakie County had zero Democratic presence in the area: no county party, no local activist groups, no mechanism to spread the Democratic message whatsoever.
At the same time, the state party was just as sparse. The Wyoming Democratic Party, which has elected 10 of the last 24 governors, had just one member on its staff, with ground operations and political strategy relying heavily on volunteers. Fundraising was abysmal, with $100,000 in finances for the 2016 elections — sourced primarily from out-of-state groups — amounting to barely half of what the state’s Republican Party possessed on hand. Meanwhile, the condition of the party’s in-state fundraising was just as sorry, as it barely raised enough that year to cover the cost of a used station wagon.
In 2016, 61 Democrats ran for seats on the Wyoming Legislature, with only 12 being successful. Simultaneously, the party — despite holding the governorship just five years earlier — was continuing to bleed voters, seeing a gradual reduction in their numbers as the Republican Party, with competitive primaries and significant influence, continued to grow.
In the spring of 2017, a faction of party members who had supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential race ousted members of the leadership who had supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, symbolizing a significant change in direction within the party. At the time, newly elected chairman Joe Barbuto told the Star-Tribune, “I thought it was time for the Democratic Party in Wyoming to become more organized.”
Two years later, Barbuto, who was reelected state chairman at a party meeting in Casper last weekend, appears to have helped breathe new life into the party. Though considerably smaller in number, in 2018 Democratic voters showed up to the polls at an 8 percent higher rate than Republican voters, part of a resurgent election for Democrats nationwide. Facing Republican incumbents in several state legislature races last year, Democrats managed to pull out several wins in places like Fremont and Laramie counties, while remaining competitive in numerous other races around the state.
In the past several months, the Wyoming Democrats’ executive staff has expanded from one person to five, including a full-time field director, a communications staffer and directors for finance and analytics. Fundraising, according to first-quarter numbers shared with the Star-Tribune last weekend, has also outpaced previous years, with nearly $90,000 raised in the first three months of 2019 alone.
“Last time, we did obviously have some challenges for leadership,” Barbuto said about the differences between 2017 and 2019. “This time, I think we saw some of the signs of the teamwork and professionalization of the organization we’ve been working on for the last two years.”
Rebranding the party
Weaver, who was named Washakie County’s first Democratic committee chairwoman shortly after that first meeting, knew from the start she would be facing difficulties. In a county with zero visibility, the first challenge was simply letting locals know that Democrats actually existed in their communities.
She started with bake sales, donating a share of the proceeds to local groups in the community. In the 2018 campaigns, she and her team of volunteers — 20 or 30 members strong now — set to work knocking on doors, hoping to have conversations with anybody willing to listen.
“We were part of the ground game in a number of statewide races,” Weaver said. “I don’t think Washakie County has ever done that, at least not in a very long time.”
Slowly, those conversations yielded results. When they were first starting out, Weaver said, they set up a table at an event where they tried to give away free water in an effort to have those conversations. At first, she said, people at the events refused to take the water on the grounds of it being “Democrat water.” But over the years, Weaver said that has changed.
Sometimes, people will try to start a fight about Nancy Pelosi, and the volunteers will try to instead have a discussion about policies that affect them most directly.
“I’ve noticed the change,” she said. “People will actually speak to us, instead of treating us like we’ll infect them if they come by our booth.”
However, misconceptions about what Democrats actually stand for are still rampant, and something local committee chairs still regularly find themselves combating. On the national stage, Democrats are compartmentalized by Republican leadership as socialists or extremists, and are often depicted as anti-fossil fuel and adamantly pro-choice — issues traditionally out of step with Wyomingites in general.
Wyoming’s Democrats, however, are more moderate and in a conservative state often find themselves having to compromise the ideology of the national platform to adopt to what are commonly considered “Wyoming values.”
“Wyoming Democrats realize we have an uphill battle, and without negotiation and compromise we’re not going to get anywhere,” Sublette County chair Tessa Miller said. “Where the national platform is being called out for that, Wyoming’s Democrats are a lot more moderate. Obviously with any political party — and much like religion — there are extremists on both side, and I think trying to get back to that middle ground is something to aim for. I don’t think we’ve seen that in a while on either side of party lines.”
That strategy has not been lost on the state party — even with the Sanders faction succeeding in turning over party leadership in 2017. Last weekend, the party discussed trying to get their message out in very inexpensive ways, floating ideas like 30-second videos on why people are Democrats and how exactly Wyoming values can be Democratic values. They plan on highlighting perceived failures by the Legislature’s Republican supermajority — a lack of action on workplace protections and labor rights, failures to raise the lowest minimum wage in the nation and a lack of movement on a nondiscrimination law — to appeal to people across the aisle and to directly challenge whether the Republican Party are representing the values of all Republicans in the state.
Whether or not those efforts are successful, Weaver said, depends on the willingness of the other side to listen.
“We just need to get past the prejudice to actually have the conversation,” Weaver said. “We share goals, but we just disagree on how to get there at times, and there are a lot of misconceptions about Democrats and what we actually believe. Getting our message out is going to be one of the harder things we’re going to try to do, getting to the point where people will actually listen to us instead of just reducing us to labels. That’s tough.”
Opportunities from the other side
As of April 1, only 47,000 Wyomingites are Democrats, constituting just under 18 percent of the state’s registered voters. That doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats only have 18 percent of the electorate, however.
In Wyoming’s GOP, party leadership has spent the past year in turmoil over the purity of its platform. Last June, the Laramie County GOP released a questionnaire for candidates that was construed by some as a “litmus test” to weed out moderates in the party. Recently, the Campbell County GOP raised the prospect of — and later defeated — passing a resolution that would allow the party to disqualify candidates who didn’t vote with the party platform 80 percent of the time. Meanwhile in the 2019 legislative session, the Wyoming Republican Party – wary of Democrats “crossing over” and voting in Republican Party elections — made eliminating crossover voting its No. 1 priority during the session in an effort to further preserve party purity.
But as the party makes strides to move further to the right — and alienate moderates within the party — Democrats have begun to see opportunities to capture traditionally Republican voters, who might be more willing to vote for Democrats with beliefs that align closer to their views.
“I think there are people who might be willing to vote for a Democrat who might never in their life have been able to see themselves voting for one,” Weaver said. “The Republican Party has changed from what I remember as a kid, definitely, and I know a lot of people who feel that way, Republicans and Democrats alike.”
Simply running candidates has given Democrats an understanding of where to focus their efforts.
While 2016 was filled with fruitless campaigns, tallies at polls in places where Democrats had never run before gave the party an understanding where opportunities might lie in 2018, yielding levels of success the party hadn’t enjoyed in years.
“You didn’t even know how many votes you could get in a place if you never ran a candidate there,” said Bruce Palmer, the party’s former vice chairman and an instrumental figure behind Fremont County Democrat Rep. Andi Clifford’s upset win last year. “So for some races, it was just about seeing what sort of Democratic base you had in different spots, which then gave us better information in 2018 and 2020.”
Having permanent employees, many attested, has represented a huge change for the party, and something to keep momentum going, even in non-election years, and have allowed for more concerted analytics to gauge vulnerabilities county-by-county. Meanwhile, investment in the party — bolstered by renewed interest from the Democratic National Committee — has allowed the state’s Democrats to build a system that will allow them to have a truly coherent and consistent message across the state for the first time in years.
Now, it’s just a matter of winning.
Casper, for instance, lost a Democratic representative in November when Debbie Bovee lost to Rep. Art Washut by just over 300 votes. Bovee was elected chair of the Natrona County Democratic Party last weekend.
“We’ve been out-fundraised in the past, we’ve been out-registered, but we won’t be outworked and we won’t be out-organized,” Barbuto said. “I think that’s really where our potential lies. We have great candidates, we know how to win. Now we just need to transfer that to the rest of the state. Our group is pumped up to do that.”