In an effort to guard against “the infiltration of the Wyoming Republican Party by liberals and moderates,” the Campbell County Republican Party will consider a resolution on Saturday that declares the party has the “authority to disqualify” Republican candidates for elected office.
As written, the draft resolution conflicts with state law, according to both the Secretary of State’s office and a longtime chairman of the Senate Elections, Corporations and Political Subdivisions Committee. Major political parties are open-membership organizations in Wyoming which can not legally restrict membership or participation on ideological or other grounds.
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The resolution’s author, Campbell County Republican precinct committeeman Bill Fortner, wasn’t certain on the idea’s legality but was clear on his determination.
“We’re gonna clean up this party,” he said.
Campbell County Republican Party Chairwoman Vicki Kissack directed questions about the resolution to Fortner, but said the county party officials would “absolutely” look into any legal issues in the resolution.
Asked about the party’s legal ability to block candidates from running for office, Fortner suggested the party would remove the Republican designation from a candidate’s name on the ballot. That can’t legally be done without statute change, said both the elections divisions chief at the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office and Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) the former head of the legislative committee in charge of election law.
“I don’t think that such a platform could possibly survive a court test, even if state law could somehow be changed to permit local parties to have a veto,” Case said. “Our constitutions and the body of constitutionally upheld election law and practices thankfully prevent such practices.”
Pressed on the question, Fortner implied the party could choose not to endorse a candidate, which would be legal.
“The party would say these guys aren’t Republican,” he said.
At the Campbell County GOP meeting Saturday, the county central committee will be able to amend his resolution “until it does [comply with the law],” Fortner said. He suggested he’d push for steep changes to enforce ideological party purity.
“If its because we’re publicly funded that we can’t [disqualify a candidate] then we’ll get un-publicly funded,” Fortner said.
Whatever measure they might pass, Fortner intends to see it applied to election candidates all the way down the ballot, he said.
“We’d say this guy is not a Republican and he’s [got] non-Republican values and whether you’re the city council, the county commission, the state government, this would go clear down … whether you’re the [county] assessor any of that,” Fortner said.
Fortner’s resolution would call for the disqualification of any candidate who does not vote in accordance with the party platform 80 percent of the time.
The resolution cites long standing dominance of Wyoming politics as its justification. “Whereas; The Republican Party has held the majority of members in the Wyoming Legislature since 1937” and “the infiltration of the Wyoming Republican Party by liberals and moderates” as its reasoning.
“They’ve been doing just about everything they can to get the majority,” Fortner said, “and they’re not doing it under the Democratic party they’re doing it under the Republican party.”
By “they,” Fortner said, he meant “liberals and moderates.” Fortner does not believe a moderate Republican can exist, he said.
“That’s like trying to interbreed a cat and a dog,” he said. “You got no founding principle behind that, [suggesting] ‘well we can [vote] one way this time and this way another time.”
To Fortner, a moderate or liberal running as a Republican “is like you standing outside the door of Walmart with a sign that says ‘I’m a parakeet’ on your head, he said. “Everyone knows you’re not a parakeet.”
If legally dubious, Fortner’s resolution aligns in principle with increasing efforts by Wyoming Republican Party officers to bend the state’s elected officials to their will. The 80 percent adherence to the party platform standard is one adopted by the GOP’s state central committee, which backed a pledge for elected officials asking them to follow the rule at a November meeting, according to meeting minutes obtained by WyoFile.
Party officials have also tied campaign funding to voting records and distributed secret lists of bills approved or disapproved by state party officials to lawmakers, according to previous WyoFile reporting. The party lobbied heavily during the 2019 legislative session in a failed bid to limit voters’ ability to change political parties for primary elections. That effort raised the hackles of some Republican lawmakers.
The party has been more successful at blocking efforts to reform Wyoming’s tax structure away from its dependence on the volatile minerals industry.
Fortner: Critical infrastructure, coal plant bills not conservative
State party chairman Frank Eathorne and other leading Republicans have demurred on the idea that Gov. Mark Gordon’s victory in last summer’s contentious Republican gubernatorial primary drove their efforts to restrict primary voting. That denial came despite the role of one of Gordon’s vanquished opponents, Foster Friess, in the drive for change.
The party later cheered Gordon’s efforts to push back on some legislative budgeting maneuvers disliked by conservatives, and Gordon was the keynote speaker at a recent state GOP event.
Fortner remains unconvinced, and unlike state party officials, didn’t pull any punches. “In my opinion the Governor’s a Democrat,” Fortner said.
Still, Fortner opposes the party’s effort to restrict voters’ rights to change political parties. “That’s putting boundaries on our vote,” he said. He considered his resolution an alternative manner to prevent the election of moderates.
“Let’s not limit people’s free choice but let’s purify the party,” Fortner said.
Fortner, a veteran coal miner of more than 19 years, opposes new taxes and wants to see ever steeper budget cuts to compensate for the decline in Wyoming’s crucial coal tax revenues. “Every time [elected officials] need revenue they should take something away,” he said.
Asked which bills were prime examples of Republicans betraying conservative principles, Fortner cited two controversial bills backed by industry lobbies. One was a failed bill to create steep penalties for protesting energy infrastructure, which Fortner said sought “to take people’s voice from them.”
Another bill Fortner thought was falsely conservative was a Senate bill to to keep aging coal plants in operation even when private-sector owners want to close them. The bill was popular among Republican lawmakers and passed with wide margins despite questions about its consequences for both the environment and free markets. The bill was brought by lawmakers from southwestern Wyoming concerned about the fate of the Naughton coal-fired generation plant near Kemmerer.
Fortner saw it as an effort by lawmakers to “seize and control private business,” he said.