CHEYENNE – On Tuesday, members of the Senate Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions awoke to thousands of emails urging them to advance legislation to transition Wyoming’s primary elections to a runoff system.
It’s not unusual for Wyoming legislators to be inundated with correspondence on controversial bills.
What made this surge of mail unusual, however, was the fact it came at the behest of the former president’s son. Donald Trump Jr. urged his Twitter followers to support Wyoming’s Senate File 145 – Election runoffs. His interest in the bill apparently stems from a desire to increase the chances of a challenger defeating Rep. Liz Cheney in what is anticipated to be a crowded 2022 primary.
Cheney has engaged in a public battle with the former president since she decried his actions leading to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“Any Republican in Wyoming who does Liz Cheney’s bidding and opposes SF145 is turning their back on my father and the entire America First movement,” Trump tweeted Monday night. “Support SF145 and lets send Lincoln Project Liz into retirement in 2022! #WYAL #Wyoming”
He listed the email addresses of the committee members, and the emails began piling up.
Senate Republicans interviewed by WyoFile, however, said they had heard of no such attempt by Cheney to kill the bill, which Trump also claimed in a tweet. Members of the committee told WyoFile they were in favor of the bill prior to Trump’s tweet, and that it would likely pass the full Senate after it comes up for a vote in committee on Thursday.
“If there is [a group of Cheney supporters trying to kill the bill], I’d like to see who they are,” Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devil’s Tower) said. “I’ve had a handful of people ask me to kill the bill, but they’re just normal people who I know already. I’ve gotten emails from people saying Cheney’s people are putting pressure on us but I’m the committee chairman, and I haven’t heard anything.”
“I was surprised to see there was national interest,” said Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas), one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “It’s been an ongoing discussion for quite some time.”
Wyoming goes D.C.
Ever since Cheney voted to impeach former President Donald Trump on charges of inciting a riot at the United States Capitol, he and his surrogates have expressed a growing interest in Wyoming’s politics.
Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, a close ally of the president, held an anti-Cheney rally on the steps of the state capitol in Cheyenne. Far-right commentators like Scott Pressler, Steve Bannon and Nick Fuentes have expressed interest in boosting a primary challenge to Cheney.
Even Trump himself has gotten involved; he personally contacted the chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party to express an interest in a future trip to the Cowboy State ahead of a recent anti-Cheney event in Bar Nunn.
Observes now question the degree to which national interests are directly involved in Wyoming politics and lawmaking.
Days before the start of session, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski was interviewed at the Conservative Political Action Conference by a reporter for the Epoch Times. In that interview, he described the contents of the bill even though it hadn’t yet been made public. CPAC ended on Feb. 28, and the bill was formally introduced on March 1.
“What we have in Wyoming — which is a statewide district, one member of Congress represents the whole state — we’ve got six, seven or eight candidates who all think that they’re the best candidate to beat Liz Cheney,” Lewandowski said in the interview, which published March 1. “The problem with that is, in a multi-candidate field, the incumbent has an advantage — name ID, money, recognition, which means if we have six or seven candidates running, she may have the chance to get through a primary.”
“Now, I believe they’re going to change the rules in Wyoming and that would then require a runoff if you don’t get over 50%,” he continued. “That’s very good news for the Trump candidate. The former president will choose, I believe, and a small group of advisors will help him make some recommendations on who he ultimately endorses in that race, but I can assure you, it will not be Liz Cheney.”
It is unclear how Lewandowski knew so much about the bill. Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), the bill’s sponsor, told WyoFile he had not spoken to anyone in Trump’s orbit about the bill and that it had been a long-standing conversation between himself and even his Democratic colleagues.
“This has been something we’ve been working on for a long time, well before what happened in January,” Biteman said. “The national media is now making this an issue and I really don’t know where it came from. And now I’m worried [the committee] is going to kill my bill.”
Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), who’s running against Cheney, said that he had recused himself from conversations in drafting the bill. Bouchard reached out to Trump Jr. independently on Twitter asking for a meeting to discuss how he would vote on the bill. Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), who was at CPAC, was not aware of any Wyoming lawmakers meeting with Trump, he said.
“I have no idea where it came from, but it wasn’t coming from me,” he said. “[Runoff elections] have been a priority for the party for a while now.”
Trump’s loyalists are clearly interested in ousting Cheney from office. What is less clear, however, is who is feeding them information about happenings in the Legislature that could be used to their candidates’ advantage.
“I have my suspicions,” Biteman said. “But I can’t verify who, so I’m gonna ‘no comment’ this one.”
Controversy over a popular bill
Even before Trump’s tweet, SF 145 was considered to be a popular bill with a high chance of making it through the Senate. Senators interviewed by WyoFile said they appreciate what the bill hopes to accomplish and out of the emails they did receive, few were opposed to the bill.
“Back home, this is a popular bill,” Sen. Tim Salazar, (R-Riverton), testified Thursday morning. “My constituents want this, and that’s why my name is on it.”
The bill is intended to address long-standing concerns with the state’s often crowded primary races, where a large number of candidates tend to split the vote and the winner escapes with less than half the total vote. Under the bill, if no single candidate achieves greater than 50% of the vote in a primary, the election would go to a runoff, where the top two vote getters in that campaign would then advance to a second election to determine a winner.
While critics have said that runoff elections would be more inefficient and expensive than systems like ranked-choice voting, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) is supportive of the concept behind the bill, he said, which he believes would likely improve the validity of the state’s elections. He expressed concern about how restrictive the bill is, though, and said he hoped to expand the eligibility of people who could participate.
Others said they prefer adopting a ranked-choice voting system instead, which would involve just one single election while still, theoretically, giving the winner a mandate.
With ranked-choice voting, voters rank their preferred candidates from lowest to highest. The candidate with the fewest first choice votes eliminated after the first count. When a voter’s top candidate is eliminated, their second choice vote is counted instead. The process continues until a single candidate gains a majority and is declared the winner.
But advocates say SF 145 creates a process that gives their leaders a clear mandate to do their job by winnowing down the vote to just two choices. While the prime example cited by advocates is Gov. Mark Gordon’s victory in the 2018 primary (despite only winning 33% of the vote), there have been numerous other instances in which crowded fields have led to candidates winning without a clear majority.
Biteman said he identified three possible runoffs in the Wyoming State Senate races and two in the State House in the 2018 elections. Before that, the 2016 House race featured numerous candidates who split the vote, leading to Cheney winning the nomination with less than 39% of the vote. The most prescient example was likely seen in the 2014 Secretary of State race, in which Ed Murray defeated Ed Buchanan by fewer than two points in a tight, four-way primary.
“People are understandably frustrated by the process,” Biteman said as he presented the bill Tuesday. “This bill is aimed at getting our primary elections to a point where more people are happy with the outcome and satisfied their voices were heard.”
After Trump Jr. weighed in, some Republicans who supported the bill aren’t necessarily backing away from it, but are now approaching it with a little more hesitancy.
“It does bother me a lot of out-of-state folks are involved,” said Case. “I’ve gotten people from many different states, all trying to affect the outcome against Liz Cheney. But Liz Cheney spoke from the heart, and provides our state a bridge in a future where Wyoming is in the minority. Going redder and meaner, less cooperative and more militant, isn’t going to help.”
“I actually think it will help in favor of more moderate candidates,” he added. “I know that’s counterintuitive, but I think folks may find when they get the clear choice between the two, I don’t think you’ll unseat the governor, and I don’t think you’ll unseat Liz Cheney. She’s just the best candidate.”
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In a hearing on the runoff bill Thursday morning, the Wyoming County Clerks Association said it would be impossible to implement in the timeline pushed for by the former president’s son. The projected $1.1 million cost to administer a second, runoff election is a significant hurdle during a budget crisis, they argued. And their thin staffs are already overworked with budget preparations and the process of redistricting, which will likely take place in 2022.
“We do not have time to set up a runoff election by 2022,” Teton County Clerk Mary Lankford told members of the Senate Corporations Committee.
The bill advanced out of committee on a 4-1 vote.