It all started on a Friday in late January with a joke on the floor of the Wyoming House.
Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo), addressing the soon-adjourning body, invited counterparts of the then-fabricated “Wyoming Caucus” out for a 7 p.m. social hour.
Crago, caught up perhaps in poking fun at the far-right clique, the Freedom Caucus, forgot to even say where they were gathering. Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) stepped in.
“The location of the Wyoming Caucus is the Met, by the way,” Nicholas said.
Although then just an announcement intended to irritate the Freedom Caucus, the idea of coalescing under the banner of the Wyoming Caucus has since gained traction. Specifics are still being sorted out, but infrastructure is being laid to financially support more traditional Republican candidates running for office via a new Wyoming Caucus PAC. And elected Republicans on the outs with the Freedom Caucus are now assembling and making plans to establish some kind of organizational structure that provides a counterpoint to the far-right bloc’s composition.
Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) said the burgeoning effort is a direct response to how Freedom Caucus representatives conducted themselves in Cheyenne over the legislative session this winter.
“The most striking feature of the House Freedom Caucus this last session was they were voting in lockstep in accordance with text-message instructions that they would receive,” Stith said. “The interesting effect of that is that it, to some extent, forced the remaining members of the House to become slightly more organized.”
As for the name, Republican House representatives who were not among the Freedom Caucus’ 26 or so members started referring to themselves as “Team Wyoming” or the Wyoming Caucus.
“The idea being that we were trying to do what’s in the best interest of Wyoming and our constituents rather than follow a national agenda,” Stith said.
Members of the Freedom Caucus in the Wyoming House aren’t shy to admit they receive guidance on how to vote via text messages during floor debate.
“That was done in the 66th [Wyoming Legislature] too, though it wasn’t as informed as it is now,” Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), who chairs the Freedom Caucus, told WyoFile late during the legislative session.
The difference in the 67th Legislature, Bear said, was that the Freedom Caucus had an employee, Jessie Rubino, to “do research” on the bills and consult with “resources back in Washington [D.C.] she can access.”
Rubino is an employee of the State Freedom Caucus Network, directing its Wyoming operations. The national organization is based in Washington, D.C.
“Simple text messages” conveyed in digest form informed the bloc of Rubino and the Freedom Caucus’ preferences about bills and amendments, Bear said. There is no requirement that members and aspiring freshman members bend to the Freedom Caucus on every vote, he said, though there are unpublicized adherence thresholds to retain membership.
Still, Freedom Caucus representatives were often perfectly united.
“We’re quite pleased with how well this group is voting together,” Bear said.
Votes on the supplemental budget, which socked away a record $1.4 billion in savings, offer an example. The split on the bill, and its many amendments, was “very routinely” 36-26, Bear said, with the entirety of the Freedom Caucus on one side and the 31 other Republicans and five Democrats on the other.
The small-government-loving Freedom Caucus was dissatisfied with the supplemental budget because, in Bear’s eyes, the state was spending too much money. Specifically, investment income those savings will generate, which he estimated to be $65 million annually, is “offset by $112 million they created in ongoing expenditures.”
Voting as a bloc on fundamental parts of governance — like budgeting — has been off-putting to some representatives used to more meaningful debate.
“If 26 people are just going to vote exactly one way no matter what, that’s discouraging,” Crago told WyoFile.
“If 26 people are just going to vote exactly one way no matter what, that’s discouraging.” BARRY CRAGO
One representative with two decades in office under his belt described the Freedom Caucus’ bloc voting as a major departure from the historic way of doing business.
“I think back to my first [House] speaker, Fred Parady, he told us we were duly elected and nobody’s ever going to tell you how to vote,” Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) said. “Now everything’s kind of a scorecard, and you get texted how to vote. I think that’s really unfortunate for the institution of a citizen legislature.”
Bear emphasized that Freedom Caucus members are given no guidance for the majority of bills. Other times, he said, his vote recommendation as chairman is at odds with that of Rubino and the Freedom Caucus Network.
“We’ve been opposed,” Bear said. “And we’ll provide both pieces of information to the 26.”
Even when it’s not asked of them, however, Freedom Caucus members often swam as a school.
Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) estimated that the House vote on 75% of the bills the body considered came out to 36-26, or within a vote or two of that split. The divide was even more absolute while working the budget: 95% of the budget amendments, she guessed, were received with a roughly 36-26 vote.
“Team Wyoming and the Democrats were voting on how to spend government money to benefit the people of Wyoming, knowing that some money has to be spent,” Provenza said. “The other side doesn’t think any money should be spent on anything and that churches and private organizations should save us.”
It’s unclear how structured the Wyoming Caucus will be in its opposition to the more regimented Freedom Caucus.
“I think it can be organized without being authoritarian,” Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said. “But there’s no question that the longtime Republicans are starting to push back against the notion of the Freedom Caucus, and frankly the way they conduct politics. There’s going to be continued pushback on that.”
Sommers, Stith, Harshman and Nicholas jointly wrote an op-ed, published in the Cowboy State Daily, that rebutted Freedom Caucus’ attacks against establishment lawmakers. The piece blasted the bloc’s failure to vote for the budget.
“This time it is the ones who claim freedom, transparency, conservatism, patriotism and liberty who are actually the most lacking in those traits,” the four lawmakers wrote. “These are operators of the Code of Washington, D.C. and not the Code of the West. Thank goodness we are much better than that in Wyoming.”
Sommers, the House speaker during the 2023 general session, said he’s committed to managing “all factions and all parties” in his role leading the lower chamber. He hasn’t decided whether to join the nascent Wyoming Caucus, but said he’d entertain the idea.
“I’ve never joined a caucus other than the House Republican Caucus,” Sommers said. The significance of the House Republican Caucus — a theoretical home for all 57 of the body’s Republicans — has dwindled. The caucus assembled only twice during the 8-week-long general session, Harshman said. Potentially, he said, the Wyoming Caucus will fill the void.
“I see that as the rebirth of the Republican Caucus,” Harshman said.
All Republicans interviewed for this story emphasized that Democrats will be on the outs with the new caucus. But even absent ideological overlap, the repeated 36-26 votes are telling that the 31 non-Freedom Caucus Republicans and five Democrats are willing to work together.
“I’m not in Cheyenne as a Democrat, I’m there as a representative,” Provenza said. “At the end of the day, I just want what’s best for Wyoming.”
Provenza pointed out she also works willingly with Freedom Caucus members, even if their rhetoric demonizes Democrats.
The Trump-inspired hardline approach to politicking and “true conservative” self-styled branding has been a winning approach to taking office in right-wing Wyoming. In the 2018, ‘20 and ‘22 elections, the Freedom Caucus’ ranks grew from 6 to 18 to 26 members. Moderate Republicans, however, may be staging a comeback, at least judging by the results of county GOP party elections.
“The ultra-right wing of the party that appears angry, I think their numbers and influence in the Wyoming House has crested already,” Stith said. “They’re on the way down, at this point. I look at the local county party election results in Uinta County, where the far-right was ousted.”
Still taking shape
Moderates are making a more concerted effort to get their own elected under the Wyoming Caucus banner, too.
On March 16, paperwork to form the Wyoming Caucus PAC was filed with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office. The chairman of the political action committee, Casper attorney Tim Stubson, is a former Republican member of the Wyoming House, and its treasurer, Rebekah Fitzgerald, is a Cheyenne-based communication consultant.
“Since the session you’ve had the Freedom Caucus members taking a pretty aggressive approach attacking Republican members of the Legislature for the work that they did,” Stubson said. “They’re obviously well organized, well funded, and their goal is clearly to take out ordinary Republicans. This is one effort to try to give members who aren’t affiliated with the Freedom Caucus the resources they need.”
The Wyoming Caucus PAC is on the “very front end” of fundraising and it’s still in the “formative stages,” Stubson said. The PAC and the broader caucus, he said, aren’t necessarily one of the same, but one is an extension of the other.
There’s not an employee or even a de facto leader of the Wyoming Caucus, nor a concrete plan for what it will look like, said Fitzgerald, who will help with communications as the bloc forms and builds.
“There’s really no face, at this point, of the caucus,” she said. “But I do think that’s coming, frankly.”
There are characteristics the still-opaque Wyoming Caucus will coalesce around, Fitzgerald said. Those include “making good law that is solutions-oriented,” she said, and “moving away from highly charged rhetoric” that’s influenced by forces outside of Wyoming.
Crago, who’s stayed involved since cracking the joke that spawned the name, made his own attempt at summarizing what the Wyoming Caucus is about.
“I just see it as people trying to work together for Wyoming,” he said. “We’re focused on Wyoming-centric issues.”
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.