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A record-low number of Democrats will run for Wyoming’s Legislature this year

Since 1998, the average number of Democrats seeking statehouse seats has been 37. This year there are just 16.

Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto at a party fundraiser in Wilson during the summer of 2019. (Wyoming Democratic Party/Facebook)

By Maggie Mullen

Wyoming will see more contested statehouse races this primary election than the last, but the number of Democratic legislative candidates who are participating has hit a 26-year low, an analysis of election data by WyoFile shows. 

Sixteen Democrats will run for the Legislature this year, according to the 2024 primary election candidate roster. That’s less than half of the 26-year average, and far below the high point of the last decade, when 62 Democrats ran in 2016. 

Meanwhile, the number of Republican candidates running for the statehouse has steadily climbed since 1998. 

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), the Legislature’s longest-serving Democrat, said a lot has changed since he was first elected in 2011. 

“The current political climate is such that it’s unwelcoming to engage in politics,” Rothfuss told WyoFile. “You have an awful lot of hatred and vitriol, more so than the past, and the campaigns are mean and destructive instead of constructive oftentimes.”

The rising cost of running for office in Wyoming is likely another culprit. 

Jen Solis, a political newcomer running for Cheyenne’s House District 41 as a Democrat, said she sees the low number of candidates as a natural extension of “Democrats being told over and over and over again that ‘You don’t belong here.’”

“I think we’re seeing folks saying, ‘What’s the point of giving up my summer to do all this for nothing?’ And I personally don’t think it’s for nothing. I think people deserve a choice,” Solis said. 

The number of candidates running this year mirrors a decline in the party’s statehouse representation, which took a hit in both the 2020 and 2022 elections, dwindling to Democratic representation at the statehouse to seven lawmakers from two counties. 

Wyoming will see more contested statehouse races this primary election than the last, but the number of Democratic legislative candidates has hit a 26-year low, according to an analysis of election data. Meanwhile, the number of Republican candidates has steadily grown since 1998. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Wyoming Democratic Party Chair Joe Barbuto said he’s hoping the party can move past several events in recent years that “made it more difficult in Wyoming to be a Democrat,” including the pandemic and the U.S. House race between Liz Cheney and Harriet Hageman. 

“We had a lot of people think that switching over to vote in the Republican primaries would be a productive tactic. And it really wasn’t. I mean, we can look at the outcome,” Barbuto said. “So that’s something that we have to rebuild from.” 

That tactic, which did not help Cheney save her seat, also put the Democrats at risk of losing their major party status. 

Neither of the Senate’s two Democrats are up for reelection — Rothfuss and Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson). Otherwise, the House’s five Democrats will all seek reelection, three of whom will face Republican challengers.

The 11 remaining Democratic candidates are either political newcomers or former lawmakers. 

Details

While this year is a certain kind of a low point, the high point wasn’t that long ago. In 2016, 62 Democrats ran for the Wyoming Legislature. 

“It was spectacular,” Rothfuss said. It wasn’t a coincidence either. 

“That was a deliberate effort by Aimee Van Cleave, who was the executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party at the time,” Rothfuss said. She tried to get a candidate to run “for every single seat and she came pretty close.”

Thanks to Van Cleave’s candidate recruitment efforts, Wyoming had one of the highest ratios of contested races in the country that year, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Ten Democrats were elected to the statehouse that year, but Rothfuss said the intention for some candidates wasn’t simply to try to win races.

Lots of Democrats ran to give voters choices and “to make sure that Democratic values were heard, and priorities were communicated,” Rothfuss said. 

That’s a much harder sell in today’s hostile political climate, he said.

“When you have a circumstance where there’s this much hostility in politics, it’s a pretty hard sell, to get someone to go into an election, where there’s a very, very high likelihood that they’re going to lose that election, just to communicate values,” Rothfuss said. 

Members of the Wyoming Democratic Party gathered at The Lyric in Casper on June 1, 2024 to hold its state convention. (Wyoming Democratic Party/Facebook)

Barbuto said while he would have liked for there to be more Democrats running for the Legislature, he’s “thrilled with the Democrats who are running for office at every level of government.”

“There’s some exceptional people with a variety of backgrounds that bring a lot of needed voices and experiences,” he said. 

While there’s no denying that running for office in Wyoming as a Democrat is a lot less appealing than it used to be, Barbuto said, he remains optimistic. 

“There’s really an incredible amount of work, mostly at that county level, going into building this party for the future,” he said. “When you look at our infrastructure, our party, the passion of our volunteers and dedication that we have to this work, despite all those odds, and what we’re up against, it’s pretty inspiring, actually.”

That was on full display earlier this month when Democrats gathered in Casper for their state convention. The party settled its platform and resolutions, and elected its delegation to represent the state at August’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but chose to schedule one of its bigger agenda items for a special convention early next year.  

“We’re gonna do a complete rewrite of our state party bylaws,” Barbuto said. Between now and December, a committee will meet to develop a draft that will be more reflective of the party’s embrace of technology, activist grassroots, and more progressive views on gender identity.

More to come?

In the meantime, Barbuto said he’s not ruling out the possibility that more Democrats make it onto the ballot for the general election thanks to the state’s provisions on write-in candidates. 

If a write-in candidate receives at least 25 votes in the primary election, state statute allows them to appear on the ballot in November. 

Such was the case with Jen Solis in 2022 with House District 41, which encompasses a section of north-central Cheyenne. 

“There was going to be an uncontested race on my ballot, and I don’t like that,” Solis said. “I never like going to vote and seeing there’s only one name there.”

On impulse, Solis said, she decided she’d run as a write-in and ended up with the requisite 25 votes. That gave her less than three months to campaign for the general election where she faced Rep. Bill Henderson (R-Cheyenne). 

Solis ultimately lost, but not by much — 221 votes. 

“I think what that campaign showed was that people do want choice, and I think that’s important across the state,” Solis said. “It’s something that we’re getting away from.”

Depending on who wins the Republican nomination in House District 41, Solis will face Henderson again, or Gary Brown for the first time.  

Solis said her 2022 campaign was a “super positive experience,” but said she’s also prepared to face whatever ugliness she encounters on the campaign trail. 

“We’ve let this sort of story take over, this narrative of, ‘We are the most conservative state.’ And sure, yeah, we are. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been Democratic leadership that shaped our way of life,” Solis said, pointing to Wyoming’s former Democratic congressmen, governors and lawmakers. 

“And we’re losing [sight of] that if we only let the debate be between the ultra-far right and the moderate right,” Solis said. “There has to be a conversation that includes all Wyomingites.”

The primary election is Aug. 20. Early voting for most residents starts July 23. 

Tennessee Watson contributed to this reporting.


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.


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