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Four Wyoming lawmakers announce their departure, opening door to far right

Exiting incumbents could boost the Wyoming Freedom Caucus’ aim to take a majority in the House.

Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) stands at the center of a rules committee huddle in the House of Representatives during the 2024 budget session. (Maggie Mullen/WyoFile)

by Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

With little more than a month to go before candidate filing periods officially open, battle lines are already taking shape in the competition for control of the Wyoming Legislature.

Four lawmakers aligned with the traditional wing of Wyoming’s Republican Party — a group known for its fiscal conservatism, pro-business policies, small-government local-control ethos and an embrace of pragmatism over ideological rigidity — have announced they won’t seek reelection.

The departures of Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn) and Sens. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) and Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) cede the political advantages afforded incumbents and create an opportunity for the up-and-coming Freedom Caucus and its allies — a faction that’s gained attention for its uncompromising approach to politics, absolutist anti-abortion and pro-gun stances, embrace of national political talking points around election fraud, vaccines and immigration — to shift the statehouse further right.

While the group of hard-line Republicans has yet to make a formal announcement, the Freedom Caucus is expected to run a slate of candidates, building on momentum of the last election in which the caucus made its biggest gains since officially forming in 2020. 

If the Freedom Caucus can net six additional seats to its current tally of 26 members and allies, it will gain a majority in the House, and control of the chamber.

Speaker Sommers

Sommers’s decision not to stand for another term in the House follows the long-standing tradition of Wyoming speakers stepping aside after holding the chamber’s top post. 

“I believe this is a good tradition because it ensures dynasties are not created, and power is not held by one individual too long,” Sommers wrote in a Facebook post Sunday night announcing he would not seek re-election. House District 20, which he has represented since 2013 encompasses all of Sublette County and a piece of northeastern Lincoln County. 

“I have served House District #20 for 12 years as your Representative in Cheyenne,” Sommers wrote. “I gained the respect of my colleagues and have had the privilege of being elected to legislative leadership as Majority Whip, Speaker Pro Tem, Majority Floor Leader, and Speaker of the House.”

Sommers’ ascendance to the top House position followed another tradition, wherein the majority floor leader — a position typically held by a senior lawmaker — is promoted in a caucus vote. 

That, however, wasn’t a given in 2022 as Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan), who’s associated with the Freedom Caucus, challenged Sommers for the speakership. It was Jennings’ second unsuccessful bid. 

Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) at the 2024 Wyoming Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

House leadership is typically reshuffled in even-numbered years as the chamber welcomes its latest class of lawmakers. Who holds the gavel next will almost certainly depend on which of the two Republican factions comes out on top in the 2024 election. 

Speaker of the House, and Senate President are powerful positions. Their holders can single-handedly squash bills. They determine the composition and leadership of the chambers’ committees. More generally, they set the tone for the day-to-day business of the legislative session.   

“It’s a difficult job,” Sommers told WyoFile on the last day of the 2024 session when asked if he had advice for the incoming speaker. 

“And you have to balance this toughness with compassion,” Sommers said. “And I think for the most part, I did that.”

As speaker, Sommers was a frequent target of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus and the DC-based State Freedom Caucus Network. So much so that Sommers, and the legislative affairs of the least populated state, regularly cropped up on Fox News and other major conservative news outlets in the last two years. 

That pressure, however, did little to phase the Green River Basin rancher.  

“My philosophy is if somebody runs over me, I’m gonna have my teeth in the tire,” Sommers told WyoFile in March. 

“In this job, you’ve got to have compassion for the whole body. And you’ve got to try to treat people fairly, but you’ve also got to be firm. You’ve got to remain who you are. That, I’m sure I have.” 

Sommers endorsed Cat Urbigkit, a Boulder rancher and writer, in his Facebook post. Urbigkit will run for the Republican nomination against Mike Schmid, a La Barge oilman aligned with the Freedom Caucus who lost to Sommers in the last election by 720 votes

Bill Winney, a perennial candidate and former nuclear submarine commander, told WyoFile he hasn’t decided whether to run for House District 20 or Senate District 14. The latter is being vacated by Sen. Baldwin, who announced in February he would not seek reelection. 

Sommers is also eyeing Baldwin’s old seat and said he’ll decide in the coming weeks. It’s not unusual for a lawmaker to run for the Senate after exiting the House. 

Other departures 

“It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve my district and the people of Wyoming,” Baldwin wrote in a Feb. 28 press release. 

“There are not many opportunities to work so closely with the people of your community and make such an impact together,” he wrote. “I am grateful for and proud of the important work we have accomplished here in the Wyoming Legislature.”

Baldwin, a physician assistant, served one term in the House before running for the Senate in 2017. He proved to be an effective lawmaker in the upper chamber — all but one of the 10 bills he championed as lead sponsor during his most recent term made it into law. He focused on health care issues and chaired both the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee and the Mental Health and Vulnerable Adult Task Force. 

Baldwin joined the Senate the same year as Sen. Ellis, an attorney, who will also be leaving the upper chamber. 

Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) sits at his desk in the Senate during the 2024 legislative session. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile)

Ellis, who recently spoke to WyoFile about Indigenous political representation, was effective in her own right, leading the Select Committee on Tribal Affairs to begin introducing legislation in 2020. Nine out of 10 of the committee’s bills have become law. 

After serving as one of the youngest members of the House, Rep. Western announced he would not seek reelection for House District 51. In his four years in office, Western rose to House Majority Whip and chaired the Select Committee on Blockchain, Financial Technology and Digital Innovation Technology. 

“I will definitely be back,” Western told WyoFile in March. “But just kind of have to sit off for a little while and focus on starting a family.”

Other candidates 

Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), an attorney aligned with traditional Republicans, announced in March he will run for Ellis’ seat instead of House District 11. 

Seth Ulvestad, a Republican newcomer and analyst for the Department of Enterprise Services, will throw his hat in the ring for Olsen’s seat. 

Other newcomers include Ivan Posey and Chris Dresang, both of whom will challenge sitting Freedom Caucus members on the Wind River Indian Reservation and Casper, respectively. 

There are also at least two former lawmakers who will attempt a comeback after losing or leaving their seats in 2022. Former Rep. J.D. Williams will challenge Rep. Allen Slagle (R-Newcastle) for House District 2, while former Rep. Bob Wharff will try to oust Rep. Ryan Berger (R-Evanston) for House District 49. 

Wharff was previously affiliated with the Freedom Caucus while Slagle is a current member.  

WyoFile reported on Freedom Caucus aligned candidates who announced their bids earlier this year. 

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.