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Battle of Republican factions moving to the ballot box

The candidate filing period won’t officially open until mid-May but that hasn’t stopped a slate of Republican newcomers from announcing their legislative bids.

The Wyoming Senate during the 2023 general session of the 67th Legislature. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

by Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

The dust has yet to settle from Wyoming’s 2024 legislative session, but a slate of Republican challengers have already announced their statehouse campaigns. 

All 62 members in the House of Representatives and about half of the Senate are up for reelection this fall. The vast majority of contested races will be characterized by the bruising battle between the two factions of the Republican party. 

The split is largely defined by a disagreement over what it means to have conservative bona fides. It’s seen most clearly in the House, where the hard-line Freedom Caucus grew its ranks in the last election before securing a powerful leadership role. In response, traditional Republicans formed the Wyoming Caucus

While the Senate is also divided — many votes in the upper chamber this session differed by just two or three members, including the budget bill — the upper chamber lacks a cohesive voting bloc and is much less organized. 

The 2024 election could shift the balance of power in either chamber. 

The candidate filing period officially opens May 16. But many political hopefuls aren’t waiting for that deadline to declare their candidacy.

Details 

Four of the early bidders will challenge House incumbents who are members of the Wyoming Caucus. 

Kathy Russell announced a run against Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) in House District 7. Russell has worked as the executive director of the Wyoming Republican Party since 2018 — a tenure that coincides with the rise of GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne, deep divisions and Republican dominance across the state. She has degrees in biology, secondary education and ecology, according to the GOP’s website

Nicholas, an attorney, co-chairs the Joint Appropriations Committee and played a critical role in budget negotiations this session. He’s served in the Legislature since 2011. 

Also in Laramie County, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) will face Ann Lucas in the race for House District 43. Lucas, a GOP central committee member, is a retired executive vice president of a credit union, according to her website.

Zwonitzer, a frequent target of Wyoming’s far right, has served in the Legislature since 2005. He teaches at Laramie County Community College. 

Early primary election voters wait in line to cast their ballot on Aug. 15, 2022 in Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In the Northeast corner of the state, Mark Jones will challenge Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) for House District 40. 

Jones is a familiar face at the Capitol thanks to his lobbying on behalf of  Gun Owners of America. Before taking a job with the organization in June 2021, according to his LinkedIn, Jones worked for almost 27 years for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.  

Crago, an attorney, was the target of anonymous mailers last fall that cast him as liberal while also misrepresenting his voting record as well as Wyoming’s tax burden and supplemental budget. Similar mailers targeted Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper).

Ultimately, Secretary of State Chuck Gray — whom Harshman insulted in a hot mic incident in 2021 — decided the mailers were legal partly due to the timing falling so far ahead of the election. Shortly after his decision, anonymous mailers targeted Gray for his agency’s budget request and his father’s financial contributions to his campaign. 

One candidate vying for House District 51 was also involved in a separate incident with anonymous mailers in 2022. 

Laurie Bratten was one of four people accused of “trying to tear our state apart” in anonymous mailers sent to Sheridan and Johnson County residents. 

Bratten was not seeking public office at the time. A Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office investigation determined that Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn) was in part responsible for the leaflets. 

Western announced on Tuesday that he would not be seeking reelection, according to The Sheridan Press.

Bratten runs an agricultural operation in the Big Goose Valley and has been involved in Wyoming politics for over a decade, according to a press release. Previously, she worked in Colorado as a legislative aide and political advisor, according to Ballotpedia. 

Western, who works in commercial real estate, has served in the Legislature since 2019. 

Tom Olmstead is one of the only candidates to announce a Senate bid. 

Olmstead, a self-described “political refugee” from Colorado, is challenging Sen. Ed Cooper (R-Ten Sleep) for Senate District 20. Cooper, an oil and gas consultant, has served in the Legislature since 2021. 

Ahead of the session, Gregg Smith, a retired Army veteran, announced he would challenge Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) for Senate District 4. 

Nethercott, an attorney, has served in the Legislature since 2017. 


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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