By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
A longtime progressive activist backed Independent Republicans of Wyoming, a group that stirred controversy by encouraging Democrats and independents to switch parties and vote for Mark Gordon in the primary election.
In response to inquiries from WyoFile, Jackson resident Liz Storer said she and others had funded the group to increase moderate voter turnout and would report its contributors and expenditures later this month as required by the Wyoming Secretary of State.
The group weighed in to the election anonymously, with a website and Facebook group credited to a newly created 501(c)4 limited liability corporation. The LLC was created on Aug. 15 — six days before primary polls closed — and listed a company dedicated to registering LLCs as its agent, according to their filing with the Secretary of State. The LLC tactic is similar to those used by groups who attacked Gordon’s conservative credentials with mailed fliers.
Many conservative Republicans are calling foul. Longtime Laramie County Republican party activist and failed county commission candidate in this primary Moses Hasenauer called it a threat to “liberty” on social media. “The biggest threat and issue to our freedom and liberty is not good candidates running in elections it’s democrats meddling in our Republican primary,” Hasenauer wrote on his Facebook page.
Cody rancher and venture capitalist Paul Klingenstein was one supporter of the group. (Storer and Klingenstein are both financial supporters of WyoFile, as is the George B. Storer Foundation, which Storer leads as President and CEO.)
Klingenstein donated $25,000 to IRW to drive voter turnout by moderates of all affiliations, he said. Transparency was a condition of his support, he said. Klingenstein, who describes himself as a political independent who voted Republican this year, supported Gordon with a $2,500 donation, the maximum allowed for a direct campaign contribution. He made the donation after GOP gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess began to surge in polls, he said.
At that time as well he responded to a fundraising call from Storer. According to emails reviewed by WyoFile, Storer called on donors to support the effort while sharing a poll that showed Friess outstripping Gordon. Storer estimated she needed $100,000 to $150,000 for the effort, she said in the email.
“They were very sophisticated about how they intended to do it,” Klingenstein said of IRW. “They thought there was a large body of people, moderates, that would prefer Mark’s candidacy to Foster’s.”
IRW used its website, a social media push and phone calls to try and mobilize Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans, specifically those who hadn’t voted in some previous primaries.
Contrary to some reports, the group did not use robocalls, it said in a statement.
“The Independent Republicans of Wyoming is one of many groups that participated in the election by encouraging Wyoming residents of all parties to vote through social media, calls and texting,” according to an IRW statement emailed to WyoFile by Bruce Palmer, a Lander resident affiliated with other progressive Wyoming groups. “Unlike other efforts though, the IRW followed the law,” the statement said. “As a 501(c)(4) registered with the State of Wyoming, the IRW will be filing the required independent expenditure form when it is due. Everything that was done by the IRW was in full view and properly attributed. The IRW did not employ robocalls as their efficacy is low.”
The group’s website was no longer working as of Friday afternoon, and the Facebook group also appears to have been removed.
Unlike some other groups that were operating this primary season, IRW registered with the state, which makes a big difference for accountability, said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). The chairman of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions issued a press release in August decrying “dark money” in the elections and promising to seek statute changes in the coming legislative session.
“I knew they were subject to our laws,” and would have to file an independent expenditure report, Zwonitzer said of IRW. “From what I remember of their advertising they specifically said they were a Wyoming registered corporation so immediately I knew that if they did anything out of bounds I knew we could go after them and serve process [or dissolve them],” he said. “You can talk about whether it’s ethical or moral but it’s certainly legal.”
In an email to WyoFile, the Gordon campaign decried anonymous spending on elections generally and said it had no knowledge of IRW or of any other outside group. It called for transparency from groups on all sides.
“Mark and Jennie [Gordon] were committed to a clean campaign from start to finish,” campaign spokeswoman Kristin Walker said. “Any efforts made by outside groups were not part of our campaign or acknowledged or condoned in any way. We feel strongly that the people of Wyoming deserve to know who is behind the efforts of the many outside groups who worked to influence this election.”
Gordon ran on the issues, she said.
“From the very beginning, the Gordon for Governor campaign has been focused on sharing our message of limited government, helping the private sector flourish and providing quality education for citizens of all ages,” she wrote. “Mark Gordon worked day-in and day-out to earn the votes of Wyoming people who share those values.”
At this point, it’s unclear how many people the effort may have reached. Storer and Klingenstein both said they did not have any clear data on the group’s success.
It’s also unclear whether sufficient voters switched to make a difference in the election, though limited reports from some county election clerks provide anecdotal evidence of large numbers of switches. In Albany County, the most pronounced example yet available, elections clerk Jackie Gonzales estimated 2,000-3,000 voters may have registered as Republicans on primary day, according to a report in the Laramie Boomerang. She later told WyoFile that number was high, and said it could be closer to 1,000 to 1,500 voters. Like clerks around the state, Gonzales is still compiling official numbers, she said. Reports on party registration are due monthly under state statute, and so official numbers may not become clear until late September.
Clerks in Natrona and Teton counties told Wyoming Public Media they had also seen an uptick in voters newly registering as Republican or switching to the party this year, though they did not cite numbers nearly as high as those in Albany County. In Albany County, much of the switch may be attributable to the campaign of folksy hometown hero Rod Miller, who challenged U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney.
Gordon defeated Friess, his closest competitor, by 9,098 votes, according to unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s office.
According to those results, 19,469 Democrats voted in yesterday’s Democratic primary — 5,252 fewer than the 24,721 who voted in the last major Democratic primary for a gubernatorial race, in 2010. All other things being equal one might estimate that 5,252 Democrats switched to the Republican primary this year.
But all things were not equal this year. The Democratic primary was largely considered uncompetitive this year, while in 2010 it saw a close race between two gubernatorial candidates. On the other hand, Democrats and political centrists are increasingly motivated by the Trump presidency.
More definitive is the fact that voter turnout itself was up. Overall, turnout was the highest it’s ever been in a primary election, said Will Dinneen, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office. But if measured against the eligible voting-age population, the turnout was one point lower than in 2010, Dineen said. It’s likely that as many independents voters switched to Republican as Democrats, Zwonitzer said.
Since the election, some conservatives have decried party switching as an effort to rob the election, most notably Foster Friess, who emailed the chairman of the Wyoming GOP and his fellow primary losers to suggest a change to state statute the morning following the election.
In an email to his campaign supporters the same day, he wrote: “Take heart! It took thousands of liberals who switched to vote in our primary to defeat our message of opportunity. Without their mischief, the outcome would have been different.”
Klingenstein disagreed. “It’s not really knowable,” what impact the IRW group had, he said. “The voting numbers overall were up and that’s good and important.” Party registration rules vary from state to state, Klingenstein said, and everything the group did was within existing rules. Friess, too, encouraged new voters to join the Republican party on primary day — a message on his campaign webpage reminded supporters they could register at their polling place on election day.
IRW’s effort was organized and targeted, but organic efforts to urge Democrats and independents to vote in the Republican primary existed as well, with people suggesting the switch on social media, according to various political observers WyoFile has spoken with. In some ways the practice is part of Wyoming’s voter tradition, supporters of open primaries said.
“This practice properly allows people to make their voice heard and has been a voter tradition in states like Wyoming where a single party dominates,” IRW’s statement read. “The Republican primary was fierce and messy, while there was very little for voters to decide on the Democratic Party ballot.”
Klingenstein said he did not know if the group would continue to operate in Wyoming politics, but that he hoped it would continue to provide a voice for political moderates in the state.
In its statement, IRW said it would advocate against statute changes like those suggested by Friess in his email to his fellow primary losers. “IRW will oppose efforts to disenfranchise voters and make it more difficult for the people’s preferences to be expressed, regardless of party,” it said.
The group may have to. By focusing a media campaign on a longtime Wyoming tradition, IRW’s actions are likely to feed calls for a legislative debate over primary voting laws Zwonitzer said. “This is the first election I’ve seen with so blatant a call to arms,” he said. In the past, “people have kind of whispered to their friends ‘Hey you should do this.’”
“This is the first time I’ve seen it so public, which means I’m almost certain some of my Republican colleagues [in the Legislature] will be trying to bring a bill,” he said.
Lawmakers last tried to put stricter requirements for party registration in place in 2017.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.