Wyoming voters historically embrace incumbent governors: The last six to seek second terms won reelection. Gov. Mark Gordon intends to carry on that tradition.
But Gordon, who is facing a crowded field of challengers, is emerging from a turbulent first term in which a global pandemic and fiscal crisis rocked the state and former President Donald Trump’s wing of the Republican party solidified control of the Wyoming GOP and dominated statewide civic discourse.
His Republican challengers say Gordon has failed to rise to the occasion. Those naysayers include military veteran and political newcomer Brent Bien of Sheridan, perennial candidate Rex Rammell of Rock Springs and business owner James Quick of Douglas.
Gordon’s 2018 victory triggered an uproar among party insiders who questioned his conservative bona fides and credited his victory to Democratic support and a split of the party’s right wing by other candidates. Several legislative attempts to prohibit crossover voting, and to instill a primary election runoff system followed. To some degree, however, Gordon has of late avoided much of the anti-RINO (Republican in name only) vitriol directed at Wyoming’s U.S. Representative Liz Cheney.
If Gordon is able to secure the nomination in August, he’ll face one of two Democratic challengers — Theresa Livingston of Worland or Rex Wilde of Cheyenne — in November for Wyoming’s highest state office.
As head of Wyoming’s executive branch, the governor oversees dozens of agencies like the Departments of Health, Transportation, Corrections, Revenue, Tourism, State Parks, Family Services and Game and Fish — and their roughly 15,000 employees. He is commander-in-chief of the state’s national guard and is responsible for presenting a state budget to the Legislature. While the governor does not have the power to create law, he or she does have veto power, and the ability to direct state policy through executive orders and agency regulations. Additionally, it is up to the governor to appoint several state officers and the membership of numerous powerful boards and commissions.
Along with the other top four state elected officials, the governor also sits on the State Board of Land Commissioners and State Loan and Investment Board.
Here’s a look at the field of contenders.
A civil engineer and a retired marine colonel, Brent Bien has never run for office before. He chose to do so because he felt there was a “lack of leadership” in Wyoming.
“I wasn’t happy at all with the way COVID was handled,” he said, adding that he would not have signed any public health orders — as Gordon did — in response to the pandemic.
Gordon put a mask mandate in place in December 2020, long after many other governors had enacted similar mandates. In March 2021, he removed the requirement and lifted all restrictions on bars, restaurants, theaters and gyms and stressed “personal responsibility” to residents. The four-month period went too far, according to Bien.
“We need to regain the trust of the citizenry, because right now the folks across the state don’t trust Cheyenne,” Bien said.
Bien is also concerned about the state’s suicide rate, which is the highest in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Its prevalence among younger people, according to Bien, stems from what happens in the classroom.
“This is one reason why I want to get rid of CRT (critical race theory), DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and social emotional learning, and any curricula that pits our kids against each other because of race,” Bien said.
Though lawmakers have made several attempts to prohibit the teachings of such topics in Wyoming, none have reached the governor’s desk.
Bien is in favor of expanding statewide resources for suicide prevention, but he also pointed back to the classroom.
“ I do think it’s a matter of building up our young people in a much more positive, much more pro-American atmosphere than what we have right now,” Bien said.
Bien’s vision for Wyoming’s economic future begins with changing how the state budgets and spends its money. For Bien, that means adopting cash-based budgeting. Lawmakers attempted such a transition with a 2022 bill, but it failed in the Senate. Additionally, Bien supports moving state government to “a performance-based budgeting model,” where departments and agencies must meet certain goals to receive further funding.
The first thing oilfield business owner James Quick would do in office is remove the reservation system for camping in Wyoming state parks, he said.
“I want to go back to the first come, first served,” Quick said. To help out-of-state travelers plan their visit, Quick said he would keep some spots on the reservation system. But state parks are anticipating another big visitation year, and Quick said it’s not right for locals to have to compete with an online reservation system.
“Then I want to get to work on the coal-fired electric plants,” Quick said. “I really want to keep those open.”
Lawmakers recently adopted a bill to reduce severance tax on coal, amounting to an estimated annual state revenue loss of $10 million.
Quick said he supports such measures to sustain fossil fuel extraction in the state, so long as they are applied across the board.
“If they want to give tax breaks to one energy, they should do it to all of them,” Quick said. Like Bien, Quick is not in favor of the Natrium nuclear power project in Kemmerer.
As governor, Quick said he would also prioritize recruiting and retaining state workers and would support pay increases.
“When I was growing up [in Douglas], state jobs were coveted jobs,” he said. “People got those and they held onto them, and they had some pride in the work. We’ve lost that. We need to get back to that.”
Between 2010 and 2021, turnover rates at nearly half of Wyoming’s executive branch agencies doubled. An August 2021 state employee survey found that 39% of respondents worked second jobs to make ends meet, while 3% relied on some sort of public assistance, such as SNAP.
Gordon successfully lobbied the Legislature this spring for state worker pay raises. He also signed a law to boost salaries for the five statewide elected officials, which will take effect in 2023. The last increase for those positions was in 2002, but Quick said it was still inappropriate.
“That’s not fair,” Quick said.
Rammell, a veterinarian, has run for office unsuccessfully several times. He ran as a Constitutional candidate in Wyoming’s 2018 gubernatorial race, coming in third in the general election with about 3% of the vote. In 2020 he ran for the Wyoming Senate and was accused of lying about his residency to qualify for the Republican primary race.
Rammell’s platform largely rests on the state taking over the nearly 30 million acres of federal lands in Wyoming.
“I will sign that executive order on day one, and I’ll order the state police to walk these [federal land managers] out of their offices, voluntarily or involuntarily, and Wyoming will take control,” Rammell said.
While Rammell said he does not intend for it to be a hostile takeover — “I don’t believe that one shot would be fired” — his vision is “reminiscent of the Revolutionary War of 1776.”
This approach to the federal government is what sets him apart from the sitting governor, Rammell said. It would also solve “most of our problems, if not all of them,” according to Rammell, including the state’s fiscal troubles since he sees it as a way to divert money and jobs to the state.
Like Gordon, Rammell opposes the BLM’s recent purchase of the Marton Ranch. Through a voluntary sale, the federal agency purchased the 35,670-acre ranch on the North Platte River in Natrona and Carbon counties. Shortly after, Gordon announced he would challenge the purchase on the grounds that state, local governments and public input were not properly solicited.
Rammell opposes it for the simple fact that he is against the federal government having any land holdings in Wyoming, he said.
There’s another distinction Rammell makes between himself and Gordon.
“I don’t believe in climate change,” Rammell said. “I just don’t believe that carbon dioxide is going to destroy the planet.”
Democratic candidate Theresa Livingston retired from the Bureau of Land Management in 2016. She served nine years in the military before joining the BLM. In 2020, she ran against Sen. Edward Cooper (R-Ten Sleep) for Senate District 20, but lost with about 14% of the vote.
Livingston would make Medicaid expansion her No. 1 priority as governor.
“I want everybody to have health coverage because a healthy Wyoming is going to be a great Wyoming,” she said.
The issue has become more critical, Livingston said, as abortion is soon-to-be banned in Wyoming and two labor and delivery units have closed in the state within the past year. Livingston would be in favor of subsidizing hospitals for the cost of childbirth to keep the remaining birthing units open.
Livingston is also worried about the mental health impacts of the abortion ban and “how many women are going to be driven to suicide because they can’t find a solution that they need,” she said. That’s one reason why Livingston would be in favor of expanding statewide resources for suicide prevention in Wyoming.
Her vision for Wyoming’s economic future involves moving beyond fossil fuels, and she said an income tax for higher incomes may become necessary. She’s also optimistic about Terrapower’s Natrium nuclear project in Kemmerer. She’d be in favor of applying Wyoming’s Industrial Siting Act to the project, which has been used to redirect or fast-track sales and use taxes to communities that need help managing an influx of workers for large industrial facilities.
“I always believe whatever money you put into a community you usually end up getting out a whole bunch more [back],” she said.
Livingston’s primary opponent, Rex Wilde, has run for office several times before, including the governor’s race in 2018. He came in fourth in the primary election. Wilde did not respond to several interview requests by WyoFile.
Gov. Mark Gordon
Before becoming governor, Gordon owned and operated a ranch outside of Buffalo and served as state treasurer from 2012 to 2019. He is the only candidate in the race with experience in elected office.
Wyoming has started the process of diversifying its economy, Gordon said, and he considers that an accomplishment of his first term. He’s seeking a second term to continue that process, he said.
“Climate change is not going to be solved simply by saying we can’t generate coal fired electricity anymore. We know it takes more of an effort and that if we can build better technology that’s good for all of us,” Gordon said in reference to carbon sequestration, renewable energy and the nuclear project in Kemmerer.
Gordon would also like to see the Wyoming Innovation Partnership through a second term, he said. With the use of ARPA funds, the partnership was created in 2021 at Gordon’s request to expand the state’s workforce and economy.
“It’s just taking its initial steps right now. I think that will be a very key component to attracting new business and keeping businesses here,” Gordon said.
In that same vein, he aims to continue the work of his Health Task Force with the Wyoming Department of Health, which has focused on improving emergency medical services.
In response to criticisms he’s received for his pandemic response, Gordon stands by his decisions. Wyoming, he said, was one of the most open states while it “balanced lives and livelihoods.
“I hear this a lot as I go around [Wyoming], ‘you found the balance, you made it work,” he said. “And the way we dealt with it, I think was right for Wyoming.’”
Absentee voting for the primary election began July 1. Primary election day is Aug. 16. The general election is Tuesday Nov. 8.