WYOMING -- The 2020 elections weren’t fruitful for Wyoming Democrats.
Republican candidates dominated the returns in districts across the state, swallowing opposition candidates in statehouse races Democratic leadership believed to be competitive.
Historically blue districts in Sweetwater County flipped to the GOP for the first time in a generation. A Cheyenne seat occupied by LGBTQ activist Sara Burlingame fell to Republicans for the first time in decades. A trending-blue House district in Lander held by Republican Lloyd Larsen was easily retained by the longtime representative.
The party saw some gains on election night 2020. A majority of Albany County voters cast ballots for Joe Biden, and Trey Sherwood successfully flipped the once-red House District 14. Down-ballot Democrats won 48 of the 85 races they competed in around the states, and Republicans spent more money to keep their seats than they ever have, according to campaign finance data.
Top-line numbers, however, seemed to indicate an already outnumbered party in further decline. With a midterm election on the horizon in 2022, Democrats are looking to change that. The state party is approaching next year’s elections with renewed energy, Chairman Joe Barbuto told party leaders at its summer state central committee meeting in Saratoga last week.
“We certainly see a lot of pickup opportunities in Albany County, Laramie County, Fremont County and Sweetwater County, winning some of those seats back,” Barbuto said in an interview. “But really, we will compete anywhere and everywhere.”
Wyoming Democrats’ will approach the 2022 campaigns in much the same way they have since Barbuto took the reins in early 2017, Barbuto said.
Though newly seated Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison has urged state and county parties to run candidates for every seat possible, the brunt of the Wyoming Democratic Party’s resources, Barbuto said, should be focused on recruiting a handful of strong candidates in districts where Democrats are mathematically competitive. In less-competitive counties, Barbuto stressed focusing on building a bench of candidates for later and community engagement through increased turnout or filling every available party precinct seat.
“In a lot of places, we know that it’s like pushing water uphill,” Barbuto told committee members. “…If your only goal in the election is to win — and yes, that’s the ultimate goal — but if that’s your only goal, then there’s a good chance on election night of disappointment.”
The party anticipates entering the 2022 election cycle better funded than past years.
Fundraising has improved for candidates and the party alike — the WDP reported $365,000 in total contributions in 2020, according to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office. The Democratic National Committee has also pledged an additional $60,000 per year to red-state Democratic Party committees this cycle as part of its “50-state strategy,” bringing the party’s total monthly income from the DNC to $15,000 per month. That money comes without strings attached, Barbuto said.
From a messaging standpoint, the party’s success next year nationally will depend largely on its ability to avoid polarizing issues advanced by Democrats in more urban districts, party leaders acknowledged. According to polling data, Wyoming, whose voters supported Trump more than any other state, will likely require different tactics than those employed in more urban districts.
While President Joe Biden’s agenda remains widely popular, according to most national polls, even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – the campaign arm of the DNC – has acknowledged Democrats face an uphill battle in down-ballot races without a messaging reboot. In recent months, Barbuto said the DNC has begun to involve members of rural, red states in a greater capacity than they once did.
“I’ve definitely seen an improvement in the DNC in the time I’ve been there,” Barbuto told committee members last week. Heading into 2022, the party will largely tailor its message to be unique to Wyoming voters, according to Barbuto and WDP Communications Director Nina Hebert.
While some aspects of national messaging will be incorporated, Hebert said, the Wyoming Democrats’ communications platform will likely focus primarily on bipartisan policies that can expand the party’s appeal to more conservative voters. Key tenets of that plan include old standbys like the conservation of public lands, working class measures like Medicaid expansion and economic diversification, and the argument that Republicans have failed to pursue policies that benefit Wyoming’s middle class.
“There are certainly going to be people who are not pleased with some of the messaging from the national party,” Barbuto said. “And that’s OK. They probably weren’t going to vote for Democrats anyhow, right? But we can have our own messaging that really focuses on people, and what their needs actually are in Wyoming right now, because there are a lot of people being left behind.”
Democrats expect to face other challenges as well.
Redistricting will take place in 2022, in which the lines of Wyoming’s legislative districts are redrawn to reflect changes in population and demographics over the last decade.
The Wyoming Republican Party is expected to pursue its own redistricting plan in the Wyoming Legislature ahead of next winter’s session in an effort to redraw the lines in its favor. Democrats are expected to launch their own counter effort.
Though the redistricting committee is primarily comprised of senior lawmakers who are less susceptible to party pressure, committee chair Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said he anticipates a number of challenges from hardline conservatives and newer lawmakers elected during the conservative populist wave of 2020.
“They will follow the party,” Zwonitzer wrote in a text message. “I think the majority of the redistricting committee believes partisanship should not come into play when drawing communities of interest.”
Democrats could benefit from prolonged infighting within the Republican Party, which has sought to purify its ranks of those it deems to be Republicans in name only, or “RINOs.” Rep. John Romero-Martinez (R-Cheyenne), for example, expects to receive a primary challenge for supporting medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion, despite his support of conservative policies like school choice and abortion restrictions, he told WyoFile.
And in Sweetwater County, Democratic chairwoman Meghan Jensen said Republicans in local office have begun to show an openness to tax increases that have long been anathema to conservatives, a sign that the conservative base is shifting away from the state’s anti-tax, far-right.
Should moderate Republicans lose primaries, Barbuto said, he hopes to present a contrasting message in head-to-head races that will benefit Democrats.“They’ll continue to scare people,” he said of the Republican party’s messaging, “and we’ll continue to try and inspire hope.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.