Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Wyofile by Mike Koshmrl

ROCK SPRINGS—Michele Irwin’s first tactic was to wax poetic about the holiday pie kit she was auctioning to raise cash for what’s left of the Sweetwater County Democratic Party. 

Irwin, a bison rancher who also works for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, extolled the dessert’s Buffalo Trace Kentucky bourbon topping and pitched its natural fit with any Christmas dinner. But when the 15 or so Democrats milling about a corner of Bitter Creek Brewing failed to bid big bucks, she cut to the chase. 

“Come on, these are desserts that are raising money for our desperate Democrats,” Irwin hollered. 

The direct approach worked. Cathy Delman, a former state committeewoman, walked away from the brewpub down $130 but up one custard pie kit. 

Former Wyoming House candidate Michele Irwin, left, converses with Sweetwater County Democratic Party Chair Meghan Jensen at the party’s 2022 Christmas gathering. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Irwin’s dessert-slinging exuberance brought a little pep to the step of what was otherwise a pretty discouraged group of Democrats. Rock Springs and surrounding communities, with their rail lines and mines, have deep labor union roots — a history that helped make southwest Wyoming a party stronghold for generations. Not so long ago their Christmas party was so popular that organizers capped attendance. This year the party’s chairperson, Meghan Jensen, hesitated to even hold a Christmas party, she said.

“The most excitement we’ll have tonight is auctioning off the rum balls,” said Traci Watkins, whose mother once chaired the Sweetwater Dems. “I’m kind of happy my mom isn’t alive to see where the politics have gone.” 

There’s essentially nothing left of the Democrats in southwest Wyoming. In the 2020, two of the minority party’s incumbents were voted out: 14-year-veteran lawmaker Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River) and Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D-Rock Springs). This year’s election took care of what was left. First-term lawmaker Rep. Chad Banks (D-Rock Springs), whose day job is to lead renewal of the Rock Springs downtown area, was clobbered by Rep. J.T. Larson

“All the experience [Chad Banks] had, all the knowledge, all the education, and he was beaten by a 21 year old who does not even have an associate’s degree,” longtime Sweetwater County Democrat Mike Martin said. “The only thing [Larson] had was an R beside his name.” 

The political bloodshed didn’t stop at the Capitol steps. 

“The coroner’s a Democrat,” Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto said. “That’s it.” 

Of Banks’ loss, Barbuto said there was “nothing we could have done to overcome that D on the end of his name.”

“That’s the problem we now face,” he said.

Barbuto, Sweetwater County’s elected treasurer, knows from experience. He just lost his job, and it wasn’t even close. The former state representative and fifth-generation southwest Wyoming native was trounced by Republican challenger and now treasurer-elect, Mark Cowan. Barbuto won fewer than half as many votes as Cowan, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or investment. 

“All in all, between the primary and the general, [I spent] 15 grand,” Barbuto said. 

Building on up

Similar big spending, little return dynamics are playing out statewide for the Wyoming Democratic Party. 

Under Barbuto, the party has expanded its infrastructure considerably. The Democratic National Committee has supported the state party both through its rural council and red state fund, the latter of which has provided $15,000 a month, according to Barbuto. Overall, the Wyoming Democratic Party now spends $300,000 to $400,000 annually and employs a staff of six

That means the Wyoming Democratic Party, as a professional statewide organization, is considerably larger than the financially strapped Wyoming Republican Party, which only supports a single full-time employee. 

“If we don’t have an organization,” Barbuto said, “we’re going to do a lot worse than we have, right?” 

Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe Barbuto, right, and the party’s communications director, David Martin, converse at the Sweetwater County Democratic Party’s 2022 Christmas gathering. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

But there’s not much room to do worse. 

Judging by the results of two races for federal office — Democrat Lynnette Grey Bull’s 2022 tilt against incoming U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman and former president Donald Trump’s 2020 race against President Joe Biden — more than a third of Wyoming residents lean Democratic. Going by voter registration numbers from well ahead of the 2022 election (before Democrats might have changed parties to vote in the Republican primary) there were nearly 46,000 registered Democrats statewide, not quite a quarter of what Republicans count on their rolls.

Yet, only two of the state’s 23 counties — Albany and Teton — have any Democratic representation in the Wyoming Legislature. 

Republicans’ supermajority in the state capitol now pencils out to 92% of the body, with 86 senators and representatives to the Democrats’ seven. The Democrats attempted to make inroads this election cycle by competing for 17 seats previously held by Republicans. They failed, losing every single one of those races. The Democrats, whose thinning numbers are exacerbated by crossover voting, are even at risk of losing their major party status.

“The Democrats are probably right at the rock bottom right now,” said Martin, whose son, Nate, runs the progressive advocacy group, Better Wyoming. “I don’t see anything coming up.” 

The Green River Union Pacific Depot in the winter of 2019. The railroad town was long friendly ground for Wyoming Democrats. People familiar with the region’s politics say change began when an oil boom in the early aughts brought in blue-collar workers who didn’t identify with Sweetwater County’s union-centric, democratic leaning politics. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Some call Frank Prevedel, a 90-year-old former 14-year veteran of the Wyoming Senate, the “Godfather of Sweetwater County Democrats.” Prior to the 1940s Sweetwater County was dominated by Republicans, he said, but then a sustained period of Democratic Party-aligned union influence tilted power.  

“Democrats now are in the same fix that the Republicans were the whole time I was active, and that was for a long time,” Prevedel said. “And that is, you might be a closet Republican. If you ran for office, you wouldn’t be elected if you weren’t a Democrat.”

Prevedel perceives two turning points that hastened his party’s Sweetwater County decline. One was the Legislature’s passage of a right-to-work statute, a 1960s law that dates to Clifford Hansen’s governorship that established no one had to be a labor union member to keep their job. Second, the Democratic Party began to espouse policies nationally that were unpalatable in southwest Wyoming, especially gun control and those intended to reduce fossil fuel consumption to combat climate change.

“This county has always existed on fossil fuels,” Prevedel said. “A lot of young people that came through here saw that their livelihood depended on fossil fuels.” 

Image problem 

Martin, meanwhile, recalls that Democrats’ decline was slow, then “hit a steep slope” in the 2000s. 

“You couldn’t sell Hillary [Clinton] here at all,” he said. “Then it was even worse with [Barack] Obama, just being one of the most redneck, proudly racist states in the union.” 

Mike Martin at the Sweetwater County Democratic Party’s 2022 Christmas gathering in Rock Springs. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Sweetwater County officially tilted red, with the majority of elected officials being Republican, during the Obama administration, Barbuto said.

In Wyoming’s modern-day Democratic strongholds of Teton and Albany counties, the party’s national talking points don’t hurt candidates, said Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), who beat his Republican challenger in November by a 2-to-1 margin.

“But if you want to try to play in the other 21 counties,” Gierau said, “you’ve got to cut it more in the middle of the road.” 

Those political realities persuaded Gierau not to run for state treasurer this past election although he desired the post, he said. The Jackson Hole restaurateur has been a critic of the current treasurer, Republican Curt Meier, a Trump-endorsed rancher from LaGrange. 

“I know [Meier] would just run a grainy photo of me and Nancy Pelosi,” Gierau said, “and that’d be the end of it.”

Wyoming’s election results, he said, confirm that such attack tactics work

“Just grab any Chuck Gray speech and you know what I’m talking about,” Gierau said. “He just ran a campaign saying it was the elitist Democrats that were against him. He turned a group that is virtually extinct into the enemy and won a race against a good, hardworking Republican senator [Tara Nethercott]. Chuck Gray isn’t good enough to hold her coat, let alone be in that job.” 

The southwest Wyoming city of Rock Springs, pictured here in December 2022, was once a Democratic Party stronghold, but the GOP now dominates elected positions. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

State party Chairman Barbuto also believes the Democrat’s national image isn’t doing Wyoming candidates any favors. The political swing in Sweetwater County isn’t unique. Socioeconomically similar union-influenced rural communities like Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range and Morenci, Arizona have also experienced a shift toward the GOP, he said. 

“The national discussion is a lot more polarized, and I think we’re impacted more nowadays by what’s happening everywhere,” Barbuto said. “The internet and social media have really had an incredible impact on politics.” 

The Democrats’ collapse outside Wyoming’s wealthy resort community and college town has coincided with the rise of Trumpism.

Blake, who worked as a legislative director for his rail union before retiring, joked that he “got hit by the old Trump train” when he lost his House District 39 seat to Rep. Marshall Burt (L-Green River) in 2020. (Burt then lost by a 3-to-1 margin in his 2022 bid for reelection to incoming Republican Rep. Cody Wylie of Rock Springs.)

Blake’s take is that Wyoming’s elected Democrats and their state and county parties need to rebrand themselves as proudly middle of the road. It’s important, he said, that the party leaders clarify they have reasonable stances on issues like gun control and domestic energy that otherwise might scare off rural Wyoming residents.  

Stan Blake, a former Democratic lawmaker from Sweetwater County and state director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, speaks to members of the Wyoming Democratic Party on July 31, 2021 in Saratoga. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

“When we’re painted as national Democrats, it’s hard to battle that,” Blake said. “We need to get better messaging out there in Wyoming. But you’re walking a razor’s edge, because there are a lot of Democrats out there who are opposed to carbon. They want wind, they want solar, they don’t want any coal mined anymore.” 

Cause for optimism

Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) said his fellow Democrats ought to tout themselves as the party that “actually cares about the working class of Wyoming.” The Republicans in the majority, he pointed out, just passed legislation that gave corporate coal companies a $10 million annual tax break. 

“That $10 million is never going to contribute to our communities,” Yin said. 

Yin hopes political winds shift back toward blue as a result of dissatisfaction with Wyoming’s cyclical natural-resource-based economy, which has languished for decades relative to neighboring states like Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana. 

“Maybe people are happy in Wyoming with the government that they have, and then I’m just wrong,” Yin said. “But I think that there are a lot of people who realize that a lot’s not going the way that they would like in their communities.” 

Taking the long view, Prevedel, the nonagenarian former state senator, believes change will come. It’s inevitable, he said, that the Democratic Party will experience another resurgence in Sweetwater County. 

“The two Republican parties in Wyoming today will take care of part of that, because they’ll fight each other off,” he said. “I regret that I’m this old and I won’t live to see it, but [a Democratic comeback] will be here, and I’ll be keeping an eye on you guys from afar.” 

Lander resident Bruce Palmer, a former vice-chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party, is less sanguine. For a long time, he quipped that he was “the most optimistic man in the state of Wyoming” because he kept on thinking “Democrats can win.” Nowadays, however, he worries the electorate has shifted right, and that residents have sold themselves a bill of goods that’s more about individualism and less about being a good neighbor. 

Palmer is saddened by it, he said, but he’s losing faith in the people of Wyoming.

Referring to a recent column published in WyoFile, Palmer said, “it was something about how bashing transgender people is not the Wyoming way … Now I’m almost thinking, ‘Maybe it is the Wyoming way.’” 

Owning the scarlet D

Glasses were also half-empty at the Christmas party at Bitter Creek Brewing. State party leadership was in the house but there were neither stirring speeches about a Democratic resurgence nor public discussions of strategy. 

Music teacher Leesa Kuhlmann, a former state senate candidate, hydrates at the Sweetwater County Democratic Party’s 2022 Christmas gathering. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Despite that, the dwindling collection of Democrats tried to have some fun. Irwin, the auctioneer, pushed donated desserts with a distinctly descriptive style for the better part of an hour. 

“Not for people allergic to peanuts,” she quipped about homemade nut bars. “Like Payday, only a lot better.” 

Local Democrat Mike Masterson, who sat nearby, piled on: “More energy than a Natrium reactor,” he said.

Barb Smith’s winning nut bar bid brought in $35. In all the bake sale netted more than $600, enough to cover the Sweetwater County Democrats’ overhead for a year, according to Jensen, the chairwoman.

Jensen’s hope for the Sweetwater County Democrats’ future rests on its members proudly owning their party and political positions.

“There’s going to have to be people [willing to] say, ‘Hi, I’m a Democrat,’” she said.