Casper Star-Tribune: Could Libertarians shake up Wyoming elections this year?

Wyoming LP chair Shawn Johnson

Wyoming LP chair Shawn Johnson

From the Casper Star-Tribune on October 24, 2020:

Wyoming, like the rest of the country, has a two-party problem.

Despite the libertarian streak running through the state’s strong, conservative tradition, Wyoming has never elected a third-party candidate to the Statehouse, never nominated a non-Republican or Democrat to its two seats in Congress, and never boosted one to the governorship.

It’s been a persistent doom cycle for Wyoming’s Libertarian Party, especially. The state’s third-largest political party, Wyoming Libertarians have been known more for the occasional headline-generating shtick than fielding credible candidates, focusing their efforts more on retaining access to the ballot rather than winning it.

In 1980, party activists fought tooth and nail to get presidential candidate Ed Clark on the ballot on his way to achieving less than 2% of the vote. Four years later, the party sued the state for access to the ballot and won and, two decades later, managed enough of a following to earn the major party designation it still enjoys today.

The movement has failed to catch on in a serious way, however. Despite a philosophy shared by — even touted by — prominent conservatives like House Majority Whip Tyler Lindholm and current U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Lummis, the party has never gained a serious foothold in Wyoming politics, and even contemplated disbanding in 2015 due to a lack of members.

But that was then.

Five years later, the still-fledgling party of just under 1,600 members could be a disruptive force in this year’s election. In addition to fielding candidates for president, U.S. Senate and Congress this year, Libertarians will be on the ballot in six different Statehouse races this year, with several presenting credible chances at winning.

In House District 55, Bethany Baldes — a Riverton resident who was narrowly defeated by longtime Republican lawmaker David Miller two years ago — is running a highly competitive campaign against Republican prosecutor Ember Oakley. In House District 47, Lela Konecny will take on Republican Jerry Paxton after he survived a taxing, four-way primary where he split the vote with three different challengers. In Sweetwater County, railroader Marshall Burt will take on train conductor Stan Blake in a House District typically dominated by union Democrats.

And in Casper, several Libertarian candidates will take on moderate candidates like Sen. Charlie Scott and Rep. Pat Sweeney in districts that have demonstrated some division among Republican voters in the primaries over the last several years.

“We’ve really gotten organized over the last year or two,” said Shawn Johnson, the current chairman of the Wyoming Libertarian Party and a member of Casper’s City Council. “The party was kind of in disarray before then. We really didn’t have a whole lot of organization, people just kind of willy-nilly filed for office. The last couple years we’ve organized elected party officers and really put our heads together to get some serious challengers around the state.”

Johnson — who is running against Casper Republican Rep. Tom Walters in House District 38 — said this year’s ballot represents the culmination of years of fighting by Libertarians Joe Porambo and Richard Brubaker, two perennial candidates who, while never victorious in their own campaigns, continuously ran for federal office to preserve the Libertarians’ major party status and keep the fire alive.

With the 2020 election spurring a renewed national interest in third-party candidates among voters disillusioned by the national Democratic and Republican parties, Johnson said the national party has been taking an unprecedented step to provide resources to the party this year and potentially help establish a third-party presence here.

This year might present the perfect opportunity for that to happen. As Democrats work to capture as many moderates as possible from the state’s Republican supermajority, Libertarians seek to tap into the state’s already massive wellspring of conservative voters who are potentially fed up with the current disarray of the Wyoming GOP, which has been plagued by infighting and anemic fundraising efforts over the past year.

The Libertarian Party has also sought to avoid debates over hot-button social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage that have long been a lightning rod within the state GOP and exacerbated tensions among the party’s ranks.

“People are kind of getting disenfranchised with the two-party system, in Wyoming specifically,” Johnson said. “The GOP is in disarray here, I mean… they’re having fistfights at their conventions. Since the Democrats really aren’t a viable option in Wyoming, we decided that the Libertarian Party could be that option.”

Among all the candidates running this year, Baldes is likely the most viable. The daughter of Brubaker, Baldes lost to the highly conservative Miller by just 53 votes in 2018 and this year faces another conservative opponent for a seat that has not seen a vacancy in two decades.

Urged to run as a Republican — and endorsed by several Republicans in the community — Baldes’ platform resembles that of many conservatives around the state. She is pro-gun and anti-tax and, in her bid to get to the Legislature, has called for reforms to the way government services are delivered, rather than raising taxes or cutting essential services under a system she believes is inefficient.

Freedom from party leadership, she said, is essential in helping make that happen.

“The two parties that are in place right now have been pushing the idea of taxes down our throat to the point where constituents have this idea that there’s no way forward without raising taxes,” she said. “Having Libertarians in office will allow us to keep Republicans honest. They no longer can hide behind a name and talk about non-conservative ideas.”

Political scientists have predicted that the United States is long overdue for a political reshuffling, with the current partisan system in place since 1980 now older than most of the coalitions established throughout American history.

Wyoming and the rest of the nation, its conservative coalition splintered, seems ripe for a change, Johnson said. He hopes the first step could take place here.

“Once people see that Libertarians can be elected to a partisan state office, I think that our numbers as far as party membership will increase quite a bit,” he said. “Once people see that Wyoming is that catalyst for change, I think it can happen on a national level.”