Dark Money Influences Wyoming Politics

 

By: Gordon Dobbs

In response to concerns around the country, the Wyoming U.S. Attorney appointed an attorney to monitor complaints of election fraud and voter intimidation on Election Day. This move in Wyoming was largely seen as a precautionary measure. Despite the fact that the state does not require proof of citizenship and allows same-day registration, Wyoming has not endured allegations of election rigging. But as the Republican Secretary of State assured the public that the election would not be rigged in any way, Wyoming dealt with a more substantial concern: the influx of anonymous, out of state money.

Wyoming has always prided itself on its independence and has shown little love for outsiders. In 2013, when state Representative Hans Hunt received a letter from a constituent who had recently moved to Wyoming criticizing his representation, he responded with a letter saying, “If you don’t like the political atmosphere of Wyoming, then by all means, leave. We, who have been here a very long time (I am proudly 4th generation) are quite proud of our independent heritage.” When Liz Cheney ran for Senate in Wyoming less than a year after moving from Virginia, she was called a carpetbagger and dropped out of the race in 2014, seven months before the primary. Yet that all seems to be changing. Liz Cheney defeated Democrat Ryan Greene for the state’s lone House of Representatives position on November 8, 2016, due in no small part to her winning the money race $352,000 to $13,400. Most of that money came from groups outside Wyoming, which is a trend that has permeated Wyoming politics in recent years.

Well-funded and well-connected activist groups have arisen in the state from both sides of the political spectrum. For example, in February, the Wyoming Senate rejected Medicaid expansion for the fourth consecutive year. Shortly before the Senate voted, a lobbyist named Dave Owen visited lawmakers and presented independent research from his group, the Foundation for Government Accountability. Owen lives in Utah and the Foundation is based in Florida.

In many cases, it is less clear that the influence is coming from outside the state. Under current law, politically active nonprofits, principally 501(c)(4)s, do not have to disclose the sources of their funding.  This means that it is not possible to know who is behind the groups, how much money they are spending, and how they are spending it. The well-respected former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson has said that he repeatedly fought for new laws in the Wyoming legislature that would demand transparency, but that he was always defeated by claims that “Wyoming is so small; we all know what everybody else is doing.” If that was true once, it is not true anymore. In a recent interview, the leader of the Libertarian-leaning Wyoming Liberty Group admitted that the group is generously funded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers and by Gore-Tex heir Susan Gore. Forward Wyoming, Forward Wyoming Advocacy and ELLA WY are three left-leaning activist groups formed in the last couple of years that have proven effective at influencing elections through independent expenditures, and all three have refused to disclose their donors. Wyoming Republicans have filed a complaint against the groups with the Secretary of State for impermissibly coordinating and violating state election and campaign finance laws. The groups deny the allegations.

Many see this as an inevitable consequence of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Many others defend the influence of these groups as integral to voter education, even if the money derives from elsewhere. In keeping with the state’s dominant political ideology, the principle right-wing groups have existed since the early 2000’s, while the left-leaning groups have only formed since 2013. Despite the creation of these new liberal organizations, the Wyoming legislature tilted even farther right this year, as did many other jurisdictions around the country. Come January, the Wyoming House of Representatives will count eight Democrats among its sixty members, while there will be four Democrats among Wyoming’s thirty senators.

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