This is Part 3 of a four-part series that examines how Wyoming’s Legislature came to focus on hot-button national issues instead of working to solve the very real problems facing our state, and what Wyoming residents need to do about it.
More Wyoming voters need to realize how important the primaries are, in part because special interest groups with very narrow agendas already know it—and they use this knowledge to influence our elections.
Because so few Wyomingites vote in the primaries, special interest groups know that if they manage to turn out a few dozen of their followers to the polls in August, they can swing an election.
After all, many Wyoming primaries are decided by a handful of votes. And by the time the general elections roll around in November, most contests are already over.
No matter which side people stand on hot-button issues like transgender student athletes, guns, and Critical Race Theory, these are not, ultimately, the big issues that affect the day-to-day lives of most Wyomingites.
But these are issues that rile people up emotionally, and with the help of social media, savvy special interest groups have been using these issues to change the face of the Wyoming Legislature.
A simple strategy
The strategy many special interest groups use to target Wyoming primary elections is basic.
It begins with churning out regular content on social media to instill fear and/or outrage. The government is coming to steal your guns!, for instance. Or: The vaccine is going to kill you! Or: The RINOs are taking over!
Much of this content repeats stories you hear over and over on national news, but with more hysteria and a little bit of local flavor. The idea is to create a boogeyman for people to take up arms against.
The idea is to create a boogeyman for people to take up arms against.
The next step is to find a lawmaker to fit into that boogeyman’s role. The easiest way is to dig up a vote they made on a hot button issue and weaponize it—even if the vote took place years ago, in the context of a nuanced discussion that no one remembers.
Then, in the weeks before the primaries, flood that lawmaker’s district with targeted social media ads attacking them, based on the hot-button issue of choice, and tell people to vote the incumbent out.
With any luck, a few dozen of your Facebook followers will show up at the polls, mobilized by whatever hot button issue you’ve been pushing, and you can flip a seat in the Wyoming Legislature.
Presto, change-o: The magic of targeting the primary elections.
Wyoming Gun Owners (WyGO) are not the only group to use the strategy outlined here, but they are particularly good at it.
In fact, their action plan comes straight out of a playbook called Confrontational Politics, written 25 years ago by former California state lawmaker Bill Richardson, who founded the Gun Owners of America.
WyGO has adapted Richardson’s strategy for the Internet age. They have also expanded their approach beyond gun issues—during the COVID-19 pandemic, the group hosted anti-mask and anti-vaccine rallies at the Wyoming Capitol and around the state.
Same hysteria, different issue.
Other affiliated “Gun Owner” groups across the country, which are all run by three brothers from Iowa, replicate the tactics in other states—and they all target the primary elections.
WyGO has used their strategy and the specter of “gun grabbers” to help oust a half dozen Wyoming legislators in recent years, and to replace them with lawmakers more to their liking.
Former Wyoming Representative Bill Pownall (R-Gillette) was among WyGO’s targets in 2020. The group fixated on a bill the former Campbell County Sheriff sponsored to require mental health records to be submitted to a federal database. WyGO claimed it could keep people from legally buying firearms, and they made Pownall their whipping boy.
“There’s a push to get rid of the incumbents and whatever they have to do to get that false narrative out there, they’re going to do it,” said Pownall.
Whether the narrative was true or false didn’t really matter—after an intense social media campaign, Pownall lost to a WyGO-backed candidate in the 2020 primary.
Other groups that mimic WyoGO’s strategy include the people behind the website WyoRINO.com, which seeks to “expose liberal Republicans.”
Similar to WyGO, WyoRINO creates boogeymen by insisting that there are fake “Republicans In Name Only” everywhere in politics trying to undermine conservative values. They produce regular content—in this case, a running “RINO of the Month” section that highlights members of the Legislature who they find disagreeable—and they peg these lawmakers as their boogeymen.
And just like WyGO, WyoRINO focuses its work explicitly on the primary elections.
In August 2020, WyoRINO.com named Rep. Tom Crank (R-Kemmerer) “RINO of the Month” and criticized Crank heavily on social media in the weeks leading up to the primary election, which took place Aug. 18.
It was no coincidence that Crank lost the primary—by 10 votes.
Where’s the remedy?
Any special interest group could use a strategy like WyGO’s to influence Wyoming politics, but only because so few people turn out to vote in the elections that count—the primaries.
As long as only 30 percent of Wyoming residents cast a ballot in August, groups with narrow agendas will be able to gin up a few dozen voters based on hot button issues on social and influence the outcome of elections.
This is how we ended up with lawmakers who obsessively sponsor bills about hot button national issues while ignoring the real problems people in Wyoming face.
Thankfully, there’s a remedy. And just like WyGO’s strategy, it’s simple. You and all your friends and family and coworkers can find it down at your local county clerk’s office now through Aug. 15, and on Election Day at your local polling place.