Why Are WY Democrats Few and Far Between?

Oct 26, 2012

There are no democratic members of Congress from Wyoming in Washington DC. And though the state’s seen some democratic governors over the years, currently in the state legislature, 50 of the 60 House seats and 26 of the 30 Senate seats are held by Republicans. So why is it so hard to get elected? Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that wasn’t always the case.

ZHOROV: In the days of unionized railroad shops and coal mines, before diesel locomotives and machine-run strip mines, Wyoming democrats in the legislature were not such an endangered breed. Professor of History at the University of Wyoming, Phil Roberts, says it was quite the opposite.

ROBERTS: For a good part of the statehood years the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were pretty much parody, just about every time there was a democratic US senator, there would also be at the same time a republican US senator and that went all the way to the early part of the 20th century.

ZHOROV: Since 1978, when the last democrat retired from the U.S. House of Representatives – and was succeeded by Dick Cheney - all U.S. Senate and House seats have been held by Republicans. In the state legislature, too, the numbers have dwindled to today’s total of just 14 democratic law makers out of 90. It is perhaps due to their scarcity that critics wonder about their resolve. Are they really democrats? Like, real democrats?

BYRD: We’re a few clicks more conservative than our counterparts. When I talk to people in the national party or people who visit WY who are democrats, they tell us that our views…that we would be more conservative that some of the republicans in their state.

ZHOROV: That’s Cheyenne Democratic State Representative James Byrd.

Byrd says he still calls himself a Democrat because he agrees more closely with Democrats’ stance on social issues, education platform, environmental issues, and the democrats’ view on small businesses.

UW history professor, Roberts, agrees that if a Wyoming democrat ran for government in another state he could be considered a Republican.

ROBERTS: I think what has happened is that there’s been a choice made. Over the past 30 years, that the way the democrats can get ahead is to become more republican, to move more to the right.

ZHOROV: However, Cheyenne Representative Mary Throne dismisses this notion and says she’d be a Democrat no matter what state she ran in.

THRONE: I’m a woman. I’ve been a democrat since I was 18 years old. 

ZHOROV: But she does mention specific issues that set Wyoming Democrats apart from Democrats throughout the rest of the U.S. – like guns and energy.

THRONE: I think where we differ from the coastal democrats, is we live with energy development, so we know what it does for Wyoming in terms of jobs and tax revenue. And we also know that it can be done responsibly with the right regulatory framework, because we’ve lived with it for, what, 80, 100 years. 

ZHOROV: But the question remains – why are there so few Wyoming democrats?

There are about 3 registered republicans for every democrat in the state. And redistricting in the early 1990s changed at-large voting to a single member district system, which has made winning seats away from the mostly republican incumbents very difficult. Rodger McDaniel, a Democrat who served in both the Wyoming House and Senate for 10 years in the ‘70s, says it’s those issues that keep numbers low…

McDANIEL: Democrats are far more challenged, I think, by those sorts of mechanical things than they are by any philosophical differences.

ZHOROV: McDaniel says Democrats have also failed to mobilize any serious grassroots efforts to engage people who don’t go to the polls.

McDANIEL: When the Democrats were last really successful in Wyoming in the ‘70s it was because organized labor and the Democratic Party undertook serious efforts to go out and find people who had not registered or had quit voting, who were disenfranchised, felt marginalized, and got them registered and got them to the polls. The party hasn’t done that for at least 2 decades.

ZHOROV: And Professor Roberts says Republicans have been better at defining what they are and what Democrats are not.

ROBERTS: What I mean by that is that the republicans have been pretty shrewd about defining what a cowboy was back in the mythical days of the open range, whereas democrats have pretty much ceded the territory rather than to argue the fact that indeed cowboys on the open range illustrate a lot of the principles of the democratic party and that here's a laboring guy who is up against some pretty formidable forces.

ZHOROV: In this year’s election, there are Democratic candidates running for both U.S. Congress seats. But there are only 3 democrats running for the 15 open state senate seats and 21 democrats in the running for the 60 open state House seats.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.