Polls show that nearly 57 percent of Wyomingites identify as Republican, making the state one of the reddest in the nation. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden explores why that’s the case, and what it means to be so red.
WILLOW BELDEN: There’s little doubt that Wyoming will vote for Mitt Romney for president, re-elect both Republican members of Congress who are running this year, and maintain a solidly Republican state legislature.
Political Scientist Jim King says the state is so solidly Republican because Wyomingites tend to mistrust the federal government. They don’t want government intrusion, and they don’t feel they need help from the government.
JIM KING: You don’t need the same support, for example, for transportation infrastructure. Yes, you have to have lots of roads, but you don’t need highways criss-crossing themselves in the west as you do in some of the northeastern states.
BELDEN: Many Wyomingites also live in such remote areas that they don’t have access to many government services.
KING: You don’t have government that’s providing trash service to you. You don’t have other programs such as a parks and recreation department. … So I think if you live in an area where the public services aren’t as obvious, then you tend to develop a favoritism toward the party that is speaking to the smaller-government argument.
BELDEN: Representative Joe Barbuto, one of the few Democrats in the Wyoming House, takes it a step further. He says it’s not just that Wyomingites feel they don’t need government; they also think government, especially with Democrats in charge, gets in the way of their livelihood by creating too many regulations and too much red tape.
JOE BARBUTO: Wyoming Democrats are victims of this perception that Democrats are anti-energy, anti-agriculture. And those things just aren’t true. But that’s the perception that’s out there.
BELDEN: Still, just because Wyoming has a larger percentage of Republicans than most other states, that doesn’t mean those Republicans are more conservative than Republicans elsewhere.
Samuel Western is a writer who specializes in Wyoming history. He says Wyomingites tend to be more libertarian and less ideologically conservative.
WESTERN: Wyoming was just horrified when Matthew Shepherd was killed. So I think we’re more laissez-faire than most red states on the social issues.
BELDEN: That includes issues like abortion. Some of Wyoming’s staunchest conservatives are pro-choice because they don’t feel government should meddle in personal decisions. As a result, Western says, legislation with a social agenda rarely passes in the state Legislature.
Mentalities do seem to be shifting, though. In the primaries this year, several incumbent state legislators faced serious challenges from ultra-conservative and Tea Party opponents.
Senator Hank Coe of Cody is one of those incumbents. He beat his Tea Party challenger by only a narrow margin, and he says voters across the state are leaning farther right than in the past.
HANK COE: We probably are getting a little more conservative, mostly due to the things like Obamacare that’s being rammed down our throat by the feds, just for example. And I think there’s huge opposition to that in this state, and I think that will continue.
BELDEN: Wyoming wasn’t always so staunchly Republican. Historian Phil Roberts says that for many years, the state was fairly evenly split.
PHIL ROBERTS: During the New Deal, Wyoming had a delegation that was entirely Democratic for a good part of the 1930s. And then up until 1976, there was at least one member of the congressional delegation that was a Democrat.
BELDEN: That’s because in those days, large numbers of unionized railroad workers lived in southern Wyoming and tended to vote Democratic. But as technology evolved and diesel locomotives replaced coal-fired engines, fewer railroad workers were needed, and support for the Democratic party dwindled.
Moving forward, most agree that Wyoming will continue to be a red state. But just how red isn’t clear. Again, Samuel Western.
WESTERN: Wyoming is getting older. And as we age, there are increasing number of people who are going to need the help of the federal government, mostly on Medicaid and Medicare. And they are going to need senior citizen centers and transportation and better hospitals, all of which the government has been directly or indirectly involved in.
BELDEN: Western says the need for those types of services could make people more receptive to Democrats in the future. Representative Joe Barbuto says there’s another reason the state might become less solidly Republican.
BARBUTO: You know, a lot of people talk about the need for economic diversification, and I think if we did have that economic diversification, we’d have different industries and different businesses here. And those would bring in different folks that might have a different political viewpoint than others. … And I think that we’ll see more Democrats in the Legislature in the years to come.
BELDEN: And he says that would be a good thing, because political diversity creates the kind of robust discussions that keep democracies healthy. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.