When lawmakers, lobbyists and observers gather Jan. 11 in Cheyenne for the start of the 64th Legislature, they will notice even more Republicans and men in a state that already has among the fewest number of women and Democratic lawmakers in the nation.
During Tuesday’s election, voters made choices throughout the state that ultimately resulted in the loss of one Democratic seat in the Legislature. Currently only 13 Democrats serve in the 90-member Legislature.
There will also be two fewer women, down from the current 12.
Observers are split about whether the choices that voters made on Election Day will result in a more conservative lawmaking body.
Some believe the number of social conservatives is down, based on their reading of newly elected Republicans.
Others say the number of social conservatives is up, which they warn will mean more debates about social issues such as abortion or transgender bathrooms at a time when the state faces difficult financial decisions because of the energy downturn and revenue shortfall.
Several lawmakers chose to retire at the end of this term. Others lost re-election bids. The result is a slew of new lawmakers: 19 freshmen in the 60-member House and six in the 30-member Senate.
It is the greatest turnover in the Wyoming Legislature since 1992, said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne.
“These legislators are coming into a time where we have to find another $150 million on short notice,” Zwonitzer said. “They have to learn about the budget. Historically, you come in a general session in the middle of a two-year budget cycle. You have time to learn about all these pots of money and where they go. When you come into a $150 million deficit in the current cycle, that’s a drastic learning curve of the state budget.
“A lot of people know the general issues that affect them. They know what they’re running on – business issues, social issues or community development issues. They really don’t know how the state budget works.”
Candidates make promises on the campaign trail that they learn fast are not realistic when they are mere freshmen in the Legislature, an institution that values seniority, tradition and decorum, said Bri Jones, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a government watchdog group.
“I think that campaigning is very different from governing, so it will be interesting to see the differences that arise out of campaigning versus governing,” she said.
Jones said some newly elected legislators campaigned on the ideological fringe. The longer a lawmaker serves, the more he realizes he must compromise and work with others to increase the likelihood of a bill becoming a law.
“I think with age and experience comes a little bit of moderation,” she said.
The political direction of the Legislature will depend on who lawmakers elect to lead them in the House and Senate, said Kristin Walker, a Republican strategist from Jackson.
“I think more than looking at rank-and-file members, I think it’s looking at how the new leadership is going to trend — especially in the House, because it’s going to be pretty much all new leadership, and as a result it’s going to be all new chairs of committees,” she said.
Legislative leaders are powerful. They can kill bills they dislike and choose which legislators lead and serve on committees. If a current committee’s makeup is perceived as too liberal or conservative, leaders can assign new members and remove those considered problematic.
Zwonitzer said there’s a good chance the next leadership will be more conservative than the existing leaders, who are moderate Republicans. Those leaders will be chosen in a week, when Republican lawmakers caucus in Casper.
“The House leadership will probably go a little more to the right,” he said. “The people who have announced (they’re running for leadership positions), we’ll see a shift to the right. I would say that’s a good thing because we’re having a fiscal downturn and we’re going to make tough decisions. We’re not going to have a lot of social issues and other stuff come up because it’s going to be about the budget.”
Zwonitzer said he doesn’t think there will be more social conservatives among the rank-and-file in the Legislature than among the current makeup. He bases that on the legislators-elect he knows and by reviewing campaigns of others.
But Jeran Artery, a board member of Wyoming Equality, disagrees. He believes the Legislature will take a hard right on social issues.
“I heard legislators, former legislators who have been taken out, they’ve said, ‘I think my yes vote on your bill cost me the primary, cost me the election,’” Artery said.
During the primary, some candidates challenged incumbents for supporting a 2015 bill that would have protected LGBT Wyomingites at work. The challengers dismissed the bill as a plan to allow men to wear wigs and use women’s bathrooms, putting women and girls at risk of sexual assault.
Artery said transgender bathrooms was never the intention of the nondiscrimination bill or other bills supported by his organization.
“That’s what I think bothered me,” he said. “A lot of these candidates were willing to lie to get elected.”
Despite twice as many Democrats running this year than in the past, the state’s minority party lost a number of races. It gained some, too. But ultimately the net loss was one seat.
The Republican Party raised $500,000 over the past months and spent about $150,000 in 17 key legislative races. The strategy worked.
Kristin Walker, the Republican from Jackson, believes people in many rural states, including Wyoming, feel left behind in the country’s recent economic uptick. That goes for social issues as well, she said. Many Wyomingites disagreed with the direction of the country. They took their frustrations to the ballot box and elected Trump and downballot candidates who they felt best represented their beliefs.
Walker has helped organize events for the Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus, a bipartisan group for women legislators. The caucus also organizes leadership conferences to encourage women throughout Wyoming to run for state and local office.
Walker said there will only be 10 women to the 80 men in the Legislature next year.
She noted two prominent women leaders lost their elections — Rep. Rosie Berger, a Sheridan Republican who had hoped next year to become the first female House speaker in decades and Rep. Mary Throne of Cheyenne, the leader of the House Democrats for the past four years.
Although the House is losing prominent women, one bright spot in the increase in women in the Senate, which currently only counts one woman among its members, Walker said.
Sen. Bernadine Craft, D-Rock Springs, is retiring but will be replaced by Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, also a Democrat from Rock Springs.
Republicans Affie Ellis and Tara Nethercott will be two new women in the Senate. Ellis and Nethercott defeated Democrats Floyd Esquibel and Ken Esquibel.
Two current committee leaders are women – Reps. Elaine Harvey and Ruth Ann Petroff. Both chose not to seek re-election.
If there are no women leaders in the Legislature next year, their perspective will be lost in state discussions, Walker said.
“I think not having women in leadership rolls will also play a role in the kinds of bills that go forward,” she said.