Mysterious mailers attack Wyoming lawmakers, prompt investigation

Multiple mailers that turned up in Northeast and Central Wyoming mailboxes this fall are now the subject of a state inquiry.

As summer turned to fall in Wyoming this year, red and gold political leaflets began to appear in mailboxes. 

At first glance, the oversized glossy postcards didn't look much different than any other campaign material. They featured an official lawmaker headshot, his name, contact info and the word "conservative" several times over. The header "Legislative Update" was emblazoned on the front. 

Albeit early for a campaign season that won't officially kick off until May - when the candidate filing period opens - the mailers appeared normal. 

"We hope everyone is doing well," one mailer stated. "We are glad football season is here." 

One thing, however, was off - the mailers did not say who had sent them. 

"It's all a bunch of hooey," Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) told WyoFile. 

Harshman and Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) were the targets of multiple anonymous mailers that began turning up in Natrona, Johnson and Sheridan counties in September. Both are notable members of the Wyoming Republican Party's traditional wing - Harshman served four years as Speaker of the House - who have come under fire from voices on the far right.

"Mine looks identical to Crago's - same colors, same layout, same font," Harshman said.

Taking a closer look at the mailers, one encounters the same spiel that other anonymous and not-so anonymous sources on the far right have trumpeted for years - Wyoming's Republican-supermajority Legislature is not what it appears to be and is in fact "run by a bunch of lunatic liberals." 

As questions swirl about the source of the mailers, Secretary of State Chuck Gray confirmed to WyoFile that his office is reviewing their legality. 

"We take all complaints filed with our office very seriously," Gray said in a statement. 

While anonymous mailers aren't new to Wyoming politics, their appearance so far ahead of the election may be a preview of what some are expecting to be the ugliest campaign season the state has ever seen as the two factions of the GOP battle for control.

Recent history

Wyoming's most recent high-profile brush with anonymous mailers also took place in Sheridan and Johnson counties. 

Ahead of the 2022 primary election, mailers targeted four private citizens and claimed to be paid for by the Wyoming in Name Only political action committee. However, the PAC was not registered with the state or the Federal Election Commission, so its authors were unknown to the public. 

The leaflets accused Jeff Wallack, Laurie Bratten, Kristen Jennings and Jimmy Dee Lees of being "conservative imposters" who were "trying to tear our state apart." Of the four, Wallack was the only one on the primary election ballot, running as a Republican candidate for precinct committeeman. 

After an investigation by the Sheridan County Sheriff's Office determined Rep. Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn) and Johnson County Commissioner Bill Novotny were responsible for the mailings, as first reported by The Sheridan Press in January, the Sheridan County Attorney's Office declined to pursue the case further owing to election laws not applying to precinct campaign materials. 

The secretary of state came to a different conclusion. 

"After careful review and consideration, I have determined these complaints have merit, and should be referred to the Attorney General's Office for further investigation," Gray wrote in a March 28 referral letter to Attorney General Bridget Hill. 

Hill declined to comment to WyoFile about the current status of the investigation on account of attorney-client privilege. Gray said his office has "received no update from the Attorney General's Office concerning any complaints referred to them by our office."

"It is troubling because the complaints we have not received updates on from the AG concern issues all the way back to the 2022 primary election," Gray said.

Exceptions and legality

Wyoming law requires any campaign mailer to "conspicuously" display who paid for it. Any organization that receives contributions or spends more than $1,000 for the purpose of electioneering communications must also register with the state. 

The latest mailers targeting Crago and Harshman, however, may fall into a legally ambiguous area. That's partly because of timing.  

State statute limits "electioneering communication" to 30 days ahead of a primary and 60 days ahead of a general election. Plus, neither Crago nor Harshman are currently running for office - though both say they intend to seek re-election - since neither can file for candidacy until May 16. 

Then there's the "commentary" exception in state law. 

Like a news report or editorial, "commentary" is constitutionally protected and exempt from reporting requirements. The Second Amendment advocacy group Wyoming Gun Owners included the exemption in its lawsuit challenging the state's donor disclosure law. An appeals court recently upheld the decision that the law was unconstitutional as applied to the organization. 

In October, Gray spoke before the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. The commentary exception and the timing, he said, "are all things to consider in the context of any mailer that were to go out right now." 

The committee was debating a bill to revise campaign reporting requirements, and Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) asked Gray to weigh in on recent mailers "going out with no attribution to who's paying for them." 

"You're not in an election period right now, and that's a key distinction," Gray said. 

Fibs 

While he might be on the receiving end of a mailer's attacks, Harshman isn't sure yet whether changes are needed in Wyoming law. 

"Are these things legal or not? I think that's the question that needs to be answered," Harshman said. 

Until then, Harshman said, it's too soon to say whether the Legislature needs to reconsider Wyoming's reporting requirements. If lawmakers go down that road, he added, they'll need to balance it with freedom of speech. Harshman also brushed off the mailer's criticisms. 

"It's all a pack of lies," he said. "I'll put my conservative record up against any of these turkeys." 

In addition to casting the lawmaker as a liberal, the mailer features a host of inaccurate and misleading statements. For one, it leaves out important details in discussing Wyoming's tax burden. 

"While Wyoming is not the highest (#1) taxed state, we certainly are not the 50th," the mailer states, but doesn't provide additional context. Indeed, Wyoming is not ranked as 50th, but 49th, with Alaska being the only state to have lower taxes, according to the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy research organization. 

It also misinforms voters about the supplemental budget the Legislature passed earlier this year, which almost entirely resembled what Gov. Mark Gordon had requested. 

The mailer leads voters to believe that lawmakers "spent $1.45 billion more than what Governor Gordon originally requested."

But that figure is what lawmakers put into permanent savings and reserve accounts. 

One of the mailers targeting Crago repeats this inaccuracy and also misrepresents his voting record in several instances. 

Crago, for example, voted in support of a bill to let voters decide via a 2024 ballot initiative if they want to separate residential property into its own tax class. Because the state constitution groups residential property into the same tax class as commercial and industrial properties, lawmakers are unable to make isolated changes to how homes are taxed. 

The mailer fibs that Crago "did not sponsor, co-sponsor or vote for a single statutory fix which would 'fix the current broken property tax system' (as he promised during the campaign)."

Yet, Crago voted in support of a bill to expand and fund a refund program that reached a record number of about 9,000 households this year. 

"My wife said the only thing accurate on my mailer is the phone number," Crago said. 

Anonymous mailers aren't conducive to the kinds of difficult but open conversations that were once a hallmark of Wyoming politics, Crago said. 

"You don't even know who to respond to or where they're from," Crago. "I'm really afraid this is just an invasion of Washington, D.C. politics into our great state."

What's to come

The mailers haven't deterred Crago from planning to seek re-election. But he worries they're the kind of thing that discourages people from seeking out public service. 

Jenn Lowe, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, shares that concern. Her nonpartisan organization is dedicated to state-government transparency and accountability.

More specifically, Lowe worries what the mailers will mean for Wyoming's citizen Legislature that relies on people to volunteer their time. Meanwhile, the cost of campaigning is going up, Lowe added. 

ESPC will soon be releasing a study on campaign finance, but so far Lowe said her organization has found that the average cost of a House race has risen from about $5,000 in 2010 to more than $12,000 in the last election cycle. The average cost of a Senate race in that same time frame grew from about $7,400 to $17,700. 

Lowe anticipates those costs to continue rising as campaign materials become a year-round thing.  

"Before you know it, you're gonna go to your mailbox, your P.O. box, and it's gonna be stuffed with like 15 nasty flyers, and I think about the amount of money that gets spent on those. It's just money down the drain," Lowe said. "I'm not sure what the solution is but we're not heading down a good path."

At the very least, Lowe would like to see lawmakers change gears from what she's seen in recent years.

"The focus of the election reform work has really been scrutinizing voters and making the voting process more challenging and making the process to register to vote more challenging," Lowe said. "It's been less about holding funders and campaign contributors to account."

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

 

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