JACKSON — After being boxed out of organizing the state Republican convention for years, GOP delegates from Wyoming’s most liberal county have successfully landed a chance to host their party’s central committee elections.
Returning to Jackson for the first time in over a decade for the convention, Republican delegates are braced for a leadership showdown.
Counties across the state have reported big shakeups in recent central committee elections. Establishment conservatives have formed the “Wyoming Caucus’’ to respond to the far-right Freedom Caucus voting bloc in the state Legislature. And the GOP’s controversial state chairman, Frank Eathorne, is up for reelection.
Sixty-nine Republican leaders will also vote on the party’s policies, which often become priorities at the state Capitol, where 91% of lawmakers are Republican.
About one third of the voters at the all-day meeting May 6 at the Virginian will be new, said Mary Martin, who was recently reelected chair of the Teton County GOP.
Delegates from Teton County said former interim Secretary of State Karl Allred had single-handedly blocked Teton County’s bid from being considered to host the state convention, which traditionally doubles as a fundraiser for the host county GOP.
Acting as a one-person selection committee, Allred had chosen his hometown of Evanston for the second year in a row at a state central committee meeting last year. Martin rose to record an objection in the minutes.
“I did throw a bit of a tantrum over how we’ve been treated,” Martin said, recalling the meeting to a crowd of about 30 gathered last month for the Teton County GOP central committee meeting in a ballroom at The Wort Hotel. “We’ve bid four times in the last six years.”
Then, Jackson resident Kat Rueckert, who was recently reelected to her position as state committeewoman, suggested the delegates do what they do best and vote.
David Scheurn, the outgoing Teton County state committeeman, had pitched the delegates on the proposal.
“It took a lot of relationship building and a lot of groundwork and a lot of phone calls to make sure that that went through,” Scheurn told fellow Republicans sitting in neat rows at the March 14 meeting at The Wort. “We do have a lot of people in the state that do like Teton County and do want the event here.”
The vote was 51 to 5 to come to Jackson, Martin said.
Allred did not return a request for comment Tuesday on why he didn’t want the meeting held in Jackson.
Last month, Allred lost his leadership position in Uinta County. In Lincoln County, Wyoming Right to Life President Marti Halverson faced the same fate.
Lincoln, Uinta and Johnson County GOP members voted for entirely new slates of delegates who will pick the party’s next state leader, part of a statewide trend toward more “traditional” leadership gaining traction.
Uinta County’s new GOP state committeeman, Ron Micheli, told the Casper Star-Tribune that the change was a “movement in the party to bring people together and be more inclusive.”
In Teton County, the leadership shuffle was more mixed. School board Chair Bill Scarlett beat out incumbent and relative political newcomer Scheurn for state committeeman, while Rueckert, who moved to Jackson five years ago, was reelected state committeewoman over Janine Bay Teske, a 20-year school board member turned lobbyist.
Hunter Christensen, son of the late Leland Christensen, a longtime Republican public servant from Alta, was elected vice chair over Jackson lawyer Mark Jackowski, formerly associated with the advocacy group Save the Historic Rodeo Grounds.
Some Teton County conservatives say it’s been hard to break into cliques of Republicans across the state as the landscape becomes more exclusive, and see next month’s convention as a chance to change that.
“I think it’s really important to bridge the gap that has developed, whether intentionally or not intentionally,” said Rep. Andrew Byron, who represents Teton and Lincoln counties. “Everyone’s saying, ‘You enter Wyoming when you drive out of Teton County.’
“You know, that’s a misconception.”
Martin quipped that visitors could see how “normal” most Jacksonites are.
“I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised to see that people in Teton County don’t have two heads and don’t walk around with horns,” she said.
Teton County isn’t alone in its political growing pains, though it has weathered them more gracefully than others.
At the Republican state committee meeting last year, Laramie County Republicans staged a walkout from the GOP convention after state party representatives voted to cut their delegation from 37 to three. Most delegates from Laramie County protested the decision by tossing their badges onto leadership’s desk, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. The county party has not paid dues since 2019 over concerns about state party spending, direction and decorum.
As the Wyoming GOP has grown more fractured, Martin has maintained a label of a “big tent” conservative and remained popular.
Though her party faltered in last year’s elections, Martin was reelected chair of the county party with a round of applause in the night’s only uncontested race. While Democrats swept the local elections, Martin made the case that her party is better funded and more engaged than ever.
“I think that my big tent approach is taking us in a direction that we need,” Martin told the audience that night.
The spotlight in May will likely be on Eathorne’s seat as state chair, which he has held since 2017. The chair conducts meetings and sets the tone for the party, and Eathorne’s style has repeatedly drawn scrutiny from detractors who believe he has let decorum falter.
“Frank is very congenial,” Martin said. “He’s very much a gentleman. He’s very affirming. But he allows things to happen in the meeting that I wouldn’t allow.”
At a central committee meeting four years ago, Martin said, she saw one delegate place a gold-painted toilet plunger in front of another delegate.
“It was, like, this huge insult,” she said. “That has no place in a party.”
Eathorne has been on the front lines of Donald Trump’s effort to take down former Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney and heralded as a strong leader by his fans. He organized the state GOP central committee to censure Cheney, symbolically kicking her out of the party in 2021 after she voted to impeach President Trump following the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.
In a 2022 interview with Fox News, Eathorne said that “in Wyoming, we don’t necessarily embrace the idea of a big tent.”
Eathorne didn’t return a request from the News&Guide asking if he plans to run again after serving two terms, traditionally when the party chair steps down. He voiced his intention to run again in a private meeting, a move that would be unusual, but allowed, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.
Martin wanted to run for Eathorne’s seat. That is, if she had not been reelected to her position in Teton County. Now she’s waiting to see if someone else will step up.
“Your party is only going to get stronger as we can move leadership around the state,” Martin said. “Somebody needs to run against Frank.”