Independents day: Campbell County races join statewide wave of independent, write-in challengers

Jonathan Gallardo with the Gillette News Record, via the Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — In a place that’s as deeply red as Campbell County, most political seats are decided in the primary, with the general election being little more than a formality. The Republican candidate who was successful in August often gets to run unopposed in November.

In late September, the Campbell County Republican Party Central Committee voted to contribute $5,000 to Rep. Eric Barlow’s campaign for Senate District 23. He is running against Patricia Junek, an independent candidate.

In the past, the local GOP has donated money to candidates who had opposition in the general election. This year, it also is giving $5,000 to Rep. Chris Knapp, who is running against Larry Williamson of the Constitution Party.

“We wanted to certainly support those candidates that were chosen by the voters in the primary election,” said Charlene Camblin, secretary of the central committee.

The party is frustrated with Republican candidates “re-inventing themselves” to run in the general election, according to a press release from the party.

Camblin said she doesn’t like how candidates who were defeated in the primary election are still finding ways to make it to the general election.

“It’s like they’re trying to cheat the system, and I don’t appreciate that,” she said. “It’s sour grapes. It’s not accepting the will of the people.”

Junek said she finds it far more disturbing that the local GOP would financially support a candidate — Barlow — who she said isn’t Republican enough to be called a Republican.

Barlow and other legislators have been labeled by some conservative voters as “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only.

Junek said she will “always uphold the Republican Party platform,” but as far as the general election goes, she’s an independent candidate. She still is a registered Republican and said she’s allowed to use the Republican Party logo in her campaign.

Camblin said that if Junek wanted to run as a Republican in the general, then “she should’ve run as a Republican candidate in the primary.”

“It’s just not the way things have been done in Wyoming,” she said.

Independent candidates are uncommon but not unheard of in Campbell County. In the 2018 general election, Chad Trebby and David Hardesty ran as independents against then-incumbents Timothy Hallinan and Scott Clem, respectively. They were unsuccessful.

This year, more independent and write-in candidates have popped up on both sides of the Republican Party. Some, like Junek, are running essentially as Republicans with the Independent label against more moderate candidates who won their primary. In some counties, it’s the other way around, where a moderate candidate is running against a “true conservative,” Junek said.

It’s not just limited to the state legislature. After the primary, some Republicans sought an Independent candidate to run against Chuck Gray, who won the race for Secretary of State.

Junek said she decided at the start of July that she would run as an independent candidate, because “we knew a write-in was not going to win.”

It’s not known how many write-in votes Junek got in the primary, but according to the election results, the Senate District 23 race had 812 write-in votes. Barlow received more than 3,800.

Barlow did not respond to a message left requesting comment by the time of publication.

After the primary, Junek collected the required signatures necessary to make it onto the general election ballot. For a seat such as this, she needed at least 2% of the total number of votes cast in the last general election for the Wyoming House of Representatives. She said she’s interested to see how she’ll do in a “head to head race.”

According to Wyoming law, an unsuccessful candidate at a primary election is not eligible for nomination by petition for the same office at the next general election. Because Junek was not on the ballot in the primary, this does not apply to her.

The Casper Star-Tribune reported in September that the state GOP voted to no longer recognize Republicans who register to run in elections with another party affiliation. The rule went into effect immediately.

Junek attended the GOP meeting in Riverton where this decision was made. She said although she respects the party for its decision, she believes it was not well thought out, and that it was only done as a reaction to more moderate Republicans choosing to seek or support independent candidates in their campaigns against conservatives who’d won their races fair and square in the primary.

“The liberals of the party don’t want the real conservative candidate” to be in office, Junek said, adding that she wishes those “liberals” would break off from the Republican Party and form their own political party.

Still, she doesn’t believe the state GOP’s decision “was in the best interest of the party as a whole, for now or the future.”

There is a write-in campaign for Roger Connett, who lost in the primary race for Senate District 1. He lost to the incumbent, Sen. Ogden Driskill, by 442 votes. Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, came in third in that race.

“He ran as a Republican and was defeated,” Camblin said of Connett. “For him to turn around and run a write-in campaign just really shows a lack of integrity, and certainly poor ethics.”

Connett told the Star-Tribune that he hasn’t been involved in the write-in effort centered around him.

“I told them they could use my name, but that I wouldn’t be a part of the effort,” he said.

Ted Davis, a Crook County resident who unsuccessfully ran for House District 1 in 2014 and 2016, is leading the “Roger is Right” campaign, which he said began in earnest in mid-September.

Davis said he didn’t ask Connett to be involved in the write-in effort because he didn’t want “to pit him against the Republican Party.”

“Our primary dynamic has really been distorted lately through crossover voting,” Davis told the Star-Tribune. “In some ways, this campaign is to help express some dissatisfaction in that crossover vote.”

Junek said she’s concerned about where the Campbell County Republican Party is spending its money. That the party would support a candidate who never “fully represents” the GOP is “far more difficult to comprehend” than a registered Republican running as an independent, she said.

Camblin said Junek’s actions, as well as the actions of other independent candidates, are threatening to undermine the election process.

“The people’s voice is the law of the land, or it should be,” she said.

She said times have changed, in large part due to the past administration.

“Trump started it with the claim that the (2020 general) election was stolen,” she said.

His refusing to accept the election results has had an effect on his followers, Camblin added.

“Are there problems in our elections? Absolutely. Is there misconduct? I think that’s been going on for decades,” she said. “But nobody’s gone the length to stage a riot at the Capitol and refuse the transfer of power.”

While things in the Cowboy State have not even come close to the level of the Jan. 6 riot, Camblin said she’s worried about where things are trending.

“That’s just crazy in Wyoming,” she said. “That’s wrong.”


This story was published on Oct. 8, 2022.


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