Primary was starkly different; Negative primary campaigns lead to concerns about civility

By: 
Seth Taylor with the Buffalo Bulletin, Via the Wyoming News Exchange

BUFFALO — When Nancy Schiffer - a political observer and wife of former Wyoming Senate President John Schiffer, a 21-year senator from Senate District 22 - would go door to door, campaigning on behalf of her husband or another politician, she was almost always graciously received. 

Even those who opposed Schiffer's husband would politely tell her that they didn't plan to vote for him. That's changed, she said.

"I wouldn't go door to door now," Schiffer said, "because you never know how people are going to respond, and they might not respond with graciousness or politeness." 

In interviews, candidates, current and former party activists and outside observers described the recent primary campaign as starkly different than previous years - more expensive and vitriolic - and more likely to negatively impact society beyond politics. 

"I'm afraid that's why the society is turning," said Bill Novotny, who has been involved in Republican Party politics for years and who won his third Republican primary for the Johnson County Commission this year. "People are forgetting that they're talking about their friends and neighbors." 

Johnson County Republican Party politics didn't always attract much attention. 

Gerry Eastwood, who took over as the party's chair in Johnson County in the mid-2000s, said the local party was anemic when he arrived. Barely half of the precinct committee positions were filled, and the party had almost no money. 

"When I got here, nobody was interested in politics at all," Eastwood said. 

This year, 64 people filed for 42 Republican precinct committeeman and committee woman seats, nearly triple the number of people who filed in 2020 and more than in any recent election, according to previous Bulletin reporting. In other local races, 21 candidates ran for nine positions.

Interest in politics extended statewide as well, where the effort to unseat Rep. Liz Cheney drew unprecedented national attention — and national dollars — while down-ballot races such as the campaign for secretary of state also grew contentious.

Locally, the House District 40 race between Rep. Barry Crago and Richard Tass attracted particular attention.

The two candidates combined spent almost $35,000, far more than in any election in recent memory, according to campaign finance disclosure records. This was the two men's second meeting after Crago unseated Tass in 2020. But both candidates said this election was dramatically different.

"I've worked a lot harder on this campaign than I did on the previous ones,” Tass said before election night. "And so I think Mr. Crago is a worthy opponent, and he's worth a lot of effort to try to defeat him.”


 

Crago won with 60% of the vote.

The kind of money spent by Crago and Tass, those involved in recent elections said, is unprecedented.

"I'm just shocked at the amount of money that people are spending on mailers and signage now. That just didn't happen," said Marilyn Connolly, a former county commissioner and a current Rural Health Care District board member and Republican precinct committeewoman.

What's also unprecedented, multiple people said, is the heavy involvement of political action committees in local races.

Schiffer said PACs have donated to local candidates, including her husband, who died in 2014. But it was usually in small amounts, and the PACs were small, local groups, like a trucking union or a peace officer's association.

This year, Crago received a slew of PAC donations totaling $12,300, including from three out-of-state PACs. 

All of those donations were unsolicited, said Crago, who did not indicate where his support would lie in the coming legislative sessions. Tass, on the other hand, did not receive direct donations from any PACs.

PACs also inserted themselves into local races by spending on behalf of candidates, much of it on ads attacking their opponents. The Patriot Conservatives of Wyoming, Wyoming is Right and Western Conservatives all paid for advertising in the HD 40 race, and the Patriot Conservatives (formerly the Patriot Conservatives of Johnson County) also endorsed John DeMatteis in the county commission race and funded ads opposing Novotny.

“They spend a lot of money trying to direct the outcome of the election as far as who gets elected and who doesn't," Connolly said, "and we didn't used to have that as much either.”

Everyone — including Crago and Tass — said the rise in outside money inserted into local races concerned them, especially as PACs distributed attack ads that, according to some, were deceptive.

“What is the intent? The intent isn't to help elect somebody,” Tass said. “The intent is to intimidate people who might support me or another candidate into not stepping forward to help them. So, yeah, I think that's a pretty bad deal." 

Representatives from the PACs disputed claims that their ads were negative or misrepresented the truth, saying they were factual. 

David Iverson, chair of the Patriot Conservatives of Wyoming, told the Bulletin previously that the PAC's ads were designed to educate voters.

But increasingly negative campaigning is a growing trend, according to election observers, both in local and statewide races.

Western Conservatives, which funded ads attacking Tass, also spent money on attack ads in a range of other Wyoming races, most of which poked fun at the candidates' credentials.

The secretary of state's race, which Novotny said exemplified the growing negativity, grew contentious in the final days of the campaign as Rep. Chuck Gray, who eventually won, distributed a mailer with dubious claims about his opponent, Sen. Tara Nethercott. A WyoFile fact check found the claims were false.

"I've never seen the nastiness, the vitriol of some of these flyers that are coming out in the mail,” Connolly said.

Schiffer added that she worries the negative campaigning will corrupt more than just politics as it seeps into everyday conversations and relationships.

“If politicians on both sides — it can be either side — are comfortable with lying all the time or saying falsehoods, what kind of example is that for kids? It's a terrible example," Schiffer said. “And it shows a descent into viciousness, I think, that wouldn't have been tolerated six years ago.”

Connolly and Schiffer both pointed to social media as one of the main reasons for the increase in viciousness. While lying or negative attacks in campaigns isn't new, according to Schiffer, it's been amplified by social media and the ability of individuals to isolate themselves among like-minded news sources.

“I really attribute a lot of it to social media,” Schiffer said. "People just see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and won't listen to the other side.”

Intensifying the rhetoric even further, Connolly and Novotny said, are divisions within the Republican Party. More moderate Republicans have frequently been lambasted as “Republicans in Name Only” by more conservative Republicans, and multiple sitting legislators saw primary challenges from the right. 

Novotny said he saw more sitting legislators challenged during this campaign — and defeated — than ever before.

Regardless of what side you're on, this past primary election “goes to show there was a lot of interest in the direction of the Republican Party and the direction of our country,” Novotny said.

If there's a silver lining to this election, it's voter engagement, Schiffer, Connolly, Novotny and Eastwood all said. People are paying more attention and getting involved in ways they hadn't before. 

But Novotny also said the toxic tone of campaigning could blunt some of that engagement going forward, making it more difficult to recruit candidates for future elections. It's hard enough to convince someone to serve in elected office without the threat of disingenuous attacks, he said.

"I hope for everyone's sake that people stay engaged, but they do it without the negativity," Novotny said. "But I'm afraid that that probably won't be the case.”

 

This story was published on Sept. 8, 2022.

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