CHEYENNE – Wyoming Democrats unanimously re-elected Party Chairman Joe Barbuto to a third term Saturday, April 17, on promises of better fundraising and heightened competitiveness. The vote came in the wake of lackluster results in the 2020 elections.
Barbuto — a former state lawmaker from Rock Springs — ran unopposed for the state party’s top spot. He’s held the post since 2016 and sources in Democratic politics say there has been mostly satisfaction with his leadership.
Incumbents Erin O’Doherty and Mandy Weaver also retained their seats as vice chair and secretary.
The re-elections follow an election in which Democrats lost most of the legislative seats they’d hoped would be competitive. 2020 also saw several state legislative districts — including in traditionally blue Sweetwater County — flip from blue to red. Only two of Wyoming’s 30 state senators and seven of its 60 representatives are Democrats. All five statewide elected officials — the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction — are Republicans.
Down-ballot Republicans were boosted by the popularity of former President Donald Trump who was also on the ticket, Barbuto said. That resulted in major policy losses for Democratic priorities in the statehouse, he said.
“The election of Donald Trump and the ascension of individuals to elected office who prescribe to his brand of politics and behavior has had an impact that didn’t go away during the 2020 election,” Barbuto said during Saturday’s elections, which took place remotely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “In fact I would say in the months since the election, Donald Trump’s brand of politics has only intensified.
“In this legislative session, lawmakers in Wyoming fully embraced the MAGA approach to governing,” he added. “Whether it was education, civil rights or any other topic that was covered in Cheyenne, you could count on a noticeable contingency of radical Republicans to put their ideology before the needs of our state and our people.”
Heading into the next election cycle, Barbuto told his fellow Democrats they have a winning message, namely because they — unlike Republicans, — are “the party of the people.”
It’s unclear how that message differs from the one that fell flat with Wyoming voters in 2020. Democrats identified and invested in several races last year in which they believed they could have been competitive. House Districts 11 and 44 in Cheyenne, HD-46 and Senate District-10 in Laramie, HD-54 in Lander, SD-12 in Rock Springs and HD-60 in Green River were swept by Republicans.
However, the margins in some of those races were within several hundred votes. That fact, coupled with the belief that his organization has improved its fundraising apparatus and grown more sophisticated, gives Barbuto hope for better future returns, he said.
“Looking back at 2020, we know that we had a better organization [than the Wyoming GOP], we had better grassroots support, better candidates, better staff, better county organizations,” Barbuto said in an interview with WyoFile. “But there was no planning for that incredible turnout of voters from the right, and it kind of brought us to this conclusion that — and it sounds simplistic — but if we want to win, we’re going to have to find some more Democratic voters.”
Much of that plan, Barbuto said, rests with improving the party’s messaging.
After raising a record-setting $29,000 from the organization’s Nellie Tayloe Ross fundraiser last year, the party overwhelmingly elected one of the event’s chief organizers, Jackie Grimes, to serve as party treasurer on Saturday. Grimes said she hoped to use the position not just to be the party’s accountant, but to bring in more funding to improve messaging and “help people understand” what Democrats have to offer in an increasingly nationalized political environment.
“I don’t know if you call it educating voters,” Barbuto said. “It’s more about letting them know the positives that are happening with Democrats and how we approach policy. The second part is holding Republicans accountable for their inaction or inability to get things done.”
The party has bought billboard space in Casper and Cheyenne to tout Democrats’ role in crafting the American Rescue Plan and the benefits it will have in Wyoming. It has also worked to expand its digital presence through increased advertising and utilizing new forums like TikTok and podcasting and cold-called Wyoming residents in an effort to connect them with federal programs like rent assistance or expanded healthcare credits passed as part of the ARP.
The strategy also includes physically finding more Democrats to participate in Wyoming’s elections. Looking into the future, the party has begun developing plans to begin voter registration drives in high schools around the state with a message tailored to young voters in the hopes some will eventually register as Democrats.
“Right now it’s kind of in its beginning stages and we’re figuring out how it’s going to be best accomplished in Wyoming,” Barbuto said. “We’ve seen examples from Arizona, Nevada and most recently, Georgia, about the changes you can make happen when you empower people to vote and give them the resources they need to vote. And so we realized that’s a place where our focus needs to be.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.