Foster Friess file

Foster Friess speaks during a panel discussion on the importance of voting on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, at the Laramie County Library in Cheyenne. Friess came in second in the race for governor in Wyoming's Republican primary election. Blaine McCartney/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

The morning after his GOP primary election loss, Foster Friess asked other state party gubernatorial candidates whether they would support banning Democrats from switching parties on primary day.

In an email to Wyoming GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne and to each Republican candidate or a representative of their campaign – with the exception of party nominee Mark Gordon – Friess said voting results didn’t reflect his vision of Wyoming’s political makeup.

“It seems like the Democrats have figured out this party switch deal to their advantage,” Friess said in the email. “I guess there’s 114,000 registered Republicans and 17,000 registered Democrats. No way is that the actual mix, and with Trump getting 70 percent of the vote, it shows how the Democrats have been able to control our elections with putting on a Republican coat.”

WyoFile received the email from an anonymous source. Friess confirmed in a phone call he wrote the email, but asked for questions about it to be sent to him via email so he could consider whether to answer them. He later declined to comment.

“That was not intended to go public,” Friess said of the email.

Eathorne did not immediately respond to a voicemail requesting comment about the email.

Friess began his email with the question: “What do you think of increasing our chances … of getting a conservative elected as governor four years from now?”

Friess suggested two changes to Wyoming election law, which today allows people to change their party registration the day of a primary to vote in either the Republican or Democratic race.

If the candidates were interested in “getting together and putting our constituents together,” Friess wrote, “we could do two things.” His first suggestion was to change the policy of same-day registration to “something like 25 days.”

The second was to have a runoff election. “The conservative vote was split among us, and I think 26 states do have a run off [sic],” he wrote. “So, in this case a conservative would have won if the run off [sic] policy was in place.”

Runoff elections usually consist of a second race in which voters select between the top two vote-getters from the first round, according to the election information website Ballotpedia. They occur in states that require voters to have a majority, as opposed to a plurality, of the vote to receive the primary nomination.

If a runoff had been held in this case, Friess and Gordon would have moved to a second round, and Friess, or Gordon, may have had a chance to bring over like-minded voters from the other candidates. According to Ballotpedia, 10 states have primary runoff elections. In one state, Vermont, runoffs are only held in the case of a tie, according to the website.

In his email, Friess also suggested he intended to become more involved with Wyoming politics, and offered to support his recent rivals’ endeavors.

“To my fellow candidates who I have copied, except for Mark, again I want to say how blessed I am to have gotten to know you better and how I admire each of you for what you have accomplished so far, and I’m looking forward to helping you succeed in your endeavors,” he wrote. “Let me know how I could play a role in that.

“God has blessed me with resources that I’m sure He would like to be put to use to further our Founding Father values and His values,” Friess added.

In an interview with the Jackson Hole News & Guide following his concession Tuesday night, Friess touted the accomplishments of his campaign. “Most importantly, we feel we’ve had a victory in that we’ve established a change in the culture in our state,” he said.

He told the newspaper he intended to stay involved in Wyoming politics.

At least one other candidate on the email agreed with Friess that voters shouldn’t switch parties to influence elections, and that she would like to see a change.

“It has been an issue in Wyoming for a long time,” Harriet Hageman told WyoFile. She had not been able to look at the numbers sufficiently to know whether such switching could have influenced the outcome this year, she said. “There are Republicans and Democrats for a reason,” Hageman said.

Phoebe Stoner, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, which works on governance issues, disagrees.

“Sounds like an idea that is coming from an outsider,” Stoner said of Friess’ email.

“It contradicts the very spirit of Wyoming,” she said in a telephone interview. “This is a place where often voters don’t want to be put in a box or limited to party politics. We have many independent, non-affiliated voters, as well as voters affiliated with smaller parties such as the Libertarian Party.

“Citizens of Wyoming have the fundamental right to vote for who they believe to be the best candidate in the race of their choice,” Stoner said. “We should not be working to restrain them because some didn’t get the results they wanted.”

Gordon has faced attacks over the past few months challenging his conservative credentials, with many coming through anonymous fliers and pre-recorded phone calls, the sources of which have yet to be identified.

Through a campaign spokesperson, the Gordon campaign declined to comment for this story.

Gordon has repeatedly pushed back against the attacks and said he was running as a conservative. In the days leading up to the primary vote, yet another “dark money” political group joined a number of others already operating in the state.

Called the Independent Republicans of Wyoming, the group registered as a 501(c)4 nonprofit, allowing it to spend money on politics without disclosing where contributions came from.

Through a campaign labeled “Switch for Wyoming,” the group called on Independents and Democrats in Wyoming to cross party lines and vote for Gordon, in order to keep a “moderate” option in the governor’s race.

Asked about the group at his campaign’s watch party in Buffalo on Tuesday night, Gordon told WyoFile he did not know who was behind it.

“I don’t know anything about that stuff,” he said less than an hour before news sites declared him the victor. Gordon added he was “disappointed” by that effort, as well as by the amount of anonymous spending and “the kinda whisper stuff” generally.

He did not know if the Independent Republicans of Wyoming group’s efforts had been designed to help him, he said, or to hurt his campaign by further painting him as a false conservative. “At this point, I don’t trust anything,” he said.

With the primary over, Gordon will want the Republican Party to coalesce behind him for his general election campaign against Democrat Mary Throne. As of Tuesday night, the party intended to do that, according to a report in the Casper Star-Tribune.

It’s unclear whether sufficient voters switched to make a difference in the election. Gordon defeated Friess, his closest competitor, by 9,098 votes, according to unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s office.

According to those results, 19,469 Democrats voted in Tuesday’s Democratic primary – 5,252 fewer than the 24,721 who voted in the last major Democratic primary for a gubernatorial race, in 2010. All other things being equal, one might estimate that 5,252 Democrats switched to the Republican primary this year.

But the 2010 Democratic primary was far more competitive than this year’s, giving Democrats a reason to weigh in on their preliminary election. The result was a close finish between candidates Pete Gosar and Leslie Petersen.

This year, however, Democrat Mary Throne was largely seen as running without serious competition, and handily won her party’s nomination with 10,553 votes more than her closest rival.

Republican turnout was up compared to 2010, when 106,404 people voted. This year, there were 117,988 Republican ballots cast – out of the 177,604 people that were registered Republicans in the state before polls opened. That means 11,584 more voters cast ballots in the 2018 GOP primary than the 2010 tilt.

Overall, turnout was the highest it’s ever been in a primary election, said Will Dinneen, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office. But if measured against the eligible voting-age population, the turnout was one point lower than in 2010, Dinneen said.

Friess isn’t the first Republican to suggest closing the primaries. During the 2017 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers proposed a bill restricting party changes to 30 days out from a primary election. The bill passed the House and failed by one vote in the Senate Corporations Committee.

In deep-red Wyoming, Independent and Democrat voters have often seen voting Republican as the only way to meaningfully participate in races, particularly some at the local level, opponents of the legislation said at the time.

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

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