How voters in the most conservative state of Mountain West are grappling with change

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Wyoming’s midterm elections pushed the deep red state even further to the right. At the same time, the country is reinventing itself, because the energy transition and, in some communities, a wave of immigration bring great opportunities and challenges. Will Walkey of the Mountain West News Bureau recently took a “listening tour” of Wyoming to hear how residents are struggling with change.

Some Wyoming cities are at a crossroads as the state seeks to diversify its economy and tax revenues. Casper, for example, is hours from any metropolitan area outside of the state and has historically relied on oil and natural gas for much of its economic output. When I visited on a Thursday in October, it was unusually warm and calm.

Justin Farley, CEO of Advance Casper, the local economic development alliance, said much of his work involves persuading new companies to see the appeal of Natrona County beyond the typical boom-bust cycles of energy development.

“We really need to be self-sufficient,” he told me. “We are a very hardworking, extraordinarily talented workforce. But the cycles, the boom-bust cycles, we just really want to try to find a way for people to balance that out a little bit.”

Farley wants Casper to become even more of a manufacturing, aerospace, and science hub. He also said it’s important that small businesses continue to fill downtown storefronts and restaurants. Other state residents would also welcome diversification from Wyoming.

Will Walkey/Wyoming Public Media

The Better Together Mural in Casper includes the names of over 1,200 community members and key workers.

“I just saw so many people who had great jobs [who] now they don’t have it, and they don’t have insurance,” said former railroad worker Joanne Hanson.

“Our hotels, when they’re full, are full of people who work the wind farms, coal seam gas workers, oil field workers, these are not your tourists,” Douglas Mayor Rene Kemper said. “You’re not going to go to the store and buy some t-shirts.”

The difficult and complex shift away from fossil fuels is the top priority for many in Wyoming and throughout Mountain West. The GOP dominated halftime in large parts of the region. In Utah, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, Republicans won races for vacant governorships and seats in the US House and Senate. Many candidates in these states have pushed back federal government moves to support renewable energy and promoted energy independence.

But energy isn’t everything in Wyoming — or the region.

Between stops on the tour, I filled up my Subaru with unleaded gas in Kaycee, a largely rancher community. I turned around and saw a flock of several hundred sheep moving through downtown. Many locals stopped to wave and watch.

It’s that Wyoming and its Main Street charm that people still love. Amy Albrecht has lived in Sheridan for 30 years and shares these sentiments.

“I think what makes me the happiest, apart from just looking at the mountains every day, is that I really feel like you can make a difference in this state,” she said. “You can actually make real change. Because you know your legislator, and if you don’t, you could find him or her pretty quickly.”

Albrecht works for the Center for a Vital Community, a local non-profit organization affiliated with Sheridan College. She speaks to many companies and members of the public who share her values. And many of them fear that their home state will become too popular.

“When you feel like you have something special, you want to hold on to it,” she said. “What does that mean? You can’t close the gate behind you.”

A block of shops in Sheridan.

(Will Walkey/Wyoming Public Media)

A block of shops in Sheridan.

Property taxes, electoral integrity, and green energy were all mentioned during the tour, and others had complaints about inflation, the federal government, and immigration at the US-Mexico border. But perhaps the most contentious issue has been the perception that local communities are changing, in part due to the influx of people from abroad.

“I’m not one of those people who wants to bring a lot of diversity into our state,” said Gillette contractor Tyler Miller. “I think our state is conservative and we enjoy our neighbors and we enjoy doing the things that we do in Wyoming, we don’t want to change much.”

A mural at 3rd Street Plaza in downtown Gillette.

(Will Walkey/Wyoming Public Media)

A mural at 3rd Street Plaza in downtown Gillette.

Rapid shifts in less populated areas could have policy implications. Seth Masket, a professor at the University of Denver, said there could be some backlash from longtime residents, particularly because Many of the country’s fastest growing states are located in the Mountain West. Many people are moving to states in our region might also migrate to avoid more liberal policies in coastal states.

It’s certainly plausible that there’s more resentment in that direction, particularly in places like Montana where some smaller towns have seen fairly significant increases in home prices,” Masket said.

Judging by the election results, priorities are different south of Wyoming, where the states are located tend to be more urban and diverse. Masket said issues like energy and demographic shifts may have less of an impact in those states.

Arizona and Nevada still have some races up in the air, but Democrats do won two crucial Senate races there. New Mexico turned blue consistently in the state and federal races, and the Democrats did very well in Colorado as well, especially given high inflation and President Biden’s unpopularity.

“For a long time it was just considered a purple state, a very competitive state, and now it looks a lot deeper blue,” Masket said.

In general, Masket said this election showed that red areas were getting redder and blue areas were getting bluer across the country. Mount West is no exception.

A tourist attraction in Douglas, the self-proclaimed,

(Will Walkey/Wyoming Public Media)

A tourist attraction in Douglas, the self-proclaimed “Jackalope Capital of the World”.

The final leg of my listening tour was The Quintessential Wyoming. I passed windmills and trains full of coal. oil rigs and cattle ranches. Pronghorn herds. Wide open spaces and very few people.

Robert Short, a former nuclear scientist, was my last interview. He had much to say about Wyoming’s future.

“We want to see well-paying jobs, we want to see well-growing communities, we want to see good, vibrant, healthy discourse, and we want nothing to change. And therein lies the rub,” he said. “These things can’t happen without a willingness to change a little bit.”

The town that Short comes from, Glenrock, can get a next-generation nuclear reactor in the next decade that he’s looking forward to. He also wants more electric vehicle charging stations, innovative farming techniques and other newer industries to grow in the state. Above all, however, he would like politicians to be more willing to try out new things.

He said states in our region must choose whether to work with the federal government or fight back as national priorities shift — and risk being left behind. But as the election results show, political divisions in Mountain West are widening.

This story was produced by Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliated stations throughout the region. The Mountain West News Bureau is funded in part by the Society for Public Service Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more visit Wyoming Public Radio.

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