How voters in the Mountain West's most conservative state are grappling with change
Wyoming's midterm elections sent the deep-red state even further to the right. At the same time, the state is reinventing itself, as the energy transition and, in some communities, a wave of new residents bring big opportunities and challenges. The Mountain West News Bureau’s Will Walkey recently went on a “listening tour” across Wyoming to hear how residents are contending with change.
Some of Wyoming's cities are at a crossroads as the state looks to diversify its economy and tax revenues. Casper, for example, is hours from any out-of-state metro area and has historically relied on oil and natural gas for much of its economic output. It was uncharacteristically warm and quiet when I visited on a recent Thursday in October.
Justin Farley, CEO of Advance Casper, the local economic development alliance, said a lot of his job is convincing new companies to see Natrona County’s appeal beyond the typical boom-bust cycles of energy development.
“We really have to be self-reliant,” he told me. “We’re a very industrious, extraordinarily talented workforce. But the cycles, the boom-bust cycles, we just really want to try to find a way to smooth that out a little bit for people.”
Farley wants Casper to become even more of a hub for manufacturing, aerospace and science. He also said it’s important that small businesses continue to fill storefronts and restaurants downtown. Other state residents would like to see Wyoming diversify as well.
“I've just seen so many people who had great jobs [who] now don't have it, and they don't have the insurance,” said former railroad worker Joanne Hanson.
“Our hotels, when they're full, they're full of the guys working on the wind farms, coal bed methane workers, oil field workers, they're not your tourists,” Douglas mayor Rene Kemper said. “They're not going to go down to the shop and buy a couple T-shirts.”
The fraught and complex move away from fossil fuels is top of mind for many in Wyoming and across the Mountain West. The GOP dominated midterms across much of the region. Republicans swept races for open governorships and U.S. house and senate seats in Utah, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Many candidates in these states have pushed back on the federal government’s moves supporting renewables and promoted energy independence.
But energy is not the whole story in Wyoming – or the region.
Between two stops on the tour, I filled up my Subaru with unleaded fuel in Kaycee, a mostly ranching community. I turned around to see a herd of several hundred sheep moving through downtown. Many locals stopped to wave and watch.
It’s this Wyoming, and its Main Street charm, that people still love. Amy Albrecht has lived in Sheridan for 30 years and echoes those feelings.
“I think the thing that makes me the happiest other than just looking at the mountains every day is that I really feel like in this state you can make a difference,” 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 nonprofit affiliated with Sheridan College. She talks to a lot of businesses and members of the public who share her values. And many of them are worried their home state is becoming too popular.
“When you feel like you have something that's special, you want to hold on to that,” she said. “What does that mean? You don't get to shut the gate behind you.”
Property taxes, election integrity and green energy were all mentioned during the tour, and others had complaints about inflation, the federal government and immigration at the U.S.- Mexico border. But perhaps the most divisive issue was the perception that local communities are changing partially because of people moving in from out of state.
“I'm not one that wants to attract a lot of diversity into our state,” said heavy equipment contractor Tyler Miller of Gillette. “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 bring in a lot of change.”
Rapid shifts in less populated areas could be having an effect on politics. Seth Masket, a professor at the University of Denver, said there could be some backlash from longtime residents, especially because many of the fastest growing states in the country are in the Mountain West. Many people moving to states in our region could also be migrating to avoid more liberal policies in coastal states.
It's certainly plausible that there's more resentment along those lines, particularly in places like Montana, where some smaller cities have seen a pretty substantial increase in housing prices,” Masket said.
Judging by election results, priorities are different south of Wyoming, where states tend to be more urban and diverse. Masket said issues like energy and shifting demographics could be less impactful in these states.
Arizona and Nevada still have some races up in the air, but Democrats won two crucial senate races there. New Mexico went solid blue in state and federal races, and Democrats also did very well in Colorado, especially considering high inflation and President Biden’s unpopularity.
“For a long time, it's just been considered a purple state, a very competitive state, and it's looking just much more deep blue now,” Masket said.
In general, Masket said this election showed that red areas across the country are getting redder, and blue areas are getting bluer. The Mountain West is no exception.
The final leg of my listening tour was quintessential Wyoming. I passed windmills and trains full of coal. Oil rigs and cattle ranches. Herds of pronghorn. Wide open spaces, and very few people.
Robert Short, a former nuclear scientist, was my last interview. He had a lot to say about Wyoming’s future.
“We want to see good paying jobs, we want to see good growing communities, we want to see good, vibrant, healthy discourse, and we want nothing to change. And therein is the rub,” he said. “Those things can’t happen without a willingness to change a little bit.”
The town where Short’s from, Glenrock, may be getting a next-generation nuclear reactor in the next decade, which he’s excited about. He also wants to see more electric vehicle charging stations, innovative farming techniques and other newer industries grow in the state. But most of all, he wants to see more willingness from politicians to try new things.
He said states in our region need to decide if they’re going to work with the federal government or fight it as national priorities shift – and risk being left behind. But as the election results show, the Mountain West's political divide is only growing wider.
This story was produced by the 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 affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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