Wyoming Democrats get drubbed - again - but not giving up

FILE - Albany County Sheriff Aaron Appelhans stands in the county courthouse in Laramie, Wyo., on Feb. 3, 2021. Appelhans is among a rare few in Wyoming, a Democrat, who won in Tuesday's midterm election in this ever-redder state. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Aaron Appelhans is among a rare few in Wyoming: A Democrat who won in Tuesday’s midterm election in this ever-redder state.

After being appointed as Wyoming’s first Black sheriff almost a year ago, he is now the state’s first elected Black sheriff. He beat a 20-year Republican police veteran with 52% of the vote.

"Albany County's kind of purple politically, so I was able to run on my record, the things that I've done," Appelhans said Thursday.

Yet across Wyoming, Democrats suffered another dismal election even as their party defied expectations and did reasonably well nationwide.

Democrats didn't even field candidates for three of Wyoming's six statewide races, those for secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor. They got just 25%, 17% and 23% in the other three, the contests for U.S. House, governor and superintendent of public instruction, respectively.

The party will keep its two seats in the 31-member state Senate. But Democrats lost two of their seven seats in the 62-member state House, pushing their share of the Legislature under 8%.

Wyoming had a centrist Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal, from 2003-2011. But in a state that cherishes gun ownership, is often suspicious of LGBTQ+ advocacy and stands up for its all-important coal mining industry amid efforts to limit climate change, the party has been on the decline here since the 1990s.

“We’ve had election cycle after election cycle now, dating back to 1994, when Republicans have been very effective at characterizing any Wyoming Democrat as representing the national party," University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King said. “Whether they do doesn’t really matter. In these low-information races, the charge sticks, and Democrats then find themselves at a disadvantage on election night.”

But even in the state that gave Donald Trump 70% of the vote in 2020, some Democrats insist they can still win by talking to as many voters, one-on-one, as possible.

Appelhans credits on-the-ground campaigning, good organization and hard work by volunteers — along with policing reforms he has implemented in the Sheriff's Office — for his win in southeastern Wyoming's Albany County, home to the University of Wyoming.

“It took a lot of time. I worked two jobs,” Appelhans said of his campaign. "We had a good crew, a large, large group of volunteers, people that, you know, are believers in my abilities, believers in the campaign, to go out there and help as well. It really was kind of a community effort.”

Another Democratic winner was Pete Gosar, a former state party chairman who was reelected to the Albany County County Commission. Gosar got the most votes in a four-way race for two commission seats up for grabs.

A brother of Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, Gosar rejected any notion that most Albany County voters, at least, are hyper-partisan, once you get to know them personally.

“It's not just luck. There's a real strategy to get out and meet people,” Gosar said. “You hear about hyper partisanship, and you'd expect that in the state that voted for the former president by the widest margin. But that's not what I found, whether it was Republican, Democratic or independent doors. They might not vote for you, but there was kindness and cordiality.”

Decades ago, Democrats used to be able to rely on Albany County and the rest of southern Wyoming, with its many union railroad and coal mining jobs, as reliable turf.

But not for a long time now. Along with Albany County, only Teton County at the doorstep of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks has an electorate not overwhelmingly Republican.

Wyoming's losing Democrats this year included the chairman of the state party, Joe Barbuto, who with 31% of the vote failed to win re-election as Sweetwater County treasurer. Barbuto didn't immediately return phone and social media messages Thursday seeking comment.

Another was Chad Banks, whose state House district nestles within southwestern Wyoming's Sweetwater County. A gay former Rock Springs City Council member who was first elected to the state House in 2020, Banks got 39% of the vote in losing to a local Republican businessman.

Banks voted with Republicans 90% or more of the time in the Legislature, he said, but getting associated with issues pushed by Democrats nationally cost him and other Democrats in the state.

“I still support our coal communities in Wyoming. I hope that coal remains a strong industry in Wyoming. It's important to my community and it's important to my state — and that's of course different than what you're hearing from the D.C. crowd,” Banks said.

For Gosar at least, the key for Wyoming Democrats to counter the party's perspective nationally is to bring a Wyoming-focused message to as many people as possible locally.

“”It's easy to, you know, sing the death song for the Wyoming Democratic Party, and things are difficult," Gosar said. "But I think there's real opportunity, and I think it all starts with some of the stuff that's been done in Albany County. You have to get out and talk to people and give them a different perspective.”

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play.

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver