As Wyoming Goes Further Right, Teton County Continues Pushing Left

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Republican candidates for local and national races, deepening Teton County’s outlier status amid a sea of red. Is a local blue wave a reaction to Trump or reflective of a larger tide?
(Emily Cohen)

Democrats won big in Teton County this year. Former Vice President Joe Biden picked up roughly 67 percent of the vote, and it was a similar story in both the U.S. Senate and House races. Local candidates also fared well. 

But that starkly contrasts the rest of Wyoming, which by and large voted strongly for President Donald Trump and Republican candidates. The divide between Teton County and the rest of the state has only deepened in the last four years. 

Both sides of the political spectrum organized hard in Teton County this election cycle, trying to get as many people as possible to the polls. And local residents, including Tom Haigh, noticed. 

Sounds like a lot more people are voting than ever have. So that’s probably a darn good thing,” he said.

Numbers-wise, the county recorded its highest local turnout. Nina Hebert, communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party, commended her organization’s volunteer coordination just before polls closed on Tuesday. 

“The staff has been in constant contact all day, and talking to our field organizers, our candidates, our party chairs, and our field organizers on the ground,” she said. “And we have been very pleased with the way that things have gone and are so happy to have had so many volunteers.”

Chair of the Teton County GOP Alexander Muromcew was also pleased with his party’s efforts to organize during a pandemic. But in the nonpartisan mayoral race, candidate Michael Kudar’s open affiliation as a Republican could have played a role in his defeat. He lost to Hailey Morton Levinson by more than 20 points. Meanwhile, Democrats Natalia Macker and Greg Epstein retained their seats on the Board of Teton County Commissioners, preserving the board’s Democratic majority. Muromcew was surprised and disappointed. 

I thought we had some very strong candidates, all of whom were running very good campaigns,” he said. 

These local results starkly contrasted statewide races, which broke in the opposite direction. Nick Reynolds, Wyoming politics reporter for the Casper Star Tribune, says  Trump is on track to have improved by about three percentage points this year statewide. 

“That, of course, translated to a number of Republicans finally getting over the hump in a number of areas of the state, most notably in Sweetwater County, which, even now is considered somewhat of a Democratic stronghold in Wyoming,” he said. “Those state House seats had been safely in Democratic hands for decades. Those all ended up flipping.”

Not only did Republicans pick up several key state House seats, but they also pushed their candidates even further right than they previously were. 

We’ve seen that evolve, I guess most presciently out in Campbell County, where some longtime moderate candidates have been ousted by very, very conservative candidates in a district that has long been a moderating voice,” Reynolds said. 

It wasn’t all bad for Democrats. They flipped Albany County for Biden, and made strides in Laramie County. But Teton County, the bluest in Northern Rockies, stands out as an outlier. 

Teton County is very similar to what we saw in the rest of the country, where bluer areas of the country simply got bluer, and red areas of the country got redder,” Reynolds said.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton earned 57 percent of the vote countywide. That’s 10 percent less than Joe Biden received this year. Reynolds says this huge jump can’t be completely attributed to an ideological shift. However, the age of Trump has clearly entrenched Teton County even more as a political island. 

Jim Rooks, a former schoolteacher and a newly elected Jackson town councilor, says he’s felt that political isolation for years. 

Jackson Town Councilor-elect Jim Rooks (Screenshot)

“There’s a longstanding running joke that says Jackson’s just a 30-minute drive from Wyoming,” he said.

Rooks says that he, too, is a sort of outlier among winners this election. He’s been registered for both major political parties in his life. 

It was really important to run as an independent. And quite honestly, it kind of hurt me. It was a big risk,” he said. “It would have been really easy, you know, to put a ‘D’ before my name. And some people who wanted me to put an ‘R’ before my name. And I just like the unaffiliated ‘I.’”

Rooks’s opponents on the left say his viewpoints aren’t clear, and that he’s really just a Republican. Rooks claims that there is some room for nuance, especially in a race that’s supposed to be nonpartisan. 

“I’m not like what they call the ‘marshmallow meddle,’ where you just say, ‘oh, I’m a centrist on everything,’” he said. “I have strongly held political ideologies. They just spread across the political spectrum.”

One of Rooks’ critics during election season, Jessica Sell Chambers, is the other newcomer to the town council. Unlike other councilors, she’s extremely vocal about her political affiliation. 

“I’m one of four elected members of the Democratic Party that go and represent Wyoming at the National Party—the DNC. And I mean, that’s that’s no secret,” she said.

Chambers says she’s been labeled a communist by local Republicans. But that didn’t stop her from taking home the win this year. “I personally think that the more progressive you are, the more in tune you are with working people,” she said. 

Chambers interacts a lot with other members of her party on the state and local level. When she travels to other parts of Wyoming, she says she feels like she’s on an island, even when discussing political strategy. 

Democrats elsewhere are kind of envious of our situation here,” she said. “And they say … we are out of touch with the rest of the state.”

Jessica Sell Chambers will join Jim Rooks as Jackson Town Council’s other newcomer. (Courtesy photo)

Still, Chambers says Teton County is only liberal relative to the rest of the state. A seventh cent of sales tax didn’t pass this year, for example. So, she says, coastal democrats don’t understand the issues Jackson Democrats are facing, either.

For his part, Murcomcew says local conservatives are very different from the Republican party, both in the rest of the state and in the nation. 

I think a lot of the independent voters in Teton County are moderate Republicans … Socially, they’re libertarian, fiscally they’re conservative,” he said. “So, by definition I think that pulls our party toward the center.”

Muromcew says his party will try and capitalize on that ideology in 2022. Meanwhile, Democrats will enjoy the power they have to make change on Teton Island.

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About Will Walkey

Will is KHOL's newest reporter and producer. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, he recently graduated from Columbia University with a Master's Degree in journalism. He likes to read and write about housing, local politics, and history, and spends most of his free time fishing or biking. He's excited to be living in Wyoming, and looks forward to honing in on his unique radio voice by highlighting the locals that make Jackson special. Contact Will with tips at will@jhcr.org, and follow him on Twitter at @WillWalkey.

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