Gillette State Rep. Says Wyoming Needs More, Not Fewer, Partisan Political Races
State Rep. Chris Knapp, R-Gillette, believes partisan politics permeate into many aspects of our day-to-day lives.
“The principles of governance, budget, those things, there’s a difference between parties, good or bad,” he told Cowboy State Daily.
A common complaint levied in American society is that it’s become too partisan. Political campaigns sometimes drag on for years and in the run up to elections, political yard signs are frequently stolen or vandalized.
Numerous studies show that over the last few decades, the Democratic and Republican parties have drifted away from the ideological center.
Knapp has no issue with cultivating that political divide.
In fact, he wants to actively capitalize on it by making city council and school board races partisan in Wyoming.
“One of the reasons we have parties is so that you can identify with the set of principles that a party exemplifies so that people can understand you better,” Knapp said. “I think it’s important just for people to be able to identify where you’re at on the political spectrum so they can have an idea what you’re going to do.”
The lowest level of local partisan races in Wyoming are for county commissioner, a position Knapp held in Campbell County from 2001-2012.
“Part of that is because you’re in charge of a lot of things financially,” Knapp said.
He sees little difference between the types of decisions county commissioners and city council members make, drawing a connection between party affiliation and overall fiscal judgment when making multimillion-dollar budgets that are sometimes similar in size between a county and its largest municipality.
But aside from budget making, which in most municipalities consists of paying debts and deciding whether to begin or forgo various maintenance and infrastructure projects, city councils rarely address partisan topics.
Principles Vs. Politics
Knapp, who was appointed to his Wyoming House seat in 2020 before being elected in 2022, said he tries to be as transparent as possible about his views when he runs for office.
A member of the Wyoming Freedom Caucus, a staunchly conservative group of state Republicans, said that although he says he takes input from all his constituents, Knapp said his guiding basis is his conservative values.
Knapp said he sees a difference between identifying with a political party and playing politics. Unlike personal principles, he doesn’t believe politics plays a role in governance.
“I don’t like politics,” he said. “But when it comes to principles, I think it’s important for people to have that in our decision.”
One of Knapp’s principles does run contrary to a viewpoint held by many Republicans, however. He opposes runoff elections, a practice many hardline conservatives have said they support.
“I think that’s where politics gets taken out of it,” he said. “If I believe in one man, one vote. That should be consistent.”
School Board Races
Knapp also supports partisan school board races.
“When you look at a school board, much of their duty is budget,” he said. “It’s important to know where they lie on the spectrum.”
School board races in particular have become particularly influenced by partisan interests over the last few years in Wyoming, with discussions about banning books, teaching of gender orientation and critical race theory, and COVID-19 regulations often dominating discussions.
At a Wyoming Freedom Caucus town hall Saturday, Natrona County School District Board of Trustees member Mary Schmidt implored attendees to run for their local school boards and attend meetings.
“You got to attend it because that is where you’re going to affect the education,” she said. “The education system is inundated with the education industry, which is at the national level, and that’s where you’re getting the liberal everything.
“We can do things here internally, but we need to have that support. I’m one of two voices on the school board.”
A National Trend
The message is part of a larger national trend brought by many Republicans.
According to Scholars.org, between 2/3 and 3/4 of all U.S. localities use “nonpartisan” ballots for school board races.
The Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute and the Education Department civil rights chief under former Secretary Betsy DeVos have all pushed partisan school board elections in recent years, according to a 2021 Politico story,
Four states automatically hold partisan school board races statewide. Five others allow communities to choose if they want partisan elections.
In North Carolina, state lawmakers have nearly tripled the number of partisan school boards across the state over the last decade, according to Media Hub. In 2021, Tennessee lawmakers approved a measure that allows school board candidates to list their party affiliation on the ballot.
There’s nothing stopping school board candidates in Wyoming from telling voters on the campaign trail what their party affiliation is. That’s a tactic many candidates used during the 2022 cycle.
According to the Northern Wyoming News, the Washakie County Republican Party hosted a forum with only Republican school board candidates.
In Laramie County, the local Republican and Democratic parties both endorsed candidates running for Laramie County School District 1.
About 45 minutes west in Albany County, a left-leaning political action committee was formed to support school board candidates there.
Other Partisan Races
County coroner, district court clerk and clerk positions are already partisan races in Wyoming.
Knapp said he generally supports having any elected position involve a partisan declaration, but if he were to draw a line, it would probably be on improvement service districts, such as waste and conservation districts.
That’s because “they have one purpose and a focused mission,” he said.