August 1, 2022 |

The gubernatorial debate in Riverton Thursday night covered a range of issued and even produced some fireworks. After running for nearly 50 minutes in typical, mild-mannered back-and-forth exchanges, one of Governor Mark Gordon’s two challengers unexpectedly demanded that the other one drop out of the race.

The governor stayed clear of the fray between Rex Rammell and Brent Bien. Then again, Gordon had earlier refused to take a side about Congresswoman Liz Cheney’s fight with Donald Trump and his supporters. The governor may have been as surprised as the audience as Rammell argued that Bien is ineligible to hold the office of governor.

The scene was the Robert A. Peck Theater at Central Wyoming Community College in Riverton. Rammell pointed to Article 4, Section 2 of the Wyoming Constitution, which requires the governor to have resided in Wyoming in the five years prior to taking office. Bien, a Laramie native and former Marine Colonel, moved back to Wyoming in 2019 upon retiring from the military after 28 years of service.

Pictured above: (L-R) Rex Rammell, Brent Bien and Governor Mark Gordon during the Wyoming Gubernatorial Republican Primary Debate at Central Wyoming College, July 28, 2022. Image courtesy of Wyoming PBS.

A naval aviator since 1991, Bien retired three years ago as commander of a U.S. Marine Corps base in Guam. Prior to that post, Bien worked in both support and leadership roles in Bosnia/Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Since announcing that he was running for governor, Bien has stressed that he never gave up state residency after joining the military and has voted in every Wyoming election since he was 18.

Bien defended his record and his eligibility, saying the issue has been vetted by the Secretary of State’s office, the agency in charge of Wyoming elections.

Until that point, the debate between the three Republican candidates in the August primary was standard fare. On many of the issues, the candidates held similar views with minor differences between them. For instance, all three were a strong “no” on Medicaid expansion, saying the invisible federal strings attached to the funding could carry too high a price. The governor led the charge against the expansion issue that has come up at every session of the Wyoming Legislature in recent years.

Wyoming is one of 12 states that have resisted expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The federal government provides states a federal matching rate for the cost of expanding Medicaid coverage to cover the cost of adults with incomes up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level of $17,744. The fear of accepting the match is that Washington will yank it away some day, or reduce the amount of the match, straining the budgets of states like Wyoming.

Rammell said the last thing people in Wyoming should do “is get more addicted to federal money.” Washington is bound to go bankrupt under the strain of its $30 trillion of debt, he said.

The Biden administration has threatened to withhold federal funding to force compliance with issues like medical mandates and school curriculum. Bien said he is also opposed to Medicaid expansion and said the solution lies with the private sector, not with Washington.

The three candidates also shared similar views on other hot button issues, such as Second Amendment protections, keeping Critical Race Theory out of schools and advancing Wyoming-first energy policies that challenge the Biden administration’s anti-carbon agenda.

One topic that allowed separation between the candidates was Governor Gordon’s handling of COVID-19 breakout. Bien and Rammell both said Gordon overreached his authority in 2020. Bien took the first swing at the series of public health orders and business closures handed down from Cheyenne.

Governor Mark Gordon defended the public health orders he enacted, saying he withstood pressure to take even more drastic actions.

Some of the attacks came from inside Wyoming. Governor Gordon responded angrily at early news conferences to calls from his political left that he should issue a statewide “stay at home order.” Critics on his right questioned the science and the legality of the orders. Gordon famously called the resistors “knuckleheads.” Rammell said Thursday night that Gordon went too far.

Another subject that highlighted the candidates’ differences was whether Wyoming should accept ARPA stimulus money from Washington. Bien said the COVID-relief money carries a price tag of its own.

Bien pivoted to a campaign talking point about moving the state budget to a cash basis system that requires money to be in the bank before any spending occurs. Governor Gordon took a pragmatic view, saying the federal stimulus dollars can help while the state fights Washington over the regulations that are starving domestic oil and gas production and the state revenues they produce.

The City of Rawlins is seeking a $7.4 million ARPA grant through the State Loan and Investment Board to help repair its aging municipal water infrastructure system.

The ARPA question produced one of the most radical responses of the night. Rammell said he would reject federal subsidies. From poverty and crime on the Wind River Indian Reservation to the decline of the carbon-based energy industries in Wyoming, Rammell said most if not all the state’s problems can be traced to the heavy-handed federal presence here.

Taylor Haynes, who is advising the Rammell campaign, made a similar promise about exercising state sovereignty when he ran for governor.

Bien, who had 30 more seconds of time rules of the debate format, responded with skepticism, if not disbelief.

All three of the candidates called for an end to crossover voting in Wyoming’s primary elections.

Overall, Governor Gordon lobbied the issues from the position of incumbent. He frequently referred to steps he or his administration have taken to initiate programs or studies to address specific issues, including education, energy, health care, drug abuse and suicide prevention. Rammell said there were too many study groups and not enough results. Bien called for audits of every department and every program to see exactly how state money is being spent and how wealthy or not the state really is.

The primary election is Tuesday, August 16th. Absentee voting is underway. Contact the county clerk’s office for voting information.

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