Larsen challenges Laursen for House seat

Powell woman launches write-in campaign against state lawmaker

Posted 7/30/20

Voters in the Powell area again have a choice in the local race for the Wyoming House of Representatives.

It appeared as though state Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, would be unopposed in his bid for …

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Larsen challenges Laursen for House seat

Powell woman launches write-in campaign against state lawmaker


Voters in the Powell area again have a choice in the local race for the Wyoming House of Representatives.

It appeared as though state Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, would be unopposed in his bid for a fourth term, when his Republican challenger, Powell businessman Chris Good, had to drop out after his wife suffered a serious injury.

However, Justine Larsen, a para-educator and former business owner, announced Friday that she is mounting a write-in campaign for the House District 25 seat.

“My big thing is giving people a choice,” Larsen said in an interview. “I don’t think anyone should just, by default, get re-elected because they’re the only one running.”

Larsen has plenty of disagreements with Laursen. That includes his opposition to expanding Medicaid coverage in Wyoming and what she sees as a lack of support for education.

“I’m never gonna say Dan’s a bad guy,” she said of Laursen. “But I’ve had some serious irritations with some of the positions he’s taken.”

The two candidates agreed on little during a Tuesday night forum at Washington Park.

Rep. Laursen suggested the best approach to the state’s current budget woes is to ride it out, cut spending further — including in K-12 education — and ride the coattails of the “great job” being done by President Donald Trump, hoping the economy and minerals industry rebounds.

“I am not for new taxes or more taxes,” he stressed.

Larsen, meanwhile, said the state needs to move away “from being cemented to the mineral boom and bust cycle” to create stability — particularly for its schools — and said the state will need to find both efficiencies and expanded sources of revenue.

“Talking about relying on something coming back, I think that’s very short-sighted,” she said. “Creativity and moving toward development that is outside the extractions industry is of vast importance.”

Larsen is registered as a Republican, but describes herself as a “switch-hitter” with both conservative and liberal views. She said she considered switching parties to run as a Democrat — where she would need only 25 write-ins to reach the general election ballot — and has given some thought to running as an independent (she would need to gather about 64 signatures). But she has opted to seek Republican votes in the Aug. 18 primary election, in which the only way she can advance to November is by defeating Rep. Laursen.

“There’s part of me that just wants to kind of say it’s time for the Republican Party to be what it was when I was growing up, which was the party of moderation,” Larsen said. “Because it’s a party of extremes right now.”


Consistently conservative

Rep. Laursen is by many measures one of the most conservative members of the Wyoming Legislature, being honored for his voting record by the American Conservative Union earlier this year.

“When I vote I ask, ‘Does this bill follow our federal and state constitutions? Does it follow the Wyoming Republican Party platform?” he said at Tuesday’s forum, describing himself as a “constitutional Republican” who is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment and pro-family.

Laursen received kudos from Park County Republican Party Chairman Martin Kimmet earlier this year for doing a “great job” in Cheyenne, and this month he received the full-throated backing of Wyoming Gun Owners — the state’s largest and most ardent gun rights organization.

“Dan Laursen is one of those kind of guys that you just never have to worry about or wonder about where he stands on a gun rights issue,” Wyoming Gun Owners Policy Adviser Aaron Dorr said in a video, adding, “he’s 100% with you all the time, every time.”

Dorr described Laursen as a champion for gun rights in Wyoming — though he said that’s led to the Powell lawmaker being “hated” by moderates and “the left.”

To date, however, there have been few public signs of local discontent with Laursen. When he faced a challenge from former state Rep. Dave Blevins in the 2016 Republican primary, Laursen won by more than 15 percentage points; he then defeated Democratic challenger Shane Tillotson by more than 57 points in the general election.

During his six years in the Legislature, Laursen has also gained traction. He’s a board member for the American Legislative Exchange Council and this past session, three of the five bills he sponsored were signed into law: one setting up a way for Wyoming to eventually move to permanent daylight saving time, another making female genital mutilation a crime and another that generally exempts crews from having to obtain locations of underground facilities when performing routine maintenance on county roads.


A write-in challenge

In challenging the three-term lawmaker, Larsen faces a steep uphill battle.

She plans to distribute some door hangers, create a social media presence and go door-to-door, but has only about three weeks until the election.

There is also the inherent difficulty of a write-in campaign, including getting voters to fill in a bubble and spell your name close enough for election judges to understand. Larsen may be at an added disadvantage, because any voters looking for an alternative to Rep. Laursen will still see Good’s name on the ballot, as he withdrew well after they were printed.

Rep. Laursen also faced a last-minute opponent in the 2018 Republican primary, as the local group Wyoming Rising encouraged its members to write-in Ronn Smith of Powell. While willing to serve, Smith didn’t do any campaigning or even formally announce his run and only 89 people (about 5% of voters) wrote in an alternative to Laursen; the incumbent received 1,642 votes.

Those figures played into Larsen’s decision to run as a write-in, she said. “I thought, ‘Can I not muster 1,600 votes?’”

Larsen recalled telling her teenage daughter years ago that the Legislature, which remains mostly made up of men, didn’t really represent her interests as a child or a female.

“And they’re not all that interested that you’re from Wyoming, because so many of the legislators and our state Legislature are following interests from outside of Wyoming,” Larsen said. “They’re following directives from Koch brothers, from you name it. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to let other people dictate what goes on in the state,’ and I think that’s absolutely wrong.”

Larsen said she doesn’t want to feel like she has to take money or direction from out of state, because she intends to focus on what’s happening in this community and what can be done to help future generations.


The future of education

Like Rep. Laursen’s wife, Larsen works in the Powell school district. Larsen said she wants “to see someone in that [House] seat that is going to understand the value of educating our children and striving to keep them in this community.”

“Wyoming’s educated a lot of good kids that have gone on to live in other states,” she said. Rather than having youth leave, and then return and raise families or retire here, “we need them to stay here right now and solve the problems that are presenting themselves,” Larsen said.

For his part, Rep. Laursen sees budget cuts as one of the solutions to the multi-hundred million dollar deficit now facing K-12 schools in Wyoming. At Tuesday’s forum, he suggested they be cut 10-15% like other state agencies through measures like consolidating the administration of school districts. Laursen noted that, on a per-student basis, Wyoming funds its education system at a much higher rate than neighboring states. Teachers like his wife are paid well, he said, and although everybody wants an increase in their wages, “at some point you have to hold the line for a while.”

“I’m gonna say it again: No taxes yet. We have to cut first, because if we get [a] tax increase, we won’t cut,” Laursen said. “And we can’t afford to pay the bills with the mineral monies we’ve been getting until they [minerals] come back.”

Laursen said he hopes the industry does rebound, though “I’m sure it won’t be at the level we had before.”

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