Wyo GOP chairman quietly assumed power as party fractured
May 26, 2022
By Victoria Eavis, Casper Star-Tribune,
Rone Tempest, WyoFile
And Matt Adelman, Douglas Budget
Via Wyoming News Exchange
W. Frank Eathorne says two of the most important moments in his life occurred when he was 7 years old, living on the family ranch in the Thunder Basin grasslands of eastern Wyoming.
The first came on a stormy spring day in 1975 after a Sunday school class at Dry Creek Community Hall in the minuscule town of Bill, just north of the Eathorne U Diamond Ranch in Converse County.
“It was a rainy April Sunday after church that I got down on my knees and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. He has continued to sustain me in His Grace, Love and Mercy,” Eathorne, chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party, said in a text.
His second epiphany occurred a short time later when he was watching the news on the one television channel the family could get on their remote 30,000-acre cattle ranch. He saw then-President Gerald Ford on the flickering black-and-white screen and was struck by another life-changing revelation.
“It was then I knew I was a Republican,” Eathorne recalled in a Wyoming GOP website video.
He did not elaborate what so inspired him about Ford, the moderate and unelected Republican vice president from Michigan who became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal.
But a quotation from Ford that Eathorne posted on the Wyoming GOP website seems to match Eathorne’s political leanings: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
Four decades after those two transformative moments, the now 53-year-old Eathorne is in his fifth year as chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party.
His tenure coincides with a time of utter Republican dominance in Wyoming. Conservatives occupy all five statewide elected offices and control 90% of the seats in the Wyoming Legislature. They’ve added new restrictions on abortion while batting away attempts to fund state government or expand Medicaid. His allies say he’s the best thing for the GOP in recent memory.
Still, that success has come with consequences. Detractors call him the worst GOP chairman in the last 50 years. By surrounding himself with loyal partisans and exploiting an urban-rural divide at the heart of the party, he has solidified his control of the GOP’s conservative agenda, in part by pushing dissenters out. With no real Democratic opposition to face under Eathorne’s leadership, Wyoming Republicans have taken to infighting, punishing those who deviate from the party-insider’s line.
Following the state GOP convention earlier this month, longtime GOP leader and former House Speaker Tom Lubnau of Gillette, quit the state party because of what he described in his resignation letter as “the lack of integrity, toxicity and the move toward secrecy.”
Weary and scarred from his many battles with Eathorne, Lubnau said that after his resignation “I feel like I’ve jumped off a sinking ship onto a tropical island with beaches and Mai Tais.”
A working rancher with a reputation as a soft-spoken charmer, Eathorne’s journey to political power has not been without controversy: He had a short, questionable career as a Worland police officer, worked as a Terminix pest exterminator in northwest Wyoming and served as a parole officer in south Texas. He returned to Wyoming in 1999 to take over the family ranch and for a period accepted federal agricultural subsidies. Now, he sits at the top of a party that’s been described as both dominant and dysfunctional while emerging as the tip of the spear in Donald Trump’s furious drive to unseat perhaps his greatest political opponent: incumbent Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney.
After Cheney voted to impeach Trump in January 2021, Eathorne helped to orchestrate Cheney’s censure by the state GOP central committee. The move seemed to catch Trump’s attention. After the censure vote, they were on a first-name basis.
“Frank has censured the incompetent Liz Cheney!” Trump announced in an April 2021 statement. “Frank has my complete and total endorsement for his reelection. He will never let you down!”
Since then, Eathorne has solidified his position at the helm of the state party and with Trump.
When the former president decided to appear in Casper at an upcoming Memorial Day weekend rally for Cheney opponent Harriet Hageman, Eathorne said Trump called him personally with the news. Eathorne, a longtime Hageman friend and party ally, then informed the state central committee.
Multiple people said the understanding amongst Wyoming politicos is that Eathorne revels in rubbing shoulders with Trump and Washington, D.C. elites.
Lubnau said as much.
“I heard somebody say, and I can’t remember who, that Frank just likes going to those Washington, D.C. parties and wearing a cowboy hat and hobnobbing with the elite.”
Although state statute dictates that party leadership not take sides before the August Republican primary, Eathorne has arguably helped Hageman’s campaign by leading successful — although largely symbolic — state and national efforts to censure Cheney and expel her from the party.
In his most recent push, at the February Republican National Committee meeting in Salt Lake City, Eathorne authored a resolution — which national delegates overwhelmingly approved — to censure Cheney and Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger and “cease any and all support of them as members of the Republican Party for their behavior.”
Before she announced her campaign for Congress, Hageman had worked closely with Eathorne in party leadership. She and Eathorne toured Washington, D.C. historic sites together when they attended national meetings.
“Frank has been a strong leader for the Wyoming Republican Party,” Hageman said in a statement for this story. “He recognizes that his role is to implement the agenda of the grassroots, and that is what he has done. He adheres to the GOP Platform and has represented our state well while serving on the RNC.”
But through these efforts, Eathorne has also emerged as a polarizing figure in the GOP.
Eathorne has said as much himself: “In Wyoming, we don’t necessarily embrace the idea of a big tent,” he said on Fox News earlier this year.
The “big tent” approach has been one of the cornerstones of the nation’s Republicanism, espoused by Ronald Reagan as far back as 1967.
“Twenty years ago, the state party convention had a ‘big tent’ Republican atmosphere where you had social conservative Republicans, libertarian Republicans or Rotary Club Republicans who had a unified front pulling together to get Republicans elected,” said Rep. Clark Stith, (R-Rock Springs).
Few in Wyoming have a more established Republican Party pedigree than Casper oilman Diemer True, who served two terms as state chairman and in both the Wyoming House and Senate. He contends Eathorne’s small-tent approach is a divisive force that has alienated major segments of the party, especially in the population centers of Laramie, Natrona and Campbell counties.
“Frank has failed in a colossal way,” True said. “He is probably the worst chairman that I’ve ever seen in my 50-plus years of being involved in Republican politics. His is absolutely a failed leadership.”
True’s concern centers on Eathorne’s hard-line, “purist” approach to state politics, in which long-time loyal party members are labeled RINOS — Republicans in Name Only — because they disagree with Eathorne and other current party leaders.
“This Republican purity is a good way to become the Republican minority,” True said.
Mary Martin, chairman of the Teton County Republicans, likes Eathorne personally, she said, describing him as amiable and “well mannered.” Like Eathorne, she is upset with Cheney’s criticism of Trump and Cheney’s insistence that the former president is responsible for the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
“My disappointment in Frank is that he hasn’t been able to come up with a process to keep the Republican Party with more of a big-tent approach,” she said. “We have a couple of people who come to the Wyoming party meetings who are absolute bullies.”
In addition to Lubnau’s publicized exit, Doug Chamberlain, a former member of party leadership, specifically put his departure from the party on Eathorne.
“Your leadership in regards to how you treat me has ‘crossed the line I have personally drawn’, beyond which I will not allow myself to be treated,” Chamberlain wrote in a September 2020 letter that was marked confidential but eventually leaked. “As a result of these various incidents and issues I will no longer offer my volunteer services as ‘Acting Parliamentarian’ and ‘Acting Treasurer.’”
“Thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the WRP. It has been enjoyable and rewarding until recently,” he concluded.
April Poley is campaign coordinator for state Sen. Anthony Bouchard’s (R-Cheyenne) House run against Cheney and a former member of state GOP leadership under Eathorne. When she told state party leadership that she was backing Bouchard, she was “instantly” removed from the group text chat used by elected leaders of the party.
“It was like I was excommunicated from a church,” Poley said.
Poley hasn’t been the only party operative to find themselves on the outside looking in.
“Twenty years ago you’d have more than 400 delegates to the state convention, whereas this last Saturday [May 7] you had 285 delegates to the convention,” Stith said.
At the same time, the Wyoming Republican Party’s focus on purity has coincided with some significant legislative victories. Conservative lawmakers sought for years to pass a Voter ID law in Wyoming. The effort finally succeeded last year. Prior to the 2021 session, the Wyoming Legislature had only passed two abortion-related bills in 30 years, according to analysis by the nonprofit news site The 19th. Since then, it has passed three including a so-called “trigger bill,” that will eliminate nearly all abortions in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which appears likely.
Eathorne’s most avid supporters in the party view him as a galvanizing force who is willing to stand up against what they view as assaults from the left and failures to deliver from establishment Republicans. One of Eathorne’s staunchest backers is Karl Allred, the Uinta County GOP chairman who first rose to prominence in Wyoming for suing then-Gov. Matt Mead over renovations at the Wyoming Capitol.
Allred believes that if a person identifies as Republican but can’t agree with at least 80% of the state party’s platform, “you oughta look somewhere else.” He sees many of the Republican members of the Legislature as “Democrats that are now in the Republican Party.”
Still, Eathorne’s grip on the party doesn’t always translate to legislative success. Even with vocal support fromTrump and conservative Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, for example, the Eathorne wing of the party failed in several attempts to block “crossover” voting in the state primary that allows voters to change their party affiliation at the polling place. Hageman supporters contend the practice could benefit Cheney. Similarly, GOP party leaders went into a special legislative session — which Eathorne personally pressed for in a letter to legislative leadership — with an ambitious set of 21 bills opposing federal vaccine mandates but were able to pass only one relatively meek measure limiting federal enforcement.
The most recent example of party tensions came during the May state GOP convention, when most members of the Laramie County delegation were refused seats over a rules violation. Earlier, most of the delegates of Natrona County had been excluded because of a dispute over party dues.
Both counties have clashed with party leadership, leading some observers to question whether the rule violations were really an excuse to punish those that, in the eyes of the party, hadn’t toed the line.
When rule violations by other — albeit smaller — counties were brought to light, the party declined to take similar actions, even going so far as to remove a rule from the bylaws that smaller counties had violated.
Nearly every one of the 30-plus Laramie County delegates — including John Sundahl, Hageman’s husband — walked out in a line and tossed or slammed their credentials down in front of Eathorne, who was presiding over the meeting in his usual cowboy hat.
Eathorne v. Cheney
Cheney and others claim a band of political extremists has hijacked the state party. According to leaked documents, Eathorne is listed as a member of the Oath Keepers. Eathorne claims to be only a passive member of the militant right-wing organization.
Eathorne’s critics chafe over a podcast interview he did with Trump strategist Steve Bannon in February 2021, in which he suggested Wyoming — as some right-wing politicians had advocated in Texas — might consider secession from the union. They are also concerned about Eathorne’s activities at the Jan. 6, 2021 Trump rally in Washington that preceded the violent assault on the Capitol.
“Frank Eathorne is a member of the Oath Keepers,” Cheney said in a statement for this story. “He was on the Capitol grounds during the violent attack on January 6. He has ignored the rulings of our courts. He has suggested Wyoming should consider secession from the United States. His views and his actions make a mockery of the rule of law, the Constitution, and the values on which the Republican Party, the state of Wyoming, and our great nation were founded.”
Eathorne discussed secession on Bannon’s War Room saying “We are straight talking, focused on the global scene, but we’re also focused at home. Many of these Western states have the ability to be self-reliant, and we’re keeping eyes on Texas too, and their consideration of possible secession. They have a different state constitution than we do as far as wording, but it’s something we’re all paying attention to.”
Eathorne clarified recently he did not mean to imply that Wyoming should secede.
In a statement after the events of Jan. 6, Eathorne confirmed attending the rally, but said he “observed no violence or property damage during my time there including a brief stop in the vicinity of the Capitol building.”
The political warfare between Cheney and Eathorne has become so intense that it sometimes seems to eclipse the primary battle between Cheney and Hageman. The two women are longtime political allies who agree on nearly every policy point, but differ on Trump.
But with Cheney and Eathorne it is more personal. If past remarks are an indication, Eathorne sees her actions as an attack on his political hero. Cheney feels he has ruined her home state political party. “Our state party is broken,” Cheney tweeted after the Laramie County walkout. “Wyoming deserves better.”
When Cheney was asked why she chose not to attend the state party convention, a spokesman told reporters it was because Eathorne would be there.
“The chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party is a member of the Oath Keepers who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and has called for secession, so no, Liz will not be attending,” a Cheney spokesperson said.
The spokesperson did not mention Cheney’s main rival and former unpaid member of her advisory team, Hageman, who attended the convention but who was relatively quiet.
Wyoming political historian Philip J. Roberts contends “there has never been a sharper divide between an incumbent and party chair,” even going back to the famous feud between Sens. Francis E. Warren and Joseph Carey in the early days of Wyoming statehood.
“Even at the height of the so-called Warren-Carey feud, party officers tried to align with one ‘incumbent’ or the other,” Roberts said. “They didn’t stand out there alone, criticizing an incumbent in their party. I think this is unprecedented because we never had a party chair so slavishly in the thrall of an autocrat like Trump.”
A strong family name
Politics run in Eathorne’s family.
Friends and old timers in Douglas and surroundings generally call him “W. Frank” to distinguish him from his prominent father, Frank Glenn Eathorne Jr., a popular public servant and Farm Bureau leader who served several years as a Converse County commissioner.
The father, Frank Jr., was born in Texas but moved to the family ranch in Wyoming as a child and had a distinguished career.
An honors engineering graduate of the University of Wyoming, Frank Jr. served two tours in Vietnam as an F4 fighter pilot based in Cam Ranh Bay. While as a young Air Force lieutenant in flight training in Florida, he met and married a St. Petersburg secretary, W. Frank’s mother, Leslie Kilgore.
In addition to serving on the county commission, Frank Jr. was founder and chairman of the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association and an officer of Wyoming Farm Bureau. Both he and Leslie were honored by the Farm Bureau for their distinguished service. The two also worked with the Audubon Society to set up bird census stations on their property.
“Everybody knew his dad … all around nicest guy you could ever meet,” said Rep. Dan Zwontizer (R-Cheyenne), who’s been in the Legislature since 2005. “He was beloved by everybody in Converse County.”
Eathorne was born on March 3, 1969, in Douglas and raised in Converse County, where he attended Douglas High School, graduating in 1987. His younger brother Mike remembers him as “very athletic” and a “team player.” Frank and Mike competed together in rodeo team roping. Frank, the more athletic of the two, also competed in bronc and bull riding.
When Eathorne entered politics in the early 2000s, the community’s love for his father helped him gain footing in Converse County politics, then a hotbed of the state’s political scene.
“Frank Eathorne has certainly been key [in W. Frank moving into local political circles] and W. Frank picked up on those [conservative right-wing] beliefs,” said Lucile Taylor, former Converse County clerk.
Many people even thought that W. Frank was his father when they saw his name pop up in political contexts.
Eathorne and his wife, Theresa, served as precinct committeeman and -woman in Converse County starting in 2002. He went on to serve in every office of the county party including two terms as chairman that ended in 2012, according to his Wyoming GOP bio. Eventually, Eathorne served three terms as state committeeman.
Eathorne’s first foray into politics beyond his backyard was in 2012. He was a part of a group of Wyoming conservatives backing national delegates that would go on to support Ron Paul’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination against the mainstream candidate Mitt Romney, according to Poley who was part of the same effort. At the center of this group was a belief in smaller government and non-interventionist foreign policy.
But it was Eathorne’s involvement with WyWatch Family Action that put him on the state-level political scene. The ultra-conservative group established itself as an anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and pro “religious freedom” advocacy organization. In its four years of existence, Eathorne served as vice chairman and, in its final year, director.
WyWatch was an early adopter of the aggressive confrontational tactics more prevalent in today’s politics. It was also known, as far back as a decade ago, for criticizing Republicans for getting in the way of its efforts — a hallmark of the modern Wyoming GOP.
“It was kind of the first threatening organization,” Zwonitzer said. “It was a lot more emotionality and a lot more ‘my way or the highway.’”
Eathorne has graduated from being a part of WyWatch, a group that purged those who didn’t fully comply, to being chairman of a state party that does the same.
Eathorne ran for chairman of the state party in 2015, but only after much encouragement and praying, said Allred, the Uinta County Republican. Allred and others first started asking him to run roughly a year before the election.
“At first it was a lot of ‘nos,’” Allred said. “He said he’d have to pray up on it and it took him a while.”
Eathorne was ultimately convinced, but lost to Cheyenne lawyer Matt Micheli by three votes. He was later elected as vice-chairman in 2017. Four months later, he moved into the top spot following the resignation of then-chairman Ryan Mulholland, who accepted an out-of-state job with Google. Eathorne was reelected to the chairmanship in 2019.
“He could’ve been in politics way earlier because he’s got the charisma,” Frank’s brother Mike Eathorne said. “Things like that just happen for him.”
Eathorne’s allies and adversaries agree that he’s “soft spoken,” but how that translates differs depending on who you ask.
“Frank is so soft-spoken and gets along with a lot of people. It really takes a lot for Frank to get upset so we looked at it and figured he’d be the perfect guy for this job,” Allred said.
But for Poley, the party official who found herself on the outside after supporting Bouchard, his quiet demeanor “makes the hairs on the back of [her] neck stand up.”
“Pardone [sic] my French, but he just tells you to ‘fuck off’ in the nicest of ways and quietest of voice,” Poley said in a text message. “There is a heavy handedness in what appears as a quiet demeanor.”
A checkered career
Before politics, Eathorne worked in law enforcement.
He attended Casper College and then Chadron State College in Nebraska, earning a degree in criminal justice.
On Dec. 28, 1990, he married Theresa Lynn Campbell, whom he had dated both at Casper College and at Chadron State. In June 1992, he became a rookie patrolman with the Worland Police Department. Theresa, who had a business degree, landed a job as personnel manager for Holly Sugar, then one of Worland’s largest employers.
But soon after Eathorne started his police work, he was in trouble.
First, he was called on the carpet before Worland Mayor Tom Bancroft and Police Chief Bob Richardson after he admitted having oral sex with a woman — not his wife — in his patrol car while on duty during the midnight shift.
After a disciplinary hearing, Eathorne was suspended without pay for one month and placed on department probation for a year.
“Bottom line,” Chief Richardson told the mayor and city council members at a 1994 disciplinary hearing, according to a transcript, “Frank screwed up big time.”
Only 14 months later, according to allegations in a federal civil lawsuit, Eathorne barged armed and drunk into the apartment of 23-year-old police dispatcher Patricia Bravo on July 27, 1994 and tried unsuccessfully to pressure her into having sex with him.
After about 10 minutes of pleading — including begging him to go because her 2-year-old daughter was asleep in another room — Bravo said she was able to convince Eathorne to leave but remained fearful that he might come back. Before leaving, Eathorne “begged” Bravo to introduce him to her female neighbor, according to Bravo’s statements in the complaint.
At 5-foot-1-inch, Bravo is a foot shorter than Eathorne.
In court testimony, Eathorne admitted having “four or five drinks” with friends at Goose’s Bar in Worland before he went unannounced to Bravo’s apartment shortly before 1 a.m. to “conduct surveillance” on a nearby house. But he denied Bravo’s claims that he pressured her to have sex or intimidated her with his personal Glock .40-caliber handgun holstered on his hip.
“I conducted myself politely, gentleman-like,” Eathorne said, according to a hearing transcript.
Tess Beltran, a neighbor, testified seeing a tall man who she later identified as Eathorne, knock and then “force” his way into the door. “I thought it was a friend who was kidding around.” Then she heard Bravo shouting. “I found out the next day that there was no kidding going on.”
Eathorne said that he was “surprised” by Bravo’s allegations and later approached her in the police department parking lot.
“After shift one night,” Eathorne testified in a court deposition, “I saw her in the parking lot and I just said, you know, ‘If I have done anything to make you mad, I’m sorry.’ And that was it.”
The resulting federal legal case against Eathorne ended in a court-approved settlement two weeks before it was set for trial. The settlement amount is not public record. Bravo said she was at her new home in Denver when she was hand delivered a $200 check written on the law firm account of her attorney Joseph E. Darrah, who is now Park County Circuit Court Judge. It’s unclear what Darrah collected in attorney’s fees, and he declined to comment on the settlement.
The state of Wyoming paid for both the settlement and the 18 months of legal defense on the grounds that Eathorne’s actions were in the “scope of duty” (as defined by the Wyoming Government Claims Act).
The state gave Eathorne free legal representation despite the statement by Chief Richardson that in his uninvited post-midnight visit to Bravo’s apartment “he was not in any way, shape or form representing the Worland Police Department.” As a second-year uniformed patrolman, Eathorne was not even authorized to conduct plain-clothes surveillance, Richardson said.
Eathorne resigned from the Worland Police department in September 1995 to take what he said was a better paying job as a pest exterminator for Terminix in the Bighorn Basin.
But for Bravo, the diminutive former police dispatcher and single mother, the tense July 1994 incident with Eathorne in her Worland apartment was the beginning of what she said was an agonizing downward spiral.
Almost 30 years later, neighbors still recall how distraught Bravo was following the incident.
“She was visibly, visibly upset,” one neighbor said. “I think she was truly afraid.”
Bravo also asked her neighbors — who wish to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the Worland police — to keep an eye out for any men hanging around.
“If I were her I’d be scared to death too,” her neighbor said.
Bravo said the incident changed who she was as a person and led her to attempt suicide. Doctors later told her she died for a few minutes before she was revived.
“What he did to me practically ruined me,” she said recently at the Washakie County Library in her hometown of Worland, where she works as a dishwasher in a local cafe.
In the weeks after Bravo reported the incident in what she thought was a confidential exchange with her supervisor Cassandra Frank, she said, other employees stopped visiting her in the dispatcher’s room. She began to receive a series of negative performance reviews.
On Nov. 9, 1994, four months after the uninvited visit to her apartment, Bravo was fired by the joint city-county authority that employed her as dispatcher.
Occasionally breaking into tears, she said in a recent interview that she was most hurt by the way her hometown and her former colleagues at the police department ostracized and shunned her after she reported the incident to her supervisor.
“I was just starting my life. And when that all happened, all the lies that came out, the whole police department totally just embraced him rather than me, who had grown up in the community,” she said. “And of course, you know, we were nobody, my family was nobody because I grew up poor. We were poor. And I just never even imagined that people that I knew would treat me the way they did and take his side.”
That the Worland Police Department would shun Bravo and rally around a young, popular male officer does not surprise former Washakie County attorney Wendy Press Sweeny.
“It was absolutely a culture in the police to protect their own,” said Sweeny, now a deputy attorney for Sheridan County. “When there were DUIs, they got rides home instead of going to jail,” Sweeney said of cops getting pulled over for driving drunk.
There were no female officers, but women worked in the department in other capacities. Only a few years before the Bravo case, three women dispatchers successfully sued the department for sexual harassment, winning an out-of-court settlement.
In Bravo’s case, after she was fired and publicly disgraced, she left town. Eathorne’s only apparent punishment was an admonishment from the police chief about drinking while armed.
“I told him he could carry a gun, or he could drink,” Richardson testified in a lawsuit deposition. “He could not do both.”
Despite this rocky start as a police officer in Worland, Eathorne later landed another law enforcement job, earning $26,000 a year as a parole officer in Fort Bend County, Texas, where his wife Theresa worked as a human resources executive at Imperial Sugar Corporation in nearby Sugar Land. According to Fort Bend County Administrator Lorraine Niemeyer, Eathorne left that job after 19 months with “no disciplinary items in the personnel file.”
“Minus some indiscretion,” former Chief Richardson recalled in a recent telephone interview, “Frank was an excellent police officer. A very good police officer who left on good terms.”
When asked at the state convention if he regrets the encounter with Bravo or feels empathy for her, Eathorne said “no comment.”
But in an earlier interview in Casper, his brother Mike, 51, spoke about the unfairness of dredging up a 30-year-old case.
“That’s not Frank right now,” Mike Eathorne said. “That’s not the smoking gun that should determine his future. We all make mistakes. We all stumble and that’s part of life. What really matters is where the heart is now.”
In the summer of 1999, Eathorne returned to Wyoming to manage his family’s sprawling Converse County U Diamond cattle ranch. Over the next 20 years he climbed the ranks of the Wyoming Republican Party and made it all the way to a White House Christmas party, where he posed with President Donald and First Lady Melania Trump in formal cowboy attire including a western cut sport coat, rodeo belt buckle, cowboy boots and a white cowboy hat.
To his supporters, Eathorne is the shining light and moral exemplar of the state’s dominant political party. “I think he is a man of unquestionable integrity,” said Crook County rancher David Holland, who is Wyoming GOP vice-chairman under Eathorne. “And he’s a man of principle.”
Steadfast in his constant, unwavering pronouncements about American traditions and family values, Eathorne admits that his own life has not always been so exemplary.
“I have flaws and I own them,” he said via text.
In December, at the end of a Sunday service at the Unity Christian Fellowship Church in Douglas, Eathorne rose in front of his family and fellow church members to publicly confess that he had committed adultery and to beg for forgiveness. According to those who were at the service, Eathorne apologized for the infidelity and said that he and Theresa Eathorne — his wife of 30 years and mother of his three children — were attempting to reconcile.
After he spoke, several male members of the congregation rushed forward to embrace him and praise him for his courage in making the admission, according to several people who witnessed it.
On March 9, he filed for divorce. According to the divorce petition, the couple had not been living together since July 25, 2021. Theresa has since counter sued, asking for custody of the couple’s one remaining minor child.
The divorce shocked some friends, according to people in the community. In Eathorne’s previously acknowledged marital transgressions, Theresa consistently rose to his defense. For example, in the 1993 disciplinary hearing in Worland after Eathorne admitted having oral sex in his patrol car with another woman, Theresa passionately defended him and begged for leniency.
At one point she argued the sex act was “consensual” and that it had only interrupted his duty for “three or four minutes,” as documented in the hearing transcript.
“You know we’re not looking for any special treatment,” Theresa said. “We’re not looking for anything of that sort. All we want is fair treatment after this act occurred with this person.” Theresa, then a personnel manager at Holly Sugar Company, argued that her husband’s offense was minor and that he should not be fired.
In police dispatcher Bravo’s 1994 sexual harassment lawsuit against Eathorne, Theresa defended him in a court deposition, accusing Bravo of lying about the incident, which occurred while Theresa was out of town.
Eathorne said that he does not recall details of the settlement except that he didn’t have to pay for it with his own money. “I’d remember that,” he said.
It is not the only time that Eathorne, a fierce critic of government assistance, has benefitted from taxpayer largesse.
As manager of the family U Diamond Ranch north of Douglas, he received federal agricultural subsidies totaling $109,000 for the years 2001-2005, according to the Farm Subsidy Database. During most of that time, he was involved with the Converse County Republican Party.
Eathorne now regrets accepting the federal subsidies, he said.
“Since then, I have learned that government handouts are not for me,” he said. “They don’t fit my political ideology. If a private business can’t remain in business on its own, it probably shouldn’t be asking for government help.”
‘It has everything to do with power’
Some argue that Eathorne’s aggressive campaign to oust Cheney from office may do more to help the congresswoman than hurt her in the Aug. 16 Republican Party primary.
State Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) calls Eathorne and his disciples in the state party “Trumpicans.” Eathorne “believes he is the mouthpiece for all Republicans, and he is not,” Brown said. “He is opposed to everything that is not Trump. He is trying to steer people away from Liz to the point where he has alienated people who were on the fence.”
Although some recent telephone polls have included his name as a potential choice for governor, Eathorne has never been a candidate for public office. He and his allies like to describe himself not as a leader but as a humble servant of his two masters, his god and the members of the state party central committee who chose him.
“I think some of [his rise to power] was divine providence, honestly,” Mike Eathorne said. “Regardless of what other people might say about my brother, he’s not for himself. He’s about advancing freedom. He’s about advancing liberty.”
But some members of his own party, even those who generally support him, say lack of leadership and inability to control the state party and its more extreme elements are his biggest flaws.
“As far as leadership style, he’s actually very weak in leadership because he’s just letting these people run all over him,” said Bonnie Foster, who served in Republican politics at the county level and on the state executive committee.
At the recent dinner preceding the state convention, some members of the audience jeered at both Gov. Mark Gordon and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, both Republicans. There is a general lack of civility in party ranks, critics say, and Eathorne does little to stop it.
“Those that elected me know me well enough,” Eathorne said in one of several brief exchanges for this story. “They know me by my record. I stand for the timeless principles each and every time, the principles I was elected to represent.”
Ben Sherman, the Laramie County state committeeman, also blamed Eathorne for the lack of civility within Wyoming’s Republican politics.
“A lack of calling decorum on certain party members throughout his entire tenure has led to this attitude of general hate that is coming from the party,” he said.
Eathorne also held loose reins during his time as chairman of the county party: He often let meetings drift into topics almost entirely irrelevant to Wyoming, said one Converse County Republican.
“Most of the meeting was taken up with floor conversation about Sharia law, which obviously has nothing to do with Wyoming,” Glenrock resident Sally Ann Shurmur said.
This leadership style could work to his benefit.
“Frank Eathorne let it go unchecked. That’s … why he stayed in power — because he doesn’t try to stop any of the fringe elements. He’s just kind of let it all happen so I guess it keeps him in power,” Zwonitzer said.
But to his allies, this style makes him the quintessential leader.
“Frank relies on the state central committee. He believes the power belongs to the people,” Allred said. “He’s not a dictator. He’s not a one-man band.”
But Eathorne’s deference is just a front, multiple people interviewed for this story said.
In the last five years or so, Stith, who has also been a Sweetwater County delegate since 1998, said “there’s been a real shift” to a “top down” management approach by party leadership. Until recently, leadership would not allow the state central committee to take a stance on substantive policy issues.
“The state central committee only dealt with process issues,” he said.
Some see glaring irony in combining a heavy-handed leadership style and a laissez faire approach.
“There’s a theme of top-down leadership, but they don’t exercise much control,” Stith said.
Those who oppose Eathorne say there’s an explanation: Power over politics.
“They fear losing control and it is all about power with these people, more than about what’s right and what’s wrong. They fear losing their power and will do whatever they need to do to maintain or gain power,” Poley said of current state party leadership over text. “That’s the epitome of a political mind though, not in politics for the right reason. These are the types of people that we need to get out of politics. The type that put party, power, and politics OVER the people and our state and US constitutions.”
Stifling or steering
Eight years ago this month, the Wyoming Republican Party debated whether to censure another high-ranking GOP official. Like Cheney, then Gov. Matt Mead had angered elements of the far right. Mead was known as a moderate, and as a politician who put a strong emphasis on civility and pragmatism.
The effort to censure Mead ultimately failed. But two people interviewed for this story identified the move as the “turning point” in the party, a shift that can’t entirely be pinned on Eathorne.
“It began to change from being a unified party to anger,” Stith said.
But since that point, Eathorne’s inaction to steer the party in a different direction does fall at his feet, his critics say.
Earlier this month, as some of the Laramie County delegates loitered outside the fairgrounds, Eathorne emerged and asked Sherman, the Laramie County state committeeman, “why there was anger directed at him.”
Sherman told Eathorne that he was “steering the party in one specific direction” and wasn’t allowing for open debate.
“He has surrounded himself with people who all think exactly the same,” Sherman said later. “So there is no free and open discourse.”
But whether Eathorne is stifling debate or steering his party toward even more successful waters depends on who you ask.
Originally from Indiana, Mike Pyatt is retired and lives in Mills where he is one of the leaders of the militantly anti-abortion Liberty’s Place 4 U Wyoming group, formed in part because members don’t feel like they have a place in the more traditional conservative Natrona County GOP.
Slight and gregarious with white hair and a wispy white mustache, Pyatt often holds forth at Metro Café, a Casper institution that attracts customers from all political stripes.
Pyatt first met Eathorne at a county political convention in 2008 and immediately felt he had found a kindred soul. “We really hit it off for a variety of reasons,” Pyatt said, “but later I learned he was a brother in Christ. That was a common denominator we had.”
When it comes to a fight, “physical or political,” Pyatt said, “I’d want Frank on my side.”
This summer, the nation’s eyes will be on Wyoming as the battle between Cheney and Trump’s choice to defeat her, Hageman, will be decided. At stake could be Trump’s grip on the Republican Party.
There are louder and more famous participants in the battle. But a quiet rancher from Converse County could help determine which side wins.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.