Campaign data illustrates Gore’s growing influence in Wyo politics
When Susan Gore arrived in Wyoming more than two decades ago, the heir to the Gore-Tex fortune was a minor player in the state’s politics.
Campaign finance documents show limited involvement in Wyoming politics until the late 2000s. Even then, her influence was fairly narrow, and her contributions hewed closely to the policy agenda espoused by Wyoming Liberty Group — the Libertarian-leaning think tank she founded in 2008.
Campaign finances records, however, show Gore’s spending grew dramatically over time. By 2020 she had become a key financier of far-right causes and candidates. Some credit her contributions, at least in part, with last year’s hard-right turn in the Wyoming Legislature.
WyoFile examined nearly two decades of campaign finance records to chart the evolution of Gore’s giving and parse its impact on Wyoming politics.
Federal campaign finance records suggest Gore began making political contributions in the 2004 election cycle.
According to FEC records reviewed by WyoFile, Gore contributed a combined $5,500 from June 2003 through late 2004. All of that money, donor records show, went to support Libertarians. That included $3,500 to support the national party and another $2,000 to support the party’s then-presidential candidate, Michael Badnarik. Badnarik ultimately garnered less than one-third of a percentage point of the popular vote nationwide.
For the next several years, Gore’s activity was relatively limited. After the 2004 election she gave the Libertarian National Committee just $1,750, and contributed $2,500 to Badnarik’s congressional run in Texas.
It wouldn’t be until 2007, when former Texas Congressman Ron Paul entered the presidential fray, that Gore would begin to step up her political contributions. Between Paul’s presidential campaign and congressional campaign, Gore donated $4,300.
The 2008 election marked another significant milestone: Gore’s entry into Wyoming politics.
That year, campaign finance records show Gore contributed $7,500 to the Wyoming Republican Party. That placed her among the top donors to the party’s federal account as Democrat Gary Trauner challenged Cynthia Lummis in that year’s open U.S. House race. (Current U.S. Sen. Lummis won that race handily.)
Gore also contributed $2,300 to Lummis’ campaign as an individual, and $500 to current Gov. Mark Gordon, whom Lummis defeated in that year’s primaries.
In 2008, Gore founded the Wyoming Liberty Group, a libertarian-leaning policy and advocacy organization which according to tax forms began with $313,000 in financial backing.
While tax forms do not list the names of the Liberty Group’s donors, Gore was the sole individual listed as a contributor in 2009 tax documents making contributions “in order to get the organization started” while staff worked to increase outside contributions.
Over time, the organization’s revenues — with Gore’s support — continued to grow.
In 2009, the Wyoming Liberty Group reported more than $733,000 in gross receipts. The following year, the organization reported more than $1.25 million. Between 2011 and 2019, the Wyoming Liberty Group would report gross receipts of more than $10 million, reaching a peak of $1.679 million in 2016. Much of that money, according to IRS documents, came from Gore. Between 2008 and 2012, Gore (and another unlisted donor) provided more than 75 percent of the group’s funding.
In 2012, Gore gave $500,000 to presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s “Red White and Blue Fund,” establishing herself as a power player in conservative politics nationally.
Gore stepped up her investment in Wyoming state politics in 2010.
In that year’s crowded Republican gubernatorial primary, Gore contributed a combined $2,500 to three different Republican candidates for governor, $2,000 to Tea Party-backed candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Cindy Hill, and $1,000 to State Senate candidate Leslie Nutting, a Cheyenne Republican who also counted support from the hardline conservative watchdog organization WyWatch. Gore also gave nearly $3,000 to the Wyoming Republican Party that cycle.
Over time, Gore’s financial stake in Wyoming politics would continue to grow. Tallying just $5,500 in in-state candidate contributions in 2010, Gore would up the total to $7,000 in 2012, with all of the funds going toward hardline conservative candidates in individual statehouse races. These included Cheyenne Sen. Lynn Hutchings, Casper Republicans Steve Bray and Bob Brechtel and Thermopolis State Rep. Nathan Winters, who now leads the evangelical advocacy organization, Wyoming Family Policy Alliance.
Some of Gore’s support was indirect, funneled through an affiliated non-profit she established in 2012 called Republic Free Choice, which is still active. The organization reported $358,000 in receipts in its first year, according to tax documents. Over time, the organization’s revenues would increase significantly and, in 2014, it began distributing direct mail campaigns appearing to back certain candidates in competitive Republican primaries around Wyoming. (Republic Free Choice was never required to disclose its donors in that race.)
To this day, little is known about who is funding Republic Free Choice, which in recent months has shifted its focus to opposing legalization of marijuana in Wyoming.
As the Wyoming Liberty Group’s revenues began to see an uptick in 2014. Gore’s giving also began to escalate. That year, she doled out more than $17,000 to hardline candidates for the Wyoming statehouse and the executive branch — enough to make her one of Wyoming’s biggest political donors, according to campaign finance reports.
2014 was also the year Gore joined the ranks of a political donor class described by the Sunlight Foundation at the time as the top “one percent” of political donors. That year, Gore contributed nearly twice the U.S. median household income to a variety of conservative causes. Nearly $77,000 went to the Republican National Congressional Committee, while candidates like Liz Cheney ($5,200), Lummis ($2,600) and the GOP rising star Cathy McMorris Rodgers ($4,200) were key beneficiaries of Gore’s contributions that year.
Gore continued her high levels of spending in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, donating more than $87,000 to a variety of federal candidates, including then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump. In 2018, Gore poured more than $130,000 into Wyoming’s elections, with funds supporting Republicans in a dozen statehouse races, the race for Wyoming state auditor and for state treasurer.
The biggest donation — $100,000 — went to a PAC supporting Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos in his gubernatorial bid, according to campaign records, while another $6,500 shored up the coffers of the Wyoming Republican Party.
Of the more than $72,000 Gore spent in the 2020 campaign cycle, more than half went to support hard-right statehouse candidates in 22 competitive primaries around Wyoming.
Gore-backed candidates ultimately won 10 of the 22 races she’d funded.
Several candidates, like Troy McKeown, John Bear and Anthony Bouchard, received additional support from other donors. However, for many of the candidates she backed, campaign finance reports show Gore as the primary benefactor.
Out of the 22 candidates Gore contributed to in the 2020 primaries, half relied on her support for at least one-fifth of their total fundraising. Her support comprised half of the campaign totals for four of those candidates.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.