SHERIDAN — U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was absent as four candidates made their cases to take his seat during Wyoming’s first U.S. Senate debate Wednesday night in Casper. 

Barrasso did not attend the debate due to obligations in Washington. In an opening statement read by his wife, Barrasso touted the passing of the Republican tax cut and the confirmation of conservative judges to circuit courts as the major achievements of his latest term.

Jackson businessman Dave Dodson opened by criticizing Barrasso’s absence and his role in a Congress, failing to fulfill its basic duties.

“It’s a group that has become so impressed with themselves, and so above us, that they can’t get their job done on time,” Dodson said. “And rather than do their job, they elbow their way into the next photo and insult their colleagues.”

John Holtz described his career working on defense contracts for Hughes Aircraft and eventually becoming a judge. He said his decision to return to Wyoming demonstrated his commitment to the state.

Anthony Van Risseghem, a 33-year-old Home Depot employee, said he was running to stop federal encroachment on Wyoming’s rights.

“We need somebody in office who is willing to stand up in the U.S. Senate and say ‘No, this is wrong, it’s unconstitutional and it’s a violation of our human rights,’” Van Risseghem said.

Former Catholic priest Charlie Hardy joined Dodson in attacking Barrasso’s performance as Senator and his contribution to a dysfunctional Congress.

“What is Charlie Hardy running for Senate? It’s because I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” Hardy said.

Dodson and Hardy described Congress as a dysfunctional and moribund entity that has been corrupted by the influence of special interest and stubborn partisanship and implicated Barrasso in its failure; both candidates called for reforming campaign finance laws and the promotion of bipartisan compromise.

When it comes to improving health care, Dodson said meaningful reform would be impossible until the country could eliminate the influence donors from the pharmaceutical industry have on lawmakers.

“We’re overcharged, plain and simple; and we’re overcharged because the health care industry and the pharmaceutical industry are the biggest donors to Congress,” Dodson said.

Holtz and Van Rissighem, meanwhile, railed against federal overreach and vowed to fight against what the growth of what they described as an unethical establishment. 

In response to a question about how he would productively engage with other lawmakers in the current partisan landscape, Holtz said he would “get a few cloves of garlic, chomp on them and get in the Democrats face and argue like hell.”

“If you wanna get something done, you’re going to have to be tough,” Holtz said. “And you’re going to have to learn ‘vampire politics’ where you don’t just kill a program, you drive a stake through its heart so it doesn’t come back to life.”

Dodson expressed concern about the political polarization in the country and closed the night with a call for unity.

“I think time is running out,” Dodson said. “We owe it to our children and the people who shed their blood for this country to come back together once again to do great things and I will say as one nation, under God, indivisible.”

Primary elections will be held Aug. 21.