Democrats won major victories in Virginia and Alabama in 2017, giving the party hope it can capitalize on President Donald Trump’s unpopularity during the 2018 midterm elections and flip several seats.
Riding a wave of optimism, several Democrats have announced or said they are considering campaigns for three of Wyoming’s top political seats.
Mary Thorne, a former state legislator and environmental lawyer, has already begun her campaign for governor. Gary Trauner, a former small business owner and former chief operating officer of St. John’s Medical Center, officially announced that he will run against U.S. Sen. John Barrasso this fall. And Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon in Jackson and a best-selling author, said she is considering challenging Rep. Liz Cheney for Wyoming’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Despite different backgrounds and levels of political experience, all three are running on a similar platform: The GOP has lost touch with its constituents and is choosing to fight for the interests of the party and major campaign contributors rather than working families.
“Right now the D.C. playbook is to put power, party and political contributions in front of people and country,” Trauner said. “The people of Wyoming voted for change when they voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. They wanted someone from the outside. They know D.C. isn’t working, and they wanted someone to shake it up. Well, why stop there? The leadership of the party that’s currently in power is taking us down a path that’s not logical, it’s not reality.”
Despite Trump’s low approval ratings nationwide, which Real Clear Politics calculates at 39 percent, support for the president in Wyoming is the highest in the country, at 60 percent, according to a Morning Consultant Poll that interviewed nearly 475,000 voters nationwide this fall.
But Republican strategists in Wyoming remain confident the party will maintain its position of power come November, so long as they nominate candidates better than Alabama’s Roy Moore.
“There’s a lot that’s unpredictable entering a campaign, and, as Alabama shows, if you nominate bad candidates they will get beaten,” longtime GOP strategist Bill Cubin said. “It’s incumbent on the GOP to make sure we get a good candidate, but if you look at it demographically we should be alright.”
According to the latest numbers from the Wyoming secretary of state’s office, there are 52,000 registered Democrats, 189,000 registered Republicans and 40,000 unaffiliated voters in the state. That means that even if every Democrat and every undecided voter came out blue, and just half of the registered Republicans showed up to the polls and voted along party lines, the Dems would still lose.
Furthermore, the slate of Republican candidates is strong. Barrasso won 75 percent of the vote in his last campaign, and Cheney won 65 percent of the vote in her last election. Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon, who is considering a gubernatorial campaign, won 88 percent of the vote in 2012.
Some Democratic confidence
Nevertheless, the Wyoming Democratic Party believes it can swing Republican voters by better organizing and highlighting the GOP’s ineffectiveness over the past year, even with a supermajority, as well as its apparent favoritism of the wealthy.
“We’re seeing Dems win in red places,” said Joe Barbuto, executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party. “I think a lot of voters right now are seeing the GOP prioritizing party and the people financially backing their campaigns instead of the people they represent. As a result, you get legislation like a tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, which is a direct nod to people financing their campaigns.
“We may not out-fundraise the Republicans. We may not register more voters,” he said. “But we can out-organize and outwork them spreading our message. Wyoming has a history of electing Democratic governors, so we know Wyoming will vote person over party.”
When former Gov. Dave Freudenthal won his first gubernatorial race in 2002 against Eli Bebout, who is now president of the Wyoming Senate, Freudenthal won 50 percent of the vote, edging out Bebout by fewer than 4,000 votes thanks to a fiscally conservative yet socially moderate platform.
Matt Micheli, the former chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party and longtime Republican strategist, said that while Democrats have a strong record in Wyoming’s gubernatorial races, electing more Dems than Republicans over the last 50 years, it requires just the right candidate.
“Historically, Wyoming voters have shown a willingness to cross party lines and vote for a Democratic governor, he said, “and this is especially true when there is a Republican in the White House. When there is a Republican in the White House, any Republican, you take away one of the most potent campaign messages Republicans have — to run against D.C.”
Congressional races, however, are a different story.
“Wyoming voters have not been willing to switch parties when they are voting on who to send back to Washington, D.C.,” Micheli said. “This is in large part because national issues galvanize Wyoming Republicans, and Wyoming voters understand that perhaps the most important vote our lone representative would cast is the one for Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi. And the same is true in the Senate.”
Despite the president’s behavior, his policies are popular in Wyoming. Because of that, Micheli sees bashing Trump and the GOP is a flawed strategy.
Extreme stances could hurt
Sara Burlingame, executive director of the nonpartisan Equality State Policy Center, said perhaps the Republicans’ only weakness is if any of the Republican candidates are drawn into the party’s more extreme stances on non-discrimination and immigration.
“For those who see Wyoming as an opportunity to promote the kind of venal and mean rhetoric that’s going on nationally, I think there’s a really strong push in Wyoming to say, ‘Not in our town,’” she said. “I think people realize these people being discriminated against are our neighbors and friends. The people who speak to our actual values of equality, fairness and live and let live will do best.”
The only other hope for Democrats is for Republican challengers to present themselves and beat each other up during the primary, losing their fundraising advantages and exposing their weaknesses.
Foster Friess, a billionaire investor from Wyoming, and Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, a private military company notorious for an episode in which its employees killed 14 Iraqis in 2009, have both shown interest in Barrasso’s Senate seat.
House Speaker Steve Harshman, Secretary of State Ed Murray and several businessmen have expressed interest in the gubernatorial race.
The filing deadline for candidates is June 1.