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Govt-and-politics
Wyoming governor’s race is Mark Gordon’s to lose, political watchers say

This year’s race for Wyoming governor was supposed to be different. Last spring, it looked as though three major candidates were gearing up to run in the GOP primary: Secretary of State Ed Murray, recently retired Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis and State Treasurer Mark Gordon. All had high name recognition, statewide popularity and deep enough pockets to fund what was expected to be a costly fight.

“That would have been just a battle royale,” said Jimmy Orr, a longtime Republican consultant in Wyoming. “That would have been fireworks.”

But Lummis decided not to run over the summer, and Murray bowed out early this year, following allegations of sexual misconduct. That left Gordon as the sole remaining candidate of the trio and, by default, the man to beat for the five other Republican candidates who have announced ahead of the August primary.

The competition is made up of two Cheyenne-based candidates — attorney Harriet Hageman and businessman Sam Galeotos — and political novice Bill Dahlin of Sheridan, along with perennial hardline candidates Taylor Haynes and Rex Rammell. All but Rammell appear to be running earnest campaigns.

Campaigns kick off

Gordon kicked off his campaign last month in Buffalo, near where his family operates a ranch, and positioned him as an experienced hand with deep Wyoming roots — a conservative cowboy, quite literally.

“I will get government out of the way to support freedom and opportunity,” Gordon said.

He is also emphasizing his track record in the state treasurer’s office, which he was originally appointed to by Gov. Matt Mead six years ago and where investment returns have grown significantly in recent years.

Gordon, Galeotos and Dahlin all share similar platforms focused on economic growth and limiting the scope of government and regulations.

The lone Democratic candidate, former state lawmaker Mary Throne, does not appear to have a set list of policy positions or priorities but in interviews has echoed an emphasis on fiscal responsibility and economic growth, running under the banner “ending the boom and bust.”

Hageman, who has fought environmental regulations as an attorney, is focused on pushing back against federal restrictions on business in Wyoming. She is drawing on strong support from rural areas and agricultural operators.

Haynes presents a broad platform on his website, though in an interview last fall he focused on ensuring adherence the United States Constitution, including quixotic interpretations of various clauses of the document.

Despite Gordon’s name recognition, GOP strategist Liz Brimmer argued the field was essentially wide open and the race will swing on who is able to present a compelling and credible vision for the state.

“People in Wyoming care so much about who their governor is,” Brimmer said. “All these candidates will have to say who they’ve been, who they are today and how they plan to govern on behalf of Wyoming people next year.”

Similarities abound

Many of the candidates have yet to significantly differentiate themselves from one another, and Orr said that for challengers to Gordon, this period of the race is likely focused on testing different messages, including through polling.

“Instead of running on guts, there’s a lot of data they can run on,” Orr said. That may include emphasizing positions on crowd-pleasing issues — even ones that the governor does not actually have significant control over, such as abortion or education.

“The governor’s not going to run into an abortion issue,” Orr said. “But it’s prominent on some candidates’ website because they think that will resonate with a portion of the Republican Party.”

For example, Galeotos lists “protect life” as the second item in a list of goals on his website.

Longtime Wyoming journalist and former Republican candidate for governor Bill Sniffin said that Gordon and Galeotos seemed to be at the front of the pack of candidates.

“Galeotos certainly appears to have the most momentum, but he’s way behind,” Sniffin said. “It’s up to Mark to lose the deal — and that’s possible.”

For her part, Hageman has one of the most detailed policy platforms, with 16 platform positions broken down on her website that delve into the intricacies of state budgeting and other issues.

Gordon and Galeotos have more broad and generic policy goals that include “building a bright future” (Gordon), “get government out of the way” (Galeotos) and “defending our conservative values” (Gordon).

Ground game rules

As with most statewide races in Wyoming, observers said that much of the outcome will come down to shoe-leather campaigning. In that respect, Dahlin got to work early, beginning a tour of all 99 incorporated municipalities in Wyoming starting last summer and posting a plethora of photos with potential voters from across the state on his Facebook page.

Likewise, Hageman launched her campaign with a tour across Wyoming, and Gordon and Galeotos have begun doing the same. Haynes has events planned around the state.

“The foundation of any successful race is a ground game and one that spans 97,000 square miles,” said Brimmer. “That looks a lot like eye-to-eye contact with as many voters as you can, handshakes, sincerity, connecting to their families, to their hopes, to their fears.”

Orr said that the Republican field was likely to narrow into a two-person race between Gordon and whichever other candidate is strongest. That will require differentiation from both Gordon and the other, lesser-known challengers, he said.

“They’ve got to decide what their message is and they have to be crystal clear on that,” Orr said. “There’s gotta be a top person among those (challengers) so the battle early on will be against each other.”

“They’re all the same right now.”

Some of the differentiation can backfire as well, Sniffin noted. He held Hageman up as an example of a candidate who has successfully zeroed in a particular community — rural voters — possibly to the detriment of wider statewide appeal.

“She could arguably be a little too much of a niche candidate with too much emphasis on the ag side,” Sniffin said. “Most people in the state live in towns or subdivisions on the edge of town.”

Sniffin said candidates must balance differentiation and rallying a base with wide enough appeal to pick up votes in the major cities.

The race will likely become costly if it turns more competitive, Orr said. He said most candidates have deep pockets but may wait to spend until they see movement in the polls, at which point it would become worth it to sink in millions of dollars.

A raucous primary field also provides the potential for an unexpected victor, as University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King said took place in 2010 when now-governor Matt Mead snuck ahead of two more experienced politicians, Rita Meyer and Ron Micheli.

“With the divided vote you’ve got the potential for something of a sleeper to come in,” King said.

“I’m not sure of very many people eight years ago that would have put Matt Mead at the top of the list.”

As it stands now, Gordon appears to be mirroring the messaging of his opponents. A prominent online advertisement for his candidacy features the tagline “fighting against overreach,” closely mirroring one of Hageman’s central platform points, and his website matches Galeotos’ positions on the Second Amendment and abortion.

So far, Sniffin said, his control of the field seems secure.

“There is one man and a bunch of boys,” he said. “I certainly don’t mean that in a demeaning way but they’ve got some serious ground to catch up.”