Liz Cheney

Jackson doctor and author Mary Neal may run against Wyoming's U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney, pictured, next year.

File, star-tribune

Jackson surgeon and author Mary Neal is considering a run against Wyoming’s lone U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican. Neal confirmed her interest in the race to the Star-Tribune, but said she is far from making a final decision.

“It’s something I’m prayerfully considering,” Neal told me. But, she pointed out, I had reached out to her and not the other way around.

Neal said she supports some policies of both political parties and is unsure whether she would run against Cheney in the GOP primary or run as Democrat to face her in the general election. But according to Federal Election Commission records, Neal donated $1,800 to Barack Obama and $2,250 to Gary Trauner and no money to Republican candidates.

That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a die-hard Democrat, but it does mean she would open herself up to attacks in a Republican primary, much like now-State Treasurer Mark Gordon did for past donations to John Kerry and Trauner when he ran for the House in 2008.

Plus, while Neal says that both Democrats and Republicans have tried to recruit her to run for political office in recent years, it makes far more sense that Democrats would want her to take a run at Cheney next year.

Cheney won her House seat with 60 percent of the vote last year, underperforming Donald Trump by about 8 points. Democrat Ryan Greene scooped up about 30 percent and third-party candidates accounted for the rest.

Any underperforming candidate in a state that tends to consistently elect candidates from a single party, like Wyoming, is a natural target for flipping seats.

(Roy Moore, the Republican Alabama Senate candidate who lost to Democrat Doug Jones last week, received about 20 percent fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, when Moore was running for the state supreme court.)

And Neal is a compelling candidate. In addition to her day job as an orthopedic surgeon, Neal has written two best-selling books about drowning during a kayaking accident in South America and... visiting heaven.

“She went to heaven and back, conversed with Jesus and experienced God’s encompassing love,” according to the biography on her website. “Her life has been one filled with the miracles and intervention of God.”

Her story has been especially popular with evangelical media outlets that tend to skew hard to the right politically, including the Christian Broadcasting Network and Christianity Today magazine.

Neal’s deep faith and experience speaking to these communities may give her credibility with some conservative voters in Wyoming.

But in our conversation last week, Neal did not dwell on religion or partisan politics. She spoke of frustration with the political process, said the federal government wasn’t working for the people and criticized Wyoming’s congressional delegation for putting party over policies.

Neal said she believed Democrats and Republicans both shared responsibility for the failures of government and specifically lashed out at “career politicians.” Cheney, who was first elected to political office last year, isn’t quite a career politician but Neal said she came close enough.

“She’s had a life in politics. She is going to continue to have a life in politics. Her family has had a life in politics,” Neal said. “I don’t believe that’s appropriate.”

And?

“I also find it frustrating that, although obviously Liz’s family has long-term ties with Wyoming, she’s not really from Wyoming.”

There it is.

Neal did hasten to add that she respected Cheney and her family. She declined to detail specific policies or positions that Cheney or Wyoming’s two U.S. senators have taken that she thinks are wrong for the state. But Neal said that if and when she decides to run, she will make those clear.

Neal said she has lived in Wyoming for about 20 years. She was born in Michigan and graduated from the University of Kentucky before attending medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But during her 11 months in office, Cheney has positioned herself well for reelection, even in a race against a charismatic doctor with cross-over political appeal. Cheney has gotten to work on major legislation, including items related to the Bureau of Land Management and energy development in the state and national security issues. She’s also a frequent presence in the state, traveling to community events on weekends and during Congressional recesses.

***

If it was up to a majority of white voters, Republicans would control almost all levels of government in the United States. Trump lost the popular vote 46 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 48 percent. But he won it among white voters 57 percent to 37 percent.

Romney won 59 percent of the white vote in 2012. John McCain won 55 percent in 2008.

Exit polls are conducted less frequently in state and local races, but when they are, these patterns remain consistent. Most white people, in most places, vote for Republicans.

The reasons behind this are debated, but generally date back to the 1960s when the Democrats became the party of civil rights, alienating southern Democratic politicians and accelerated in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan swept into office with the so-called southern strategy that relied on convincing white voters that Democrats were interested in giving welfare to undeserving minorities.

In any case, Democratic success in historically Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina generally rely on what is euphemistically referred to as “changing demographics.” That is, white people making up a shrinking share of the population, usually as the share of the Hispanic population increases.

In Alabama, Jones’ win was less about changing demographics than about encouraging an existing non-white population in the state — African Americans — to turn out in especially high numbers for the special election.

This whole demographic issue is part of what makes it so difficult for Democrats to win in Wyoming. The Cowboy State is, in a word, very white: 93 percent white, to be precise, according to 2016 U.S. Census data.

Wyoming also has relatively few of the other groups that tend to lean left, such as young professionals or religious minorities such as Jews or Muslims. In many conservative states, college towns are liberal enclaves. Wyoming only has one college town — and it’s relatively small.

That means there aren’t natural, Democratic-leaning constituencies for the party to turnout in statewide races or even upon which to construct a meaningful floor of, say, 40 percent of the vote. Instead, the consistent Democratic vote statewide tends to sit between 20 and 30 percent, meaning any non-Republican candidate hoping to be successful must count on convincing a massive number of Republican voters to cross party lines.

That’s an increasingly tough sell in today’s hyper-partisan political environment and a big reason that we shouldn’t expect to see any major upsets in the Cowboy State next year. Though, of course, never say never.

As always, send tips and thoughts to arno.rosenfeld@trib.com, keep up with Star-Tribune political coverage at trib.com/307politics and sign-up for this email newsletter or others at trib.com/email.

As always, send tips and thoughts to arno.rosenfeld@trib.com, keep up with Star-Tribune political coverage at trib.com/307politics and sign-up for this email newsletter or others at trib.com/email.

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State Politics Reporter

Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics including the Legislature and Wyoming’s D.C. delegation, focusing especially on the major issues facing the Cowboy State like economic diversification and what it means to be the most conservative state in the nation.

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