Unsuccessful U.S. House candidate Chris Henrichsen believes there is momentum among Democrats in Wyoming heading into the 2014 election.
What concerns him is whether the state party’s limited resources are aligned for success.
Henrichsen is a Casper College political science professor. He collected just 24 percent of the vote Tuesday against incumbent Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican, who garnered 69 percent.
Along the campaign trail, his first as a candidate, Henrichsen was impressed by the efforts of Obama for America — Wyoming. The president’s in-state re-election campaign ran separate from the Wyoming Democratic Party but was aided by numerous Wyoming Democrats.
Henrichsen said there were call and volunteer centers in Laramie, Cheyenne, Torrington, Sheridan and Jackson. He said Wyoming callers mostly talked with voters in Colorado, a presidential swing state.
On Saturdays, buses of Democratic students from the University of Wyoming rode to Fort Collins, Colo., to canvass.
“In a way, it’s smart,” Henrichsen said. “I’m not saying Obama for America shouldn’t have done that. It does make it more difficult on the local level.”
Henrichsen said Obama for America — Wyoming “was basically ‘Colorado North.’”
“The Obama for America people were more than willing to throw elbows and to throw people under the bus — [those of us] who were Wyoming Democrats. ... I know at least one Obama for America volunteer who was bad-mouthing me to one of the people called in Colorado,” he said.
Henrichsen said he learned of the disparaging remarks against him through an old friend in Colorado, who was phoned by an Obama for America volunteer.
“It’s sort of this idea that Wyoming candidates are a joke,” he said.
Aside from President Barack Obama’s re-election victory, there was little for Wyoming Democrats to celebrate this election.
Democrats lost two seats in the Wyoming House of Representatives, both from historically Democratic stronghold Sweetwater County. The biggest blow was the loss of incumbent Rep. Joseph Barbuto to Republican Mark Baker in House District 48 representing Rock Springs.
The other loss came in the House District 17 race between Democrat JoAnn Dayton and Republican Stephen Watt. The seat had been vacated by Democrat Bernadine Craft, who ran for and won a Wyoming Senate seat.
Sweetwater County includes residents who work on the railroad and in power plant and mining industries, many of whom are card-carrying labor union members. For decades the county has defied the rest of the Cowboy State, which is among the reddest of the red states.
“Everyone said, ‘We’re voting for you, you’ve got it,’” Dayton said. “I said, ‘Don’t say that because you never know.’”
On Tuesday, Sweetwater County residents voted with the rest of the state.
“We had a lot of last-minute voters register and most of them went Republican,” said Dayton, who was chairwoman of the Sweetwater Democratic Party until she resigned to run for the Legislature. “My hat goes off to the Republicans because they got out and got new voters in there.”
An estimated 2,000 people registered to vote in Sweetwater County on Tuesday, County Clerk Dale Davis said. About 15,000 people were registered to vote before Election Day.
Dayton believes that people’s distaste with local Democrats may have been “fallout from your national politics” and people disliking the president.
And Sweetwater County may no longer be as Democratic.
The influx of workers in oil and natural gas is changing the electoral makeup.
“Traditionally, they bring people in from Oklahoma and Texas, which are very red states, and they continue with that line of voting here,” Dayton said.
Sweetwater County has more Republicans than Democrats: As of September, almost 47 percent of voters registered as Republicans, and almost 43 percent as Democrats.
At the local level, there were two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent on the Sweetwater County Commission. But the independent recently switched to Republican, Dayton said.
Planning for 2014
When the 62nd Legislature convenes in January, the Republicans will hold 78 of 90 House and Senate seats.
That’s not a balance of power, Dayton said.
“Your scale of justice doesn’t swing right,” she said.
But the seat that Dayton was after hadn’t always been a Democratic seat, noted Robin Van Ausdall, executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party.
Watt, the Republican who won, previously served two terms in the House, including one term representing District 17.
Van Ausdall said she is already thinking about steps her party can take in the future.
“It will start now before the end of the year, building our infrastructure,” said Van Ausdall, who started her job in January.
Van Ausdall said there are registered Democrats who need to be mobilized, such as the 1,200 in Campbell County — one of the reddest counties in Wyoming.
“You don’t even get a meeting in Campbell County where there’s 100 people showing up,” she said. “There’s probably a whole lot of Democrats in Campbell County who don’t realize there’s a party organization.”
Van Ausdall wants to help county parties grow their ranks and professionalism and build relationships with the media and local organizations.
“It’s a hard thing for our candidates with this hyper-partisan rhetoric” that plays on conservative talk radio stations throughout the state, she said. For instance, many Wyomingites believe all Democrats oppose firearms, when the majority of Democratic candidates in Wyoming own them, she said.
Van Ausdall noted Democratic victories in the general election: Tim Sullivan was re-elected to the Albany County Commission. Paul Weaver was elected to the Laramie City Council. Hollis Hackman was re-elected to the Sheridan County School District 2 board of trustees. Melissa Turley was elected to the Teton County Commission.
“Some of these people are young and real leaders,” Van Ausdall said.
She also pointed out the successes of Wyoming Democrats in the effort to get Obama re-elected.
“About 80 percent of our volunteer capacity in Wyoming was going into Colorado to assist with the presidential election campaign,” she said.
Therein lies the rub cited by Henrichsen.
He’d like to see the state’s Democrats focus their volunteer efforts locally.
Henrichsen said the Democrats could learn from the Wyoming Republican Party. One example from the GOP playbook came from a student of Henrichsen’s. The student was a Republican volunteer who was stationed outside the old CY Middle School on Tuesday, checking the rolls of who voted so the party could remind people who hadn’t voted to fulfill their civic duty.
“I think that’s something the Democrats could do in the contested races,” Henrichsen said. “… We could have done that in the polling places in Rock Springs, where they have a strong Democratic presence, mainly because of the strong union base.”
Mile Dahlby is chairman of the Natrona County Republican Party. He said the whole purpose of poll-watching is to get out the vote.
The party has offered people rides to polling places, and even picked up an absentee ballot for a disabled Republican who hadn’t had the chance to mail it, he said.
Although the GOP’s Election Day strategy is effective, Dahlby believes Wyomingites ultimately vote Republican because they identify with the platform.
“We know how to take care of people,” he said. “We know where wealth comes from, how to perpetuate that and how to be charitable and such.”
Henrichsen said it’s unrealistic for a Democrat to run in each state race.
Even the Republicans didn’t accomplish that. The GOP didn’t field a candidate against Craft, the former representative who ran for the Senate seat in Sweetwater County. Also, Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, ran unopposed.
Instead, the Wyoming Democratic Party needs to spend what little money it has smarter, Henrichsen said. He suggested spending it in close races in which the Democratic candidate has a high chance of winning.
In Sweetwater County, incumbent Democrat Barbuto received 46 percent of the vote. Baker, of the GOP, received 49 percent.
“Joe Barbuto had a great ground game,” Henrichsen said. “He did a lot of door-knocking. He has pretty good connections to Rock Springs. He’s a Rock Springs native. But at the same time, the resources the Republicans have is a lot more than the resources we have. I don’t think that’s so much of an excuse as much as saying we need to figure that out.”