On a gray day in Meeteetse, Gary Trauner — the state’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate — ambled past the front door of a log-walled tavern, eyes locked with the camera as he began to speak.
“I just want to say one thing about the push poll conducted by supporters of John Barrasso,” said Trauner, revisiting a statement he had put out decrying robocalls meant to disparage him. “That’s one of the secrets of the D.C. playbook. The fake poll is meant not just to spread false information, it’s also meant to help get information to make attack ads. They may tell you I’m trying to take away your guns, and that I don’t support the Second Amendment — which is a bunch of crap — and then ask if you’ll still plan on voting for me.”
“They’re doing what D.C. does best,” he said. “Distracting you from the issues that truly matter by making stuff up and trying to create division for fear and personal gain.”
In a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the United States Senate since 1970 (though it came close in 1988), Trauner knows he’s playing from behind. Barrasso, the Republican incumbent, has millions of dollars to spend in a state so red, its Senate race hasn’t merited a serious national poll in recorded history. (Try and find one.)
Add to the fact Barrasso, according to polling from the Morning Consult, had the 17th-highest approval rating in the Senate in the second quarter of 2018 — at 52 percent — and Trauner’s campaign becomes less of a 5K and more an endurance race up Cloud Peak with a four-cylinder engine under the hood.
Despite this, Trauner – who once came within half-a-percent of taking Wyoming’s seat in Congress in 2006 – sees some vulnerability. People in Wyoming know who he is: the last poll conducted on this metric, in 2008, showed 80 percent of voters recognized his name. Though Barrasso’s popularity seems untouchable on paper, Trauner has been questioning it in practice, looking to take advantage of the media to question why Barrasso has declined to debate him outside of a scheduled event later this month (Oct. 28, in Sheridan), and releasing a statement within 24 hours of a push poll being conducted against him.
While Barrasso’s public appearances have been consistent but unpredictable — a surprise cameo at a Bureau of Land Management dedication, an appearance at a University of Wyoming football game — discussions on policy have been scarce. Trauner, meanwhile, holds weekly tele-town halls on his Facebook page from wherever he may find himself, whether it’s at home or from a hotel room in Casper.
“To not show up might be a sound tactic,” said Trauner. “But it’s disrespectful to his constituents.”
Yet Barrasso, arguably, has little to gain from engaging in the usual election year rituals of town halls and open debates, opting instead for face-to-faces with constituents on weekends in various spots around the state: what he describes as a balanced approach to addressing his duties in the Senate (he voted on the confirmation of several Trump nominees this past week) and attending committee meetings.
In an interview from Washington on Friday — just minutes after voting on cloture for the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court — Barrasso rattled off the scope of his recent travel schedule, from a tour of the southern part of the state last week to an anticipated trip up north starting Monday.
“I spoke to 600 people at an event in Cheyenne last week, walking around for more than three hours and talking to people,” he said. “I was in Laramie on Saturday (outside War Memorial Stadium, for a football game) and in Green River, that same day, hearing from hundreds of people what’s on their mind. I have a very good finger on the pulse of what people in Wyoming are thinking, because I’m home every weekend, and have done that every year I’ve been in the Senate.”
His opponents have often criticized these types of appearances as “photo ops.” Even on the national stage, Barrasso — who does, he notes, keep his number listed in the phone book — rarely opens himself up to media attention that could potentially be contentious: in 37 national television appearances this year, just two were on networks other than FOX News, and in the local press, interviews have largely been conducted in tightly-packaged forums on television and the radio.
Since 2017, there have been no town halls for the press to cover and no head-to-head debates, the only times Barrasso has addressed his opponents have been in campaign ads and at the GOP convention in April, where he said his opponent was a “liberal” who “wants to raise taxes.”
A combination of Barrasso’s schedule, and his persistent popularity, however, may give him room to campaign on his own terms.
“Yes, safe incumbents generally have more low-key campaigns than threatened incumbents and challengers,” Jim King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming wrote in an email. “And I’d note that Senator Barrasso has been rather busy in Washington of late, leaving little time for on-the-ground campaigning.”
By any measure, Barrasso will likely be safe taking this approach.
“I think it’s a false premise to say he hasn’t been showing up,” said Liz Brimmer, a GOP consultant who has worked on Senate campaigns. “It’s empirically not true. People say they see him everywhere and at events, and that flies in the face of that. It’s very Teton County, very Jackson Hole that if they don’t see it happening there, it doesn’t exist. I think the reality is, that in Wyoming, where communities are often distant or in different ways, unique, Barroso is popular because he’s earned it. He’s gone person-to-person, he’s done the work.”
His last race, in 2012, ended with him taking home more than three-quarters of the vote in the general election and, despite his first credible opponent in Trauner, few pundits anticipate him losing any ground in the general election. His sound defeat of challenger Dave Dodson, who received just over one quarter of Republican votes in the primary (Barrasso received less than two-thirds of the total vote), serves as a barometer of his support in his own party. In general elections past, he has typically cruised to victory.
However, Barrasso’s performance in his primary — while still overwhelming — was the worst showing for a Republican incumbent in years, in part thanks to $1 million in spending committed by his opponent. (Barrasso is quick to note an editorial in the Riverton Ranger, which said no candidate in the history of Wyoming politics has spent more money for a worse result in a statewide race.) In the 2012 Republican Primary, Barrasso received 90 percent of the vote, though it should be noted his next-closest opponent — two-time Senate challenger Thomas Bleming — called the holocaust a hoax and posted videos on his Facebook page that included speeches by Adolf Hitler. Sen. Mike Enzi, in each of his primary campaigns as an incumbent, never finished with less than 75 percent of the vote, even in a year where he faced four challengers.
The one year he polled worst — 1996 — was the first year he ran for Senate, and featured a seven-candidate field, including Barrasso. Enzi won that race with 32 percent of the vote; Barrasso received 30.
With this history in mind, Trauner said he sees the glass in this scenario as a third-full, rather than a third-empty.
“I’m not a professional political prognosticator, but for a 10-year incumbent to lose 30 percent of the vote is not exactly the world’s strongest showing,” said Trauner. “I think name recognition was an issue for [Dodson] at times and in Wyoming, that can be an issue. But I’m not going to take a lot from a party primary. People know what I stand for, they know what I support and they know what I’m going to do for them.”
However, in a year where the partisan circus in Washington has been the focal point of the national press, Barrasso has quietly accumulated numerous policy successes over the years, most notably helping to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for the state back in the 2015 session.
Despite the tumult that has embroiled Washington in the past year, Democrats and Republicans alike have managed to pass numerous, bipartisan pieces of legislation, among the most notable in recent weeks a massive spending proposal to help combat the opioid crisis — issues Barrasso said he believes are under-covered in the national press.
“There is a lot that’s getting done on a bipartisan basis that doesn’t get reported,” he said.
“I was talking to a reporter with NBC News the other night,” he added. “And she said, ‘Wow, you guys have been getting a lot done.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you guys aren’t reporting on it.’ So she said, ‘I pitched this story on the opioid bill to the editorial board, and they said they didn’t have time for it because it wasn’t controversial.’ There’s a whole lot being done on a bipartisan basis that isn’t getting the coverage nationally that one would like to see.”
Barrasso was, he notes, a key part of the reauthorization of the Perkins Act (which was actually penned by Wyoming’s senior senator, Mike Enzi), among the few — but most consequential — education bills passed by the Trump administration. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Barrasso has often provided a platform to constituents to testify in the Senate, and recently negotiated a massive water infrastructure bill that included numerous provisions for Wyoming, which a spokesman said came straight from testimony and input provided by Wyomingites.
“Might not get a bold headline in the CST,” a spokesman wrote in an email, “but I can tell you it matters to thousands of people that were having flooding, or ice jam issues, or water storage problems.”
But Trauner — like upstart Democratic candidates in other, more competitive federal races — is hoping to ride a wave of broader opposition to the Republican Party line. He said he refuses to take money from political action committees — which Barrasso has done extensively — and has criticized Republican-led tax cuts — likening them to increasing a child’s allowance by taking money from his college fund. The tax cuts themselves have been growing in unpopularity nationally — even a FOX News poll showed ObamaCare receiving a higher approval rating — and many senators, in vulnerable races, have stopped discussing them.
However Barrasso — who said in a May interview he expected the cuts to help Republicans in the mid-terms — is more than happy to tout them as a policy achievement, pointing to headlines such as Taco John’s increasing benefits in response to the tax cuts that were made.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done to cut taxes in Wyoming,” he said. “I’ve talked about it several times this week. Any time I’m with farmers and ranchers, we always discuss how we’ve helped them with the estate tax and the inheritance tax reforms we’ve made. We have an event at the state fair every year in Douglas, where we celebrate ranchers who have been in business 100 years or more. And we mentioned that, and it was loudly applauded. They are delighted with what we’ve done with the tax cuts.”
Trauner’s campaign has also leaned heavily on Barrasso’s stance on returning more control of federal lands to states — which have drawn fire from some environmental groups and his opponents — and his role as a leading player in the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, which Trauner said — as a former hospital administrator — is something he’d like to debate on.
He’ll get that chance when the two meet for a debate on Oct. 25 in Sheridan. Whether or not Trauner’s arguments will stick, however, is a different story.
“I’m sure DNC-leaning consultants have tried to encourage that sort of line, but that doesn’t get traction here,” said Brimmer. “Wyoming is such a small state that people are very attuned, and judge from their own perspectives and experience. If you have a popular [figure] elected who’s accessible and proven to get things done, then people will vote for him. If you have one liberal guy from Teton County [Trauner] following on the heels of another liberal guy from Teton County who lost badly [Dodson] … in my view, that narrative is all political yoga that only makes sense in Teton County.”
Correction: a previous version of this article stated David Dodson received more than one-third of the vote in the Republican primary. While Sen. John Barrasso did receive just under two-thirds of the total vote, Dodson only received about 29 percent of the vote -- the rest was split among several other candidates.
DOUGLAS — Three police officers sprinted across a parking lot, then through the doors of a brick building. They thundered down a hallway, up a set of stairs and past a gym.
The cops entered a darkened room, hearts thumping and breathing strained.
They slowed and passed through another doorway in the dark. Without warning, strobe lights flashed off the ceiling. Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” began to blare. Paper targets started to slide by.
The three police ran across the shooting range, grabbing largely compliant suspects. The cops applied cuffs, double checked they were locked and tight, before unlocking the cuffs and releasing their quarries.
The cops were trainees, wearing uniforms but not yet guns.
The drill aimed to put classroom skills into practice. The officers had learned theory and technique. The exercise allowed them to apply those skills in a slightly less controlled — and slightly more stressful — environment: the run was included to induce physiological stress, the police lights flashing near the ceiling might simulate a nightclub and the music was turned on to distract and discomfort the trainees.
Among the three officers participating in the Sept. 28 drill was Taylor Adams, one of seven new cops hired by the Casper Police Department this year. The trainees joined the department as administrators try to fill depleted ranks in an agency with a patrol division that began the year about a third shy of its staffing goals.
By the day of the drill, they were midway through a basic peace officer training course at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy here. But the new hires were not yet halfway to being full-fledged patrol officers.
They formally began their applications to the department this spring in Casper, when they underwent a battery of tests, ranging from physical and written exams to oral interviews and background checks. Upon completing the testing process, they were sworn in to the department and sent to the academy.
The cadets will spend a total of 14 weeks in Douglas dorms while they attend the academy’s training, which builds physical skills alongside theory. They begin by learning fundamental skills such as safe gun handling, grappling and how to drive while observing their surroundings.
As the cadets leave classrooms, they’re tested on the book knowledge they’ve learned. They then apply it in low-pressure gymnasium practice. Once they’re competent, those skills are tested in more real-world scenarios like the run through the brick building. Their skills expand and the process repeats with more in-depth learning.
By the end of the course, cadets will also have learned investigatory skills, patrol techniques, traffic control procedures, basic emergency care, administrative skills and some constitutional and case law.
The Casper Police Department’s seven cadets make up nearly a fifth of the academy’s current class, which is scheduled to graduate Nov. 20. Once those officers return to Casper, they won’t immediately hit the street alone. They will receive additional training in department-specific policy and shadow more experienced officers before they are ready to work on their own.
“You can sit in the cockpit of that airplane,” academy Director Chuck Bayne said in one of the many analogies he uses to describe the academy’s methods. “But when it takes off it’s different.”
Casper Police Officer C.J. Glarrow, who has been on the force for two years, described the academy as a solid foundation. The classroom experience is fast-paced, he said, and officers are expected to pick up information quickly.
“It’s a lot of information ... pushed down your throat,” Glarrow said.
Once he hit the street, however, he found he had to learn even more quickly. It’s taken him nearly the extent of his time on the force for things to start feeling like they’re slowing down, Glarrow said.
The Casper agency tends to send large classes to Douglas, and those groups have grown even larger as the department continues a hiring push kicked off in March with Chief Keith McPheeters’ announcement of new hiring incentives. McPheeters introduced the incentive pay as the department’s staffing lost ground to attrition. Although hiring cycles brought in three to five officers, at least as many would leave during the same time period.
The bonuses reward experience, but all hires receive a $3,000 bonus on top of their starting pay, which varies based on experience and educational background.
Former Wyoming officers who let their certification lapse receive a $5,000 bonus. Officers transferring from out-of-state departments are paid a $7,500 bonus in installments over the course of their first two years on the force. Experienced officers in good standing from within Wyoming receive a $12,500 bonus.
Current officers who find a successful candidate receive a smaller bonus, also contingent on the new hire staying with the department.
A parallel advertising campaign targeting police officers has been mostly conducted on social media and websites. The police department has also reached out to private police academies across the country in an attempt to recruit qualified potential officers who haven’t yet landed jobs.
An additional stress on the department’s hiring process came in July, when Natrona County School District officials announced a plan to place more police officers in schools. The number of school resource officers doubled from two to four with the start of the new school year. In the spring semester, another two officers will take on school duties.
The vacated patrol positions will need to be filled, so the department is hiring for 13 open positions. Of those, a handful will be filled by some of the 10 people whose backgrounds the department is now investigating. The candidates will then head down the road to the academy. On Oct. 22, another group of potential recruits will gather in a gymnasium to begin the process. Thus far, 97 people have signed up.
Although not all applicants are likely to show up for the tests, the number who do will likely be much higher than the 30 who tested in March, at the last session before the chief announced the hiring incentives.
Not long before the arrest drill, another group of officers sat in chairs, watching Casper officer Tony Ho pull a plastic gun from his holster.
He watched a video projection of a use-of-force scenario and gunshots rang out from speakers in the small upstairs room. The screen’s view turned a corner and he saw a man crouched over the body of a bleeding police officer.
“Sir, show me your hands,” Ho said, then repeated the phrase twice more.
The man on the screen put his hands up, with no weapon to be seen. He was just trying to help.
The screen went to black and an instructor began questioning Ho about his decision. Would he detain the kneeling man? What constitutional amendment applied? What case law?
Ho’s answers came somewhat slowly, tentatively. He was learning.