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307 Politics: Gordon sputters, Galeotos and Throne shine at governor debate

Arno Rosenfeld For the Star-Tribune ​ ​ ​

Candidate debates rarely help front-runners, who have nowhere to go but down. But even with that in mind, State Treasurer Mark Gordon put on a remarkably poor showing at last Tuesday’s Wyoming gubernatorial debate in Sheridan. As the only candidate in the race previously elected to statewide office, Gordon has been seen as the man to beat in the crowded contest. But his muddled answers and lackluster delivery made him look far more vulnerable than supporters may want to admit, while allowing competitors to shine.

Wyoming PBS and the Sheridan Press put on the debate, which was open to all candidates in the race, and it’s well worth watching for anyone who cares about the race (you can view at the Wyoming PBS Youtube channel).

With eight candidates, none had much time to flesh out views, which worked against Gordon’s style of speaking. He often went on tangents, seizing on details mentioned during the lead-in to questions rather than taking the opportunity to explain his campaign priorities.

For example, answering a question about how to improve access to affordable health care, Gordon started by explaining which counties a particular rural mental health nonprofit served and then said in passing that the state should focus on community health care. After that, he suddenly returned to a previous, unrelated question, something he did several times during the debate.

Perhaps Gordon, a Republican, has gotten too comfortable in the race and failed to adequately prepare for the debate, or perhaps he thought his time as treasurer left him so well-versed in the issues that he didn’t need to come ready with pithy talking points. In either case, the debate performance won’t be make-or-break for Gordon. While I don’t know how many people watched live, the online broadcast has recorded just 1,000 views and many voters will likely wait to meet the candidates in person or for forums closer to the August primary. It was a civil event and no knockouts were landed.

But the candidates who came ready for the show reaped the rewards. Republican Sam Galeotos had sharp, concise answers that focused on his conservative bonafides and experience as a successful businessman.

While Galeotos’s proposal to make healthcare more affordable in Wyoming — leveraging technology and telemedicine to reach rural patients — seemed incomplete, he explained it clearly and tied it back to larger truisms about the state.

“Washington is not going to solve Wyoming’s problems,” he said. “We are rural and we have a low population base. And that sometimes is viewed as a negative — I see it as a huge opportunity for the state of Wyoming to take the lead innovating new solutions to health care.”

Democrat Mary Throne successfully ribbed several of her opponents and managed to stand out with pragmatic policies like Medicaid expansion that most GOP candidates on stage shied away from. She touted her experience as a lawmaker and claimed she was the only person there who had worked on a state budget (a claim Gordon might have grounds to dispute, though he didn’t).

She also went after Jackson businessman Foster Friess, an unexpected late entry into the race, with a biting response to Friess’ suggestion that social services ought to be prioritized over road construction.

“It’s easy for Foster to say that he wants to cut road construction because I think he flew here in his plane,” Throne said. “The rest of us drove.”

At another point, Throne mocked his suggestion that two school districts might voluntarily decide to consolidate their administrations to save money.

“I want to be in the room when they have that discussion,” Throne said to laughs from the audience. “You can always count on Foster for an innovative look.”

Republican Harriet Hageman also performed well, having honed her anti-regulation pitch over the last six months of campaigning. In a battle with perennial candidate Taylor Haynes for more conservative voters, Hageman staked out a consistent position throughout the debate.

“If we cut regulations at the state and federal level we will free the free enterprise system to absolutely thrive in this state,” Hageman said.

Unleashing the market economy was Hageman’s answer to most questions — from health care to retaining the state’s young people — which may limit her appeal to prospective voters but likely also burnished her status as the go-to candidate for those who believe in such an approach.

That’s not a bad strategy in such a dense primary field, where Friess and Haynes may be looking to a similar audience for votes. Yet Hageman has repeatedly chafed at being “pigeonholed” as a niche candidate and so I was surprised she did not use the debate as an opportunity to branch out. For example, while Hageman briefly mentioned her plan to create a task force addressing mental health and suicide in Wyoming, she seemed far more animated about the issue during a recent interview with me.

The debate also had its fair share of amusing and odd moments. After Republican Bill Dahlin emphasized the need to start industrial hemp production in Wyoming and Democrat Rex Wilde made known that his single issue in the race was legalizing recreational marijuana, Dahlin joked that the duo was going to “start sounding like Cheech and Chong.”

Friess compared the brutal murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 to Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders’ expulsion from a Virginia restaurant earlier this month, saying that both had unfairly tarnished the reputation of the communities where they took place.

That answer was in response to a question about whether the candidates supported a statewide non-discrimination law covering LGBTQ individuals. Only Throne explicitly said she supported such legislation.

Throne was also the only candidate who said she would support a constitutional amendment overturning the controversial Citizens United decision, which allowed almost unfettered corporate and union spending on elections.

With the backing of former Republican U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, a group called Wyoming Promise is seeking a statewide petition to bar corporate and union contributions. However, most of the GOP candidates for governor strongly supported the status quo.

“Corporations are simply people working together and they have the same right as an individual,” Haynes said.

I doubt anyone will vote based on that issue alone, though the Citizens United decision is broadly unpopular with members of the public. A 2017 Ipsos poll showed just 39 percent of Republican voters supporting it.

Coming out of the debate, Galeotos and Hageman appear ascendant. Friess exuded his almost-campy charm, though I’m not sure that it quite hit the mark and he didn’t clearly communicate many Wyoming-centric policies. Meanwhile, Dahlin and Wilde likely benefited from the exposure alone and Haynes offered his standard small government pitch without much bite. Throne offered an impressive performance, though it is hard to assess her standing until the Republican field is settled.

As for Gordon, he’ll need to sharpen his message and figure out how to turn a broad pitch — deep Wyoming roots and meaningful experience in state government — into soundbites to contrast himself with Galeotos, with the two most likely to be competing for relatively moderate primary voters. Galeotos is leaning hard on his private sector experience and found a way to weave it into most of his debate answers. Gordon might be wise to start doing the same with his successful track record in the treasurer’s office, something he barely mentioned during the 90-minute debate.

ROUNDUP

HILL LAWSUIT DISMISSED — The long-running legal saga between former state lawmaker Tim Stubson and former state schools superintendent Cindy Hill appears to be over, with the Wyoming Supreme Court last week upholding the case’s dismissal by a lower court.

— “The unanimous Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Michael Davis, said Hill did not present sufficient arguments to back up her case,” the Associated Press reported.

LITMUS TEST DISTRIBUTED — The Laramie County Republican Party is taking upon itself the task of circulating a candidate survey to all GOP contenders in the state, according to WyoFile columnist Kerry Drake.

— “The LC GOP has distributed two surveys — one for gubernatorial candidates and another for would-be legislators, auditors, secretaries of state and superintendents of public education. The surveys will inform voters what candidates find permissible in Wyoming’s bedrooms, places of worship and doctors’ offices. Apparently the county GOP’s leaders believe these to be the appropriate domain of government and the major issues of the day in Wyoming,” Drake writes.

CHENEY CALLS OUT HYPOCRISY — Google recently declined to renew its work on drone technology for the Department of Defense, and a group of GOP lawmakers, including Wyoming’s Rep. Liz Cheney, are now calling on the company to end its relationship with Huawei, a Chinese company that works with the government of China, according to the National Review.

— “While we regret that Google did not want to continue a long and fruitful tradition of collaboration between the military and technology companies, we are even more disappointed that Google apparently is more willing to support the Chinese Communist Party than the U.S. military,” Cheney wrote in a letter signed by several other lawmakers.

GOP GUN TRIAL DELAY — The trial for a Wyoming Republican Party convention-goer cited for illegally carrying a firearm on the University of Wyoming campus during the convention has been delayed, according to the Laramie Boomerang.

— “UW Spokesman Chad Baldwin said the university stands by its writing of the original trespassing citation and will defend the UW regulation.Though many delegates chose to open carry at the convention, UW Police Chief Mike Samp wrote only one citation. ‘Given the political nature of this and the sensitivity of the Second Amendment issue, I feel that that is a sufficient reaction to the policy violation at this point,’ Samp said at the time,” according to reporter Jeff Victor.



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