With less than two weeks left until Election Day here in Wyoming, voters have limited time left to sift through the policies and stances of the state’s candidates for governor.
On Thursday night in Laramie, the four candidates — Republican Mark Gordon, Democrat Mary Throne, Constitution Party candidate Rex Rammell and Libertarian Lawrence Struempf — met on the debate stage once again for what appears to be the final four-way debate between the candidates before Nov. 6. (A Sunday debate, to be broadcast by K2 Television in Casper, was limited to just the two major party candidates due to programmatic constraints.)
While this most recent debate mirrored the topics of previous debates, with health care and education funding at its center, the evening’s venue — the University of Wyoming — provided a number of new insights from the candidates that have not extensively been explored in previous debates and gave further opportunities for the candidates to press their opponents as the race enters its final stages.
Some takeaways from the debate:
Courting the youth vote
Debating at the University of Wyoming, the candidates found themselves presenting their platforms before a younger — and somewhat more liberal — crowd than the state’s electorate at large, something Throne and Gordon both focused on throughout the evening.
Where Gordon typically tends to focus more on in-depth policy explanations that come from his depth of experience in the treasurer’s office, on Thursday he was much more anecdotal than usual, telling stories of experiences people like his daughter — a University of Wyoming graduate — face under the current conditions of the state economy, often having to move out-of-state to find work in their field. He said at one point in the evening that 18- to 35-year-olds “make the state,” adding that the previous generation has put a lot of debt on the younger generation and it’s up to them to step up and make politicians listen to them.
Gordon was clear on his priorities as governor: increasing transparency in government and reviewing sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, which played well to the crowd. However, his conservative stances didn’t help among the most raucous debate crowd of this election cycle. Throne, meanwhile, scored major points with the crowd for her support for a nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ individuals and her pro-choice ethic, as well as for introducing legislation to address the state’s gender wage gap, which is among the nation’s largest. (Gordon — who supported a review to encourage wage equality for public employees — stopped short of supporting legislation to ensure wage parity in private industry.)
However, Gordon for the most part stuck to his guns, and displayed a sense of humor in the process. When asked of the possibility the now conservative-controlled Supreme Court may revisit Roe v. Wade, Gordon answered by telling the crowd he was pro-life and “pro-family,” saying he had real difficulty having children and worked with adoption agencies — proof that all lives deserve an opportunity.
“And that’s all I have to say about that,” he said. “Sorry to sound like Forrest Gump.”
Crowd turns on Rammell
While generally a disruptive force on the campaign trail, Rammell was rejected wholesale by the crowd in Laramie on Thursday, often getting booed for his hard-line conservative answers. He was booed by the crowd for saying the data of a recent gender wage gap study were “skewed” and later was jeered for a hard-line pro-life stance. Throughout the evening, the moderators had to quiet the crowd and on several occasions, Rammell addressed the crowd with equal rancor.
“I had several people come up to me and apologize on behalf of the students,” Rammell wrote in an email the morning after the debate. “One student called me as I was driving home and apologized for the students behavior. The political science director walked my wife and I to our car and bent over backward to apologize. I brought up the headlines that ran a few weeks ago about ‘UW being the Berkley of the West.’ (sic) She was quick to try and get out of the label. I think if I became the governor the political science department would be on the chopping block. If that is the product of our tax dollars I think there are better ways to spend our money.”
Gordon more specific on health care
Throne has used the past several debates to push Gordon on several of his policy stances around health care and education funding. That continued Thursday night.
On healthcare — and the prospect of Medicaid expansion in particular — Gordon presented a cautionary tale with the experiences of Maine and Massachusetts, saying that expansion led to Maine moving from a surplus to a deficit and Massachusetts seeing a ballooning of their costs.
While he’s often discussed a 1332 waiver program similar to Alaska’s on the campaign trail, he was more specific on his opposition to Medicaid expansion than he’s been in previous debates, saying expansion-based plans don’t address the cost containment issue of buying into a large, national system and that, under the Republican healthcare plan being worked toward, there are opportunities to build “statewide pools” for insurance. Throne, however, pushed back, mentioning states like Montana and Colorado that have expanded Medicare with success and offering exact statistics of the effect those policies have had and maintaining that Alaska’s successful waiver program came only after expanding Medicaid in the state.
“It’s tough to argue (Gordon) has a strong plan that’s ready for prime time,” argued Throne’s campaign manager, Matt Herdman, the following morning.
A quiet candidate with unique ideas
Libertarian candidate Struempf is a long-shot in the governor’s race but, in recent debates, has expressed several unique ideas other candidates have not.
While he has offered the decidedly un-libertarian opinion the state needs to raise taxes in past debates, Struempf has used his platform to advocate for a number of causes he supports, including the importance of Wyoming Promise and advocating for a 28th amendment to overturn Citizens United and increasing technical jobs and resources in the state.
On taxes, he has presented several new ideas, including a tonnage tax on semi-trucks that pass through Wyoming — which he said damage the state’s highways beyond a gas tax’s ability to pay for — and a 3 percent corporate income tax, which is at the bottom end of rates seen elsewhere in the country.
“If low taxes bring businesses to Wyoming, where are they?” he asked. “Wyoming would still have one of the lowest corporate and mineral taxes in the nation.”
Clear, philosophical divides
Gordon and Throne further drew the philosophical line between themselves on Thursday.
On the issue of school choice, Gordon said he supports the concept, while Throne was specific in saying she supports “reasonable” charter schools, adding “school choice probably isn’t acceptable under current constitution.” On a question about a bill that would have allowed the phrase “In God We Trust” to appear in public facilities, Gordon said he has no problem with it while Throne said she was against it.
Throne supported implementing nondiscrimination laws, while Gordon said he was against them. Gordon said that LGBTQ people who are discriminated against already have a legal course of action they can take, citing the state constitution as a sufficient avenue for members of the LGBTQ community to file complaints against discriminatory acts. However, a nondiscrimination law would cover discrimination by private employers, whose practices are not bound by the state constitution.
More subtle differences arose on issues like state-funded early childhood education, which Throne supported as a publicly funded service while Gordon, who agreed, said the state can do a better job to coordinate with charities and private schools — in line with his fiscally conservative comments on streamlining school budgets in the past from the local level on up. Throne pushed back on that idea.
“There are times where I think Mark doesn’t understand how school funding is decided,” she said.