There are many reasons for Democrats to be optimistic heading into the November elections. Midterms are usually difficult for the party that controls the presidency, with voters instinctively looking for change. Moreover, Republican President Donald Trump’s relatively poor national approval ratings have given Democrats hope that they could win enough new House and Senate seats in November to take control of Congress — or at least seize one of the two chambers.
While most of that focus has been on competitive races in so-called “purple” states like Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller stands as a vulnerable GOP incumbent, Wyoming Democrats are likewise optimistic that an excited liberal base and disaffected independents may deliver major pickups this fall.
“We have a motivated base, incredible candidates, and an organized state party working around the clock,” Wyoming Democratic Party chair Joe Barbuto said in an email. “The level of dedication we’re seeing right now will result in more victories at the county, legislative and statewide levels.”
Democrats in the Cowboy State have been battered over the last decade, currently holding the fewest legislative seats in the modern history of the state. Republicans hold all statewide and Congressional offices.
But Barbuto said that the 2016 election energized Democrats in Wyoming and broke what may have been a sense of complacency or apathy among party members.
“Folks are no longer willing to sit on the sidelines,” Barbuto said. “(T)hey want to be in the game.”
Barbuto said that translates to more people volunteering with county parties and helping out on Democratic campaigns. The former state lawmaker may have reason for optimism, with at least a few legislative seats appearing likely to swing into the Democratic column, and others are at least plausible pickups for the minority party.
In Teton County, many local political observers expect Rep. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, to win the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Leland Christensen, who is running for state treasurer. Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, is also seen as vulnerable by some Democratic activists due to his support for a controversial bill that would have regulated protests against energy facilities in Wyoming during last winter’s legislative session.
In terms of statewide races, Democrats have not made aggressive bids this year for most of offices — failing to even field a candidate for treasurer or superintendent of public education — though Mary Throne has mounted a serious campaign for governor.
The former Cheyenne lawmaker is the clear Democratic frontrunner in the race and has sought to portray herself as the standard bearer for pragmatic Wyoming policy solutions amid a crowded Republican primary field.
Reason for skepticism
But University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King poured cold water on the notion that Trump’s poor approval ratings elsewhere in the United States will offer any advantage to Democrats among swing voters in Wyoming.
“’Wave elections have their effects where the two parties are relatively balanced, not in states that lean heavily in one direction or the other,” King said in an email. “Indications are that President Trump remains popular in Wyoming.”
King said criticism of Trump that may rally voters in other states, such as his friendliness to traditional American foes like Russia, is unlikely to resonate here.
“He still gets strong approval ratings on the economy from his core supporters and this issue typically dominates,” King said.
King said Throne’s best chance is for the Republicans to nominate a gubernatorial candidate during the primary who would have trouble attracting mainstream support in the general election.
Republicans leaders in the state don’t seem much worried about a Democratic boost in the upcoming election, with Wyoming GOP chair W. Frank Eathorne saying during a May interview that his party’s voters were just as fired up as the opposition.
“I see a rally coming,” Eathorne said.
Two Republican operatives working on GOP governor campaigns in Wyoming this year said that Trump’s approval rating in the state stood at roughly 85 percent among likely Republican primary voters, according to polling conducted by the campaigns. One said that metric was exceedingly high and topped the numbers seen during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Those numbers mirror Republican voters’ views of the president nationally, though they well exceed his 43 percent approval rating among all voters and sub-40 percentages among independents, according to FiveThirtyEight and Gallup. But in deeply Republican Wyoming, the views of independents and Democratic voters may not make much of an impact on the midterm election.
For his part, Barbuto didn’t claim that Trump’s popularity or lack thereof would determine the fate of any Wyoming races this November, only that it had boosted the base and that all voters in the state may be ready for a change.
“Voters will reach their own conclusions about the president, but there is no doubt that national politics will have an impact on our election in the Equality State,” Barbuto said.