Four years ago, then-candidate Matt Mead eked out a victory in the Republican primary for governor. Mead went on to win the state's highest office, but during his first term, he ran afoul of the more conservative parts of his party, which narrowly failed to censure him at a state GOP meeting a week ago.
The censure effort was based in part on Mead's support of legislation that removed much of the power belonging to the state schools superintendent.
Now, the superintendent, Cindy Hill, is challenging him for governor, setting up the prospect of an even more contentious contest than the one that took place in 2010.
“That was a robust primary,” Mead said. “And we’ve become more red, if you look at the numbers, than we were even then. So I think on the Republican side you’ll continue to see healthy primaries.”
The governor's race is only one of the notable contests in this year's election. A crowded field of challengers is seeking to replace outgoing Secretary of State Max Maxfield, with politicians predicting heavy campaign spending.
Wyoming election season is expected to further heat up this week as candidates start filing the official paperwork to run for local, state and federal offices.
Dozens of candidates have already announced they are running for office. More are expected to do so during the filing period, which begins Thursday and continues through May 30.
Political observers such as Susan Thomas, wife of the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, and David Picard, who worked for Dick Cheney during the 2000 presidential election, served on the Bush-Cheney transition team and is now helping secretary of state candidate Pete Illoway, said the hot races will be for Wyoming governor and secretary of state.
“Those are going to be the high-profile, costly races,” Picard said.
The primary is Aug. 19. The general election is Nov. 4.
Mead expects the primary to be competitive since the Republican Party has a supermajority in Wyoming.
“There’s always going to be differences,” he said. “We don’t all think alike.”
In the 2010 primary, Mead won with 30,308 votes, narrowly defeating former State Auditor Rita Meyer, who received 29,605 votes, and former Wyoming Department of Agriculture director and current state school board member Ron Micheli, who received 27,630 votes.
Hill didn’t reply to a message seeking comment for this story. But Gillette Republican Greg Schaefer, who has been active in the Wyoming Republican Party for years, said Hill has galvanized a new wave of Wyomingites to get involved in the GOP. Many are involved at the grass-roots level, he said.
“Another factor is Taylor Haynes and if he splits that vote,” he said.
Haynes describes himself as a constitutional scholar. He thinks Mead and others who removed Hill from control over the Wyoming Department of Education in 2013 were in the wrong because the bill that removed her was unconstitutional, a belief ultimately supported by a majority of the Wyoming Supreme Court.
Even though Haynes agrees with Hill on that issue, he doesn’t think they will cancel each other out as candidates.
“You know, it’s free enterprise,” he said about campaigning and elections. “Sure, we’re going to take some votes. Each candidate will. People need to do their homework. Look at each candidate, look at their work, and then they need to decide.”
Secretary of state
Five people have revealed that they are running for the state’s No. 2 office, including four Republicans, all of whom announced after Maxfield said he was not seeking re-election.
The four Republicans are former Wyoming House Speaker Ed Buchanan, of Torrington; Illoway, a former legislator and current Wyoming Business Council board member; Cheyenne developer Ed Murray; and Rock Springs City Councilman Clark Stith, an attorney.
Constitution Party candidate Jennifer Young announced her candidacy before Maxfield said he was stepping down.
University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts finds the high number of candidates in the secretary of state race perplexing.
“You’d think they’d be running for some other office,” he said. “Secretary of state is not exactly a stepping stone to anywhere, I would think. It’s a job that, well, they’ve had a very strong staff over the years. That’s maybe a reason. It’s not very stressful if they just left things alone and (don't) stir up the pot.”
The secretary of state is the acting governor in the governor’s absence. Up until the 1960s, several Wyoming governors left mid-term to serve in the U.S. Senate, and the secretaries of state filled in.
But few of the secretaries who acted as governor actually ran for the top post when the time came to file as a candidate, he said.
Illoway is not in the race to pursue a higher office, he said.
“The next highest office, of course, would be governor,” he said. “That’s not where I want to go.”
Candidates mentioned that in addition to being in charge of business registrations and elections, the secretary sits on boards that make decisions about the state, its money and its property, including the State Loan and Investment Board, the state Board of Land Commissioners, the state Building Commission and some investment committees of the state Treasurer’s Office.
The money spent in the race could be more than the spending in the governor’s race, said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, a onetime secretary of state candidate who decided he’d be more effective as a lawmaker at this point.
“I’m hearing upwards of $100,000 to $500,000 per candidate,” he said. “It may be one of the most expensive races in Wyoming history combined among the four (Republican) candidates.”
The job pays $92,000 a year, according to state law.
Young isn’t intimidated by the amount of money her opponents could pour into their races.
“There’s only so much you can buy,” she said.
Murray plans to use a combination of his own funds and money he raises, he said. He can fund his own campaign but doesn’t know to what extent he will need to. He has four staffers and several volunteers working on the campaign.
“I have no idea what the other campaigns have budgeted,” he said. “All that I know is we have incredible volunteers and incredible contributors who support me.”
Buchanan doesn’t see the number of candidates in the race as huge. He won’t think about competing against Young unless he defeats the three others in the primary, which would leave him with only one competitor in the general election, he said. He hasn’t found fundraising overwhelming.
“I think we’ve got a strong message, and I think as we travel around the state, people will appreciate that,” he said.
Even though it’s competitive, for Stith, it’s not going to get nasty, he said.
“I have genuine respect of each one of my opponents, and I expect this campaign to be conducted in a civil, respectful way,” he said.
At this point, no Democrats have formally announced they will run for governor, said Robin Van Ausdall, executive director of the Wyoming Democratic Party.
Just 21 percent of Wyoming voters are registered as Democrats, she said.
Democrats can win the top office, but they need to start campaigning early, raise a lot of money and run nearly flawless campaigns, she said. Van Ausdall knows of some people who have considered running for governor, but she doesn’t know whether they will throw their names in.
“In terms of where they are in their decision-making process and whether or not they will decide to do it with a late start, with the kind of money they would need to raise and the contact it takes in a state that’s geographically large, my answer is honestly I don’t know,” she said.
Mead thinks the winner of the Republican primary will face a Democrat.
“Just looking at history, I’m sure the Democrats will come up with one or more candidates to run for governor,” he said. “I don’t know names, but I just think it would be highly unlikely a candidate would not be in that race. And that’s very appropriate.”
The challenge for Democrats is convincing an electorate that generally defaults to voting for candidates with an “R” after their names, Van Ausdall said.
Van Ausdall knows it’s not realistic to expect Wyomingites to switch parties. But she thinks people should judge candidates by their qualifications. Voting straight Republican “has yielded some really bad results,” she said.
One example is the superintendent of public instruction race in 2010, she said. Mike Massie, a former Wyoming senator, ran as a Democrat but lost. Van Ausdall said many Wyomingites defaulted to voting for the Republican, Cindy Hill, without studying each candidate’s background.
“He was a pretty well-qualified person,” she said. “Certainly, I don’t think we would have ended up with some of the difficulties that we face.”
Van Ausdall hopes Democrats can score more seats in the Legislature. Currently, only 12 members of the 90-member Legislature are Democrats. In 2010, there were 24 members, she said.
Van Ausdall also touted the Democratic candidates for U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
Since Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, withdrew from the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Mike Enzi, a Republican, the money that will be spent is no longer expected to break records, said James King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming.
Lusk resident and Vietnam vet Thomas Bleming, who was defeated by Sen. John Barrasso two years ago, is challenging Enzi as a Republican.
Enzi has been in the U.S. Senate since 1997. U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, has been in the House since 2008. She also is seeking re-election.
Yoder resident Jason Senteney, who works for the Wyoming Department of Corrections, is challenging Lummis in the GOP primary.
Hill and SF104, the bill that temporarily removed much of her power, will inspire voters to turn out at the polls this year, said Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis.
Zwonitzer, the Cheyenne Republican in the House, said SF104 has inspired people to run.
Cheyenne gun rights activist Anthony Bouchard also plans to run in House District 10, in part because he’s unhappy with incumbent Rep. John Eklund’s vote on SF104. Bouchard worked on a referendum that tried, unsuccessfully, to repeal SF104. He said he walked the district and talked to residents.
“I know people are upset about that issue,” Bouchard said.
Schaefer, the Gillette Republican political observer, said it remains to be seen whether Hill and her base are successful.
“If it doesn’t translate into money and votes, then nothing,” he said.